Monday, October 25, 2010

Post-NCAA Penalties?

Given all the recent noise regarding student-athletes accepting illegal benefits, largely in the form of money from player agents looking to land the next up-and-coming NFL stud, the NCAA, NFL and several representatives for both collegiate and professional players are meeting to discuss potential penalties for players who lose their NCAA eligibility.

One of the ideas on the table is to impose fines upon players who lost eligibility once they're selected in the NFL Draft. Another idea involved suspending the player in his rookie season -- maybe as many as six to eight games.

According to reports, progress is being made on this front and the group would meet again in a month.

On the one hand, I applaud this initiative -- it's nice to see steps being taken to punish those who actually break NCAA rules, rather than levying penalties on the program -- and players who did nothing wrong -- after the offending party has left (see: USC, Reggie Bush, Pete Carroll).

A monetary fine, so long as it's levied after a player signs his NFL contract and taken before the agent gets his cut, seems fair. If a player takes money he shouldn't, having money taken away upon the beginning of his professional career looks like an appropriate measure.

But if we start suspending players for these infractions, that's where I have a problem. If the suggestion of six- to eight-game suspensions for NFL rookies who were deemed ineligible by the NCAA comes to pass, the league will essentially be saying that taking money from an agent is worse than the first positive test for a performance-enhancing drug (four-game suspension) or a violation of the league's personal conduct policy (Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger only served four games due to his alleged sexual assault).

Which is worse to you? Roethlisberger allegedly forcing himself on a woman, or a student-athlete taking money from an agent?

I've already made my opinion regarding student-athletes accepting illegal benefits known, but I understand and applaud the NCAA and NFL's collective effort to address the issue. Hopefully, the punishment will be fair and reflect the infraction -- if we start suspending players because they took money, there's no telling how teams would operate in the draft.

Do you really want to take that star wide receiver in the first round if you know he has to sit the first six games? All because he took money, while a star cornerback from another team skates through despite three failed drug tests and an arrest?

The effort and the intention is admirable; I just hope the consequences don't get as out of control as the issue the solution is trying to fix.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

The hubbub this past week over the NFL's more rigid enforcement of rules against helmet-to-helmet hits would be laughable, if the subject didn't have such potentially dire consequences. After a rash of helmet-to-helmet hits throughout the league this past Sunday -- resulting in fines for three players -- and the paralyzing of a Rutgers University football player on Saturday, the league decided it had to step in and lay down the proverbial hammer.

To hear players, current and former, talk, this would kill the NFL as we know it. Instead of the hard-hitting game that has become the most popular in America, Commissioner Roger Goodell was seeking to turn the NFL into a two-hand touch league.

Steelers linebacker James Harrison, one of the players fined, threatened to retire, arguing the NFL was no longer allowing him to play the game the only way he knew how. Thankfully, he wised up on Thursday and returned to his team.

Given recent revelations regarding concussions and head injuries, there isn't much the league can do outside of stepping up punishment for these hits. These hits aren't just dangerous for the recipients, either; just look at the hit on Desean Jackson of the Eagles on Sunday. He sustained a concussion, but so did the guy who hit him.

The NFL can't have players launching into each other helmet-first. The helmet is for protection, not a weapon; coaches from Pee Wee to the NFL teach that players should lead with their shoulder pad, aiming for the offensive player's chest area. Aiming for the head, or leading with one's helmet, is what the NFL is aiming for.

The league isn't trying to legislate hitting out of the game.

Is the NFL overreacting? Perhaps; after all, not every helmet-to-helmet hit is intentional. But wouldn't you rather the league overreact than under-react? What if the league did nothing, then we find ourselves watching a player's career end because a hit paralyzed him?

What if, Gods forbid, a player died on the field? That would do more harm to the NFL than any work stoppage ever could.

This isn't even taking into account the long-term health effects of brain injuries. The NFL's benefits package for former players leaves a bit to be desired -- particularly for the players who were in the league before the big-money contracts -- and we're just now seeing how repeated concussions can have consequences down the road.

Sure, Troy Aikman and Steve Young have made nice lives for themselves following their concussion-riddled playing careers, but what about guys like Ricky Waters, who committed suicide last year after suffering from what doctors considered concussion-induced dementia?

The players do have a point in this regard: they know the risks of playing football. They know what can happen on the field, and no one makes them play. They understand any play can be their last, and they're okay with that.

But the NFL has a responsibility to ensure its players are as safe as possible; like auto racing, football will never be 100 percent safe, but that doesn't mean every possible safety measure shouldn't be employed. If you make every effort to keep things from happening, and they do anyway, then so be it.

But the NFL can't afford to have something happen because of the league's negligence. In this instance, being over-reactive is far better than sitting back and doing nothing at all.

The players would do well to mind that and keep their mouths shut.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disturbing? Yes. Shocking? No.

This week's cover story in Sports Illustrated might surprise some, and others will point to it as further proof of the deterioration of the concept of collegiate student-athletes as amateurs.

Count me among the latter.

"Confessions of an Agent," where former player agent Josh Luchs admits that he paid student-athletes throughout his career for the express purpose of signing them once they transitioned to the NFL, did not catch me off-guard. Anyone who's been watching ESPN over the past few months knows of the agent scandals at North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama -- and those are just the schools reported on.

