Money, Drugs and Abuse of Power: An NCAA Story


No, this is not a pitch for a salacious premium cable program, though it very well could be. A more fitting platform than Showtime would be C-SPAN, because the money, drugs and abuse of power are the underlying problems currently fanning the flames burning stronger than ever in college sports. That fire could spread to the NCAA’s front door in the form of a fractured organization if widescale change isn’t made in a variety of matters.

Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan appeared on ESPN Radio’s drive time program “Mike & Mike in The Morning,” and delivered a…well, rambling might be the most apt description of his 10-minute segment on blocking transfers. His on-going situation with Jarrod Uthoff has further publicized a dilemma coaches and players face, and one the NCAA must reevaluate.

In one of his defenses, Ryan inadvertently makes an excellent point:

"“You’re saying that anytime somebody wants to leave a job…What people don’t know, Mike, is do you have in your contract that when you leave where you are, is there any penalty?”"

Yesterday, in discussing the possibility of Arkansas pilfering a coach who has yet to put on the headset for a single game (including in the spring), I compared a coach’s freedom to change jobs to the restrictions that can be placed on transferring athletes. There exists a profound double standard. The penalty to which Ryan refers is the loss of money, but that in the case of a coach leaving for a more lucrative job, that doesn’t really matter since the funds will be recouped.

Ryan addressed another important point, albeit inadvertently once again:

"“After years and years and decades of coaches doing the same thing way before me, and coaches who had longer lists, and you’re not going after them. You’re not making a big deal of other situations. I don’t know of anybody that’s taken the time to research how many schools say, ‘This is a little questionable. I’m not sure about this.’ So when you say you block it, all you’re saying is there has to be conversation about it.”"

Ryan is absolutely correct: there does need to be a conversation, and one the NCAA takes up seriously, and immediately.

Further, it’s not just Ryan. Therein lies the problem. An attack on Ryan individually misses the bigger picture. Ryan had the fortitude to appear on a nationally broadcasted program and provide insight into the coach’s thought process on this manner. No such accounts exist of Randy Edsall’s block on Danny O’Brien; there is a sealed investigation into tampering at Vanderbilt, but little else of record from the coach’s camp.

Tampering isn’t acceptable, and in instances of it, the transferred should be blocked. However, is the mere speculation of transfer enough to warrant a block? Nothing was discovered at Vandy pertaining to O’Brien, yet the very insinuation of tampering seemed to be enough to prevent O’Brien from going there. This is a matter that an arbitrater, a governing figure — hi NCAA! — should handle.

Drug testing is becoming another matter of increasing significance for the NCAA. Say what you will about ESPN The Magazine’s report on marijuana use in college football programs — and plenty have had their say. Tommy Craggs chose to shoot the messenger, his usual tactic, but his sentiment that the story is overblowing seems to be a consensus.

Marijuana use is just a reality of college life altogether, sports included. When the TCU drug bust occurred this past February, I went into this a bit. TCU head coach Gary Patterson didn’t have to test his entire team, but did so. Similarly, Mark Richt has taken a more hardline approach, which Bobby Bowden commended last month.

NCAA drug testing requirements are pretty basic in that it’s one matter largely left in the athletic program’s court. The irony of this is that marijuana use becomes almost a states’ rights issue in sports the way it supposedly is legally, and the most heavily targeted program in ESPN’s report is University of Oregon. The state of Oregon is among those to support decriminalized possession of cannabis.

Of course, in federal law, Ashcroft/Gonzales vs. Raich supercedes any state decision. Is the NCAA then obligated to ensure athletic programs ensure their athletes aren’t breaking the law? Ones personal opinion on the legalization of marijuana aside, it is still illegal. Should standards then be universal? It’s a discussion worth having.

Ultimately though, the issue that will truly dictate the NCAA and college sports’ long term fate is monetary. Everything else is kindling for the fire, though. The programs that generate the lion’s share of the NCAA’s 10-figure revenue hold a lot of power. Like the League of Nations post-World War I, should the power players leave the table, everything falls apart.

And realistically, the NCAA doesn’t need to be abolished. Anarchy is no solution to systemic problems; anarcy causes more. But the NCAA needs to take actions swiftly. Now is a watershed time in the NCAA’s nearly century-long existence and change is coming one way or another.