It turns out the NCAA did have a rule after all -- which it says it dropped earlier this year -- blocking most college football players from collecting a "game ball" from coaches for outstanding performances.
In a document dated Nov. 27, 1996, and obtained by the Baltimore Sun, the NCAA had said:
"The legislative services staff confirmed that it is not permissible to award game balls to student-athletes for specialized performances in particular contests or events or during a limited time period (e.g., "player of the game" or "player of the week"); however, an institution may provide a game ball to a student-athlete only on an occasional basis to recognize an extraordinary achievement (e.g., career achievement, establishing an institutional record)."
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In response to a query from The Baltimore Sun, the NCAA had said earlier this week simply that players were allowed to accept game balls. The NCAA didn’t mention the existence of the old rule -- which the University of Maryland says it relied on this week.
Maryland "awarded" game balls to linebacker Marcus Whitfield and quarterback C.J. Brown for their performances in Saturday’s 43-10 win over Florida International. The school said it needed to store the footballs until the players completed their college careers.
“That was crazy when I heard that [about game balls] when Coach [Randy] Edsall first got here,” said Whitfield, a fifth-year senior.
The NCAA now says the old rule has been revisited.
“NCAA member schools are streamlining and simplifying the rules to include only those that are enforceable, consequential and contribute to student-athlete success,” NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said in a statement. “As a result, the Division I Board of Directors instructed the staff in May to review interpretations with this in mind, which is currently in progress. To this end, student-athletes may receive a game ball whether for an extraordinary achievement or for being a player of the week, for example.”
ESPN's Keith Olbermann went off on Edsall on Wednesday night on his program, declaring him the latest "World's Worst Person in Sports." This was before the disclosure of the NCAA interpretation dating back to 1996. Maryland says it was only trying to abide by NCAA rules.
Schools still need to abide by gift limits. Schools may give awards worth up to $225 a year for underclassmen. The limit is $425 for seniors. There are higher limits for the gift bags that teams typically receive when they play in bowl games.