Cougar cages are being rattled at BYU.
The NCAA, a body distinguished by its strict observance of its numerous and onerous rules and regulations — many so obscure, offenders only learn of them when broken — is no respecter of programs. It lives to quell any threat to its authority.
The BYU football program has been scared straight into self-policing itself, either to cut losses or lessen the impact when and if the high priests of the NCAA sweep into Provo with their unique brand of justice.
BYU may very well have violated some of the more prominent rules, allegedly offering discounted and/or free housing and gifts to some of its current and former players. Who knows why and how it may have happened. If it did, it will be punished accordingly.
I do know this, everybody, BYU included, operates at some level in gray areas. They do so because their business deals with young adult men who come from every conceivable socio-economic strata, religion, race, culture and dysfunction. Is it possible the alleged free housing at BYU stemmed from an inner-city, non-LDS kid, who showed up on a Wednesday with all his worldly belongings, knows no one on the team or in Provo, and can't move into Helaman Halls or his off-campus apartment till Friday at noon? I wouldn't necessarily assume he's got 100 bucks to check into the LaQuinta on University Avenue either. This seems plausible.
With my kid or yours, one call to an old friend or a former classmate in Orem or at worst his campus ward bishop, and problem solved. However, if your son happens to be on a football grant-in-aid, commonly known as a full-ride scholarship and the campus bishop offering his couch is a BYU professor, well, that would be a violation of NCAA rules. But honestly, what are the chances a BYU professor is also a campus bishop? Odds have to be infinitesimal, right? I'm sure that scenario has never happened.
I think it's safely beyond the statute of limitations, but my youth bishop, Jack Reeder, would have been tarred and feathered by the NCAA. Bishop Reeder, long passed, was a very successful businessman who donated a substantial amount of money and land to BYU. He had season tickets and flew to Provo for every home game and lots of road games in his private plane.
I was the lone BYU student in the ward, so naturally he was very fond of me. He also sent us from time to time to the bishop's storehouse on Main Street in Mesa, Arizona, so he was intimately familiar with my family circumstances. On every single encounter we had in Provo (and on road games), and there were many, he always placed a $20, sometimes $50, in my palm. He'd cup my head with his enormous hands, kiss my forehead, and say, "Use this to take a cute girl for a slice of pizza." Sometimes I did, but most times it just kept gas in my car, paid for a haircut, some toiletries, or allowed me to catch a movie or go dancing at Star Palace. Sometimes I used it to wash my clothes.
Technically, Bishop Reeder was a donor and technically I was a student-athlete. But the NCAA doesn't recognize the other nuances of our relationship beyond that. Not surprisingly, Bishop Reeder either didn't know or didn't care about the NCAA's authority. He just knew my parents weren't depositing anything in my campus credit union account and I couldn't work during the school year (per NCAA rules), so he made sure I had a little "walk-around money," which is what he often called it. And I loved him for it.
NCAA rules are broken every single day on every single campus, BYU's included. It's not right and I'm not excusing it, but it's a fact. Most of the rules are broken unknowingly, as in the example of Jack Reeder. The NCAA, of course, should pick its battles. Free house for a few years to Reggie Bush's family at USC? Gotta tag 'em. Tats-for-Buckeye gear at Ohio State? Ummmm, don't think so.
But too often, the NCAA goes after student-athletes like Middle Tennessee linebacker Steven Rhodes, a 24-year-old married father of two who played in a loosely organized, military-only rec league while serving five years as a Marine in Afghanistan before walking on last year to begin his college career. Apparently, the Marine rec league was a violation, even though play was halted for six months as Rhodes and the rest of the league were engaged in firefights with the Taliban.
Or the Maryland football coach who responded to a text from a number he didn't recognize, with "Who is this?" Violation, because it belonged to a recruit. Had he been a basketball coach, he would have been fine — the NCAA only prohibits football coaches from texting recruits, not basketball. Odd.
A golfer at a West Coast Conference school was forced by the university to pay $20 and self-reported her for using a campus hose to wash down her car because she was receiving an "unfair advantage not available to other students."
The football assistant who recruited me to BYU once bought me a Gatorade rather than the chocolate milk I preferred because the latter was considered a "supplement," at the time an NCAA violation. My cynical mind seemed to think it had more to do with the former's multimillion-dollar sponsorship. But that's just me.
You know who else are major violators? Polynesians.
Ever been to a Tongan wedding in West Valley City or San Mateo? There might be a dozen Division I athletes in the wedding party alone, from BYU, Utah, Utah State, Weber State and maybe even USC, Cal and UCLA. Some may even be female volleyball players. There may be another dozen prized recruits in the audience, younger cousins or siblings of the bride and groom. Tongans don't bring wrapped gifts, they bring cash — ones, fives and tens — which they place on the oiled skin of native dancers. The money is gathered and given to the happy couple. But Tongan athletes rarely leave a wedding without "parting gifts" — just a few bucks of "walk around money." Violation.
Polys fundraise all the time at kava parties and dances to help parents and siblings get to games or bowls. Know why so many Polys work at the airport? For the flight benefits to attend funerals, weddings and ... games. Airline buddy passes are like gold bullion in the Polynesian community. Probably fraught with violations.
If the NCAA thinks that will stop, it ignores a culture now completely intertwined and woven into the fabric of high school and college football in America.
In the early '90s, a Poly BYU player's dad routinely came to the football office on the first of the month to retrieve his son's scholarship check to help pay the family's rent. The player lasted one semester because that same father was also picking him up most mornings at the Smith Fieldhouse to help with the family landscape business and returning him by 2 p.m. for practice. Violation? No question.
The dysfunction of student-athletes' lives, culture and family circumstances, to say nothing of the minutiae of the NCAA rules and administrators' inability to monitor every situation and every single athlete make it impossible to keep everything in check.
NCAA rules and bylaws are intended to keep member institutions in compliance as much as to keep the pipeline of billions in revenue unimpeded. Do you really think they care about graduation rates? Spare me. What they care about are ad rates.
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