The college football season opens on Labor Day weekend in 2013, and the timing is as fittingly pathetic as it is ironic. While the holiday was established 119 years ago after the Pullman Strike to celebrate the contributions of the working class, this kickoff weekend only further points up the insatiable greed and ineffectual enforcement of a billion-dollar industry built on unpaid labor.
Everybody from Storrs to Pullman knows this. So strike up the band, play the fight song and buy the school apparel.
Allow me to get this out of the way immediately. Texas A&M quarterback/hustler Johnny Manziel is a spoiled brat, and I surely believe he took five figures in cash in exchange for his Heisman-precious autograph. I don't believe for a moment that he didn't know those memorabilia brokers would turn around and sell all the stuff.
Seeing that he figured to play a little more than a half anyway in what proved to be a 52-31 rout of Rice, Manziel, his deep-pocketed family and anybody else who eschews NCAA rules in favor of the orgasm of a 50-yard touchdown pass on Saturday afternoons must have had one hell of a laugh over the 30-minute suspension. So get this much straight: Any arguments that would appear to back Manziel, who acted like a punk in taunting Owls players, make me sick to my stomach.
But folks, when we're dealing with the core dynamics of college athletes, we're beyond good guys and bad guys. There always will be good guys and bad guys. And after the NCAA enforcement staff violated it own rules to blow a slam-dunk case against Miami — a scandal so massive that it makes Manziel's case look like a pimple on NCAA president Mark Emmert's even more massive ego — we also are beyond the tipping point on the enforcement of NCAA rules.
After an ESPN "Outside the Lines" report about memorabilia brokers paying Manziel, the case droned on for days. It was the biggest story in college football. After Penn State, after Miami, after the uneven justice meted out to Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State, A.J. Green of Georgia and Dez Bryant of Oklahoma State, etc., I admit I had no idea how the NCAA would rule. Precedent may be the rule of American law, but these days, the NCAA has shown it is liable do anything to protect its ailing arse. The last thing the NCAA wants to do is further alienate the superconferences and disappear the way of the buggy whip that was popular when Labor Day was first observed in 1894.
My one prediction did come true. The NCAA legal experts would scour every tiny rule in their Russian-novel sized rulebook to produce something — anything — to justify the eventual ruling.
They came up with bylaw 188.8.131.52: "If a student-athlete's name or picture appears on commercial items [e.g., T-shirts, sweatshirts, serving trays, playing cards, posters] or is used to promote a commercial product sold by an individual or agency without the student-athlete's knowledge or permission, the student-athlete [or the institution acting on behalf of the student-athlete] is required to take steps to stop such an activity in order to retain his or her eligibility for intercollegiate athletics."
And, poof, just like that Johnny Football was Johnny 30 Minutes Without Football because of an "inadvertent violation." Poof, the biggest story in college football was a comic footnote along the lines of a bad half-hour sitcom. Yep, the NCAA has found itself at the confluence of "My Mother the Car," "Joanie Loves Chachi" and "Homeboys in Outer Space." NCAA enforcement, under so much public pressure to act, act quickly, act properly yet without the subpoena power sustain such a charge, has become the Keystone Kops of 21st century American pop culture. Despite grilling Manziel for six hours last weekend, NCAA gumshoes clearly didn't get the goods on him.
In a joint release, NCAA and Texas A&M said based on the information provided by Manziel, there was no evidence he took money. That, of course, doesn't mean Manziel didn't take the money and run … and pass and, well, let me put it this way: What do you think the chances are of Texas A&M and the NCAA pursuing this case further? Oh, 1 percent?
It isn't all NCAA enforcement's fault, of course. In the end, that falls with college presidents who want firm justice until it pertains to their school and the superconferences who want all the power and even more of the money.
This wasn't justice. This was about finding a way that neither side was humiliated. On one hand, the NCAA figured it didn't come off as totally impotent. On the other, everybody, most importantly A&M and the billion-dollar college football industry, wanted Manziel on the field. It was a win-win in the most pathetically comedic way.
Unless the NCAA is totally corrupt and hiding the facts, it would have been better to admit there wasn't enough evidence to suspend Manziel for even a minute and go about the hard work of overhauling the NCAA. That hard work is supposed to start with a summit in January. While my expectations are always painfully low for what Emmert has called "fundamental changes" ahead, we can always hope.
Even if athletes currently must sign over permission for their likeness to be sold only by the university and the NCAA, the college athletic industry knows deep-down that the rule forbidding athletes from taking advantage of one's one likeness is unfair and ultimately illegal.
The NCAA finally, finally, finally must get out ahead of this situation. The class-action lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon over the NCAA profiting off athletes' likenesses without compensating them continues full steam. As I argued after the Miami case in January, change is coming. Sadly, it should be coming faster than it is.
Whether it's the Olympic model or some form of it, the NCAA finally must find an equitable solution. If any athlete can strike an endorsement deal, allow it. If an athlete can take a loan based on future sports earnings, have a panel to sanction it. If a strong stipend is the answer, pay it. Is a free college education in exchange for a player scoring touchdowns a great gift? Obviously it is. Yet is also is clear that college sports do not operate in a vacuum. Real life and real-life costs do not wait for graduation, especially for poor folks, especially when the schools and the NCAA are cashing in big-time on the sweat off the unpaid labor's backs.
No answer is perfect, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the NCAA must finally get out from under its own pathetic, archaic charade of amateurism. Green got four games for selling his Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000. Pryor got five for exchanging memorabilia for tattoos. Bryant got 10 for fibbing about having lunch at Deion Sanders' house. We won't even bother listing all the draconian measures taken against players who transferred because of family death, illness, etc. That'll just anger you further.
Enter hypocrisy. After Jay Bilas of ESPN exposed them, the folks at the NCAA hustled to take down the website where they were selling Manziel jerseys for profit. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo pointed out Aggieland Outfitters, in business with Texas A&M, had Manziel and 1957 Heisman winner John David Crow sign six helmets. The helmets were auctioned at an alumni club meeting for $81,600 to go toward scholarships. Texas A&M got all the money.
Perhaps even more hilarious was how Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated pointed out how the NCAA put a stop to a restaurant in South Carolina selling sandwiches named after Jadeveon Clowney and two Clemson players. Remember bylaw 184.108.40.206? Players can't be used as endorsers without their knowledge or their permission. It's an inadvertent violation.
So for all you diners and sandwich shops around Connecticut: Don't name a meatball grinder after Ryan Boatright or a banana split after Breanna Stewart. You might cost them a half in the season opener.