Anyone who's been paying attention knows Florida head football coach Urban Meyer and Alabama head football coach Nick Saban lambasted agents -- the latter even went so far as to call them pimps.

Look ... are there agents who seek to take advantage of student-athletes for their own financial and career benefit? Absolutely, and they are a pox on both big-time college athletics and the professional leagues that benefit from their talents. But things aren't nearly that cut-and-dry -- as Luchs pointed out.

We'll speak mostly about college football and basketball players, since those sports generate the majority of a school's athletic revenue and public exposure -- and those student-athletes are the ones most likely to use those talents to secure a multi-million contract (of which agents would get a healthy cut).

Let's face it: agents aren't beating down doors looking to scoop up the star field hockey goalie. They do beat down the door for the star quarterback or point guard.

When it comes to the big-time athletes in the big-time programs, you're talking about student-athletes who are far less student than athlete. They don't necessarily choose college because of a desire to receive a degree; it's because they see college as a way to hone the athletic abilities they've spent their entire young lives practicing and find a successful life in a professional league that will give them millions of dollars.

Many of these student-athletes come from rough backgrounds, growing up without much money. Growing up in poverty, some of these student-athletes see athletics as a way out -- if a child gets good enough at football, he'll get that scholarship to USC, then he'll eventually land in the NFL as a first-round pick.

One big-ass signing bonus later, the family's poverty problems are over.

Imagine yourself as one such student-athlete. You did in fact receive that full scholarship to USC. Your tuition, room and board and textbooks are all provided free of charge, but you don't have money for basic living expenses. You can't afford to buy food, you can't afford to take your girlfriend to a movie.

And because your schedule is full with classes, practices, travel dates and games, you can't go out and get a part-time job. Meanwhile, the university rakes in millions of dollars in ticket sales and merchandise sales and TV revenue -- all because of your talents on the football field.

But you never see any of that money yourself.

Now, say Luchs came up to you and said he would give you $1,500 a month until you graduate or decide to declare yourself for the NFL Draft. You know it's wrong in terms of student-athlete regulations, you know it's an NCAA violation, but your bank account is in the red and you're not sure where you'll get your next meal.

Tell me you'd turn down the money. Say to me, with as straight a face as possible, that you would honestly turn down that money.

You wouldn't. You know you wouldn't. It doesn't make you a bad person, and it doesn't make Luchs a bad guy; he's simply doing his job in a climate where that sort of thing is not only permissible, it's expected. You're not a bad person, either, because hey -- you need to eat. And after all you've given to USC, after all the money it's made off your athletic exploits, don't you think you deserve a little something too?

This is the argument made by those who feel big-time student-athletes should be paid. The argument flies in the face of the NCAA's contention that student-athletes are amateurs, but the NCAA's regulations have created an environment where that amateur status is flimsy at best.

I'm not saying give these kids $20,000 a year; you don't have to pay these student-athletes a lot. Simply add a $2,000 stipend per semester to each student-athlete's scholarship that goes toward food and other living expenses. Universities pay for everything but living expenses, so isn't it only fair if they do?

Particularly when these schools rake in millions of dollars because of their student-athletes' talents. Especially when a football team makes a BCS bowl game ($$$$!) or advance in the NCAA Tournament ($$$$!).

Coaches and athletic directors get raises when athletic success brings in millions of dollars to schools. It's time to let the student-athletes have a cut. It won't solve all the problems when it comes to agents paying athletes, but it would help.

Agents aren't bad people, and neither are student-athletes. They're merely operating in a corrupt system that is unsustainable if we are to continue the charade that student-athletes are in fact amateurs.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Roy Halladay = MAN

Just how impressive was Phillies ace Roy Halladay's no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in Philadelphia on Wednesday? Consider:

-Wednesday's start was the first postseason start of Halladay's career; he never made the playoffs while in Toronto.

-The no-hitter was just the second in postseason history -- and the first since Don Larson's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

-Halladay already threw a perfect game -- the first of his career -- earlier this season.

-Did I mention first career postseason start?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Quick Hits

-Hey, look! Another cyclist has tested positive for performance enhancing drugs! Are you surprised?

-On a related note, anyone remember a time when eating bad beef just made you sick?

-In light of columnist Jay Mariotti's sentence for misdemeanor battery charges on Thursday, maybe it's time for ESPN to mute him ... permanently.

-Maybe LeBron James is right; maybe race does play a part in the backlash against him since he decided to leave Cleveland. Or here's a thought ... maybe we just think you acted like a douche in making your decision.

-Who needs Big Ben? Not the Steelers, who are 3-0 without their Super Bowl-winning quarterback and could go unbeaten during Roethlisberger's suspension if they beat Baltimore on Sunday.

-Who would've thought two years ago that Michael Vick would be more highly regarded in the NFL than Roethlisberger? Man, how times change ...

-I really hope Boise State wins the national championship this season -- if nothing else, it will finally expose the BCS for the sham it is.

-I know I'm behind on this, but ... am I the only one creeped out by ESPN broadcasting high school football games? What's next, Pop Warner Thursday on