We’re from the NCAA and we’re here to help.

It amuses me to see the number of people who view the NCAA as some sort of bulwark against all sorts of bad things threatening college football, particularly when it comes to protecting the student athlete (who, as we’re told over and over again in those endless promos the NCAA runs, won’t likely be playing pro sports after college). The record doesn’t justify it.

As an example, it’s hard to reconcile the high-minded concern the organization professes for its student athletes with the inconsistent and often illogical positions it takes on what constitute illegal benefits to a student athlete.

So needless to say I was a little surprised to learn last year that the NCAA had passed an obscure rule that allowed student athletes who had graduated but still had eligibility left to transfer to another college and play immediately. Florida’s Ryan Smith is probably the best known example of how the rule worked this year.

It’s a good rule, in my opinion, in that it encourages and rewards a kid to obtain a degree – which, after all, is supposed to be the goal of college athletics. And as a bonus it gives kids a little control over their lives at a point when they should have some knowledge and maturity in making that kind of a decision. That’s fair. After all, a coach can decide at any time to revoke a player’s scholarship.

Naturally, a reaction has set in:

… Opponents of the rule argue that it will create “free agents.” Mid-major basketball programs worry their star players will transfer to the higher-profile conferences. Duke football coach Ted Roof, who lost a starting offensive lineman to California, spoke out against the rule for “encouraging disloyalty.” Florida coach Urban Meyer opposes the rule even though it brought him Utah’s Ryan Smith, who leads the SEC with eight interceptions.

Forty-six Division I members petitioned to repeal the rule; they will need a five-eighths majority to win the vote.

The quote is from an article in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a Georgia Tech player, Daryl Richard who is trying to do an admirable job of balancing his football and academic pursuits. In a nutshell, here’s his dilemma:

Richard has done so well in the classroom he expects to graduate this spring after only three years at Tech. He hopes the school admits him to its MBA program, but he faces long odds. MBA applicants traditionally have two to five years of full-time work experience.

If Tech turns him down, Richard plans to look elsewhere, and that’s where the NCAA comes in. Under the current rule, adopted last spring, he could transfer and play immediately. But dozens of Division I members want the rule repealed.

If they win the vote, and Tech doesn’t accept Richard into its MBA program, he will have to choose whether to:

Settle for some other graduate program at Tech and play two more seasons.

“Some of the other graduate programs they have wouldn’t be exactly what I’m trying to do,” Richard said. “I know Georgia State has a sports administration program, which would be a great thing for me to do, but I wouldn’t be eligible to play ball at Tech.”

Enroll in an MBA program at another big-time football school and sit out his junior season. (He redshirted because of injury in 2005 and thus can’t take another redshirt year.)

Enroll in an MBA program at a school in one of the NCAA’s lower divisions and be eligible to play right away.

Richard said the NCAA shouldn’t force him to make one of those choices. Graduates, he said, should continue to be allowed to transfer without penalty.

He’s right. As he argues,

“If we’re going to say that the goal is education, if a player has fulfilled that part of the obligation, they got a degree, which is what they went to college for, as well as playing ball, I think that opportunity should be there,” Richard said. “I think it’s actually one of those rules that’s for the players. That’s something players can respect.”

Unfortunately for him, the coaches don’t. Never mind that even the NCAA admits that there are less than 25 players who used the new rule to play immediately after transferring to Division I-A football programs. We can’t have student athlete “free agents”.

Only coaches should have that opportunity, I guess.

If the rule is revoked – and I wouldn’t bet against it – just think about that every time you hear some pious statement from a coach like Roof that he always reassures recruits and their parents that he’ll be there to see that the kid has his academic expectations met. Or when the NCAA throws out some noble proclamation about how it’s there to do what’s right for the student…

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