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NCAA Rules by the Books

J.A. ADANDE

Governing body is more concerned with its bottom line than the well-being of student-athletes.

February 26, 2000|J.A. ADANDE

Let's see if we've got this right. At the same time college officials are considering legislation that would allow players to retain college eligibility after playing professional sports, a player is nearly banned for life because he (unsuccessfully) tried to enter the NBA after high school.

In the midst of the usual moaning and groaning about players going straight to the pros, a player is suspended because someone helped pay his prep school tuition, which enabled him to go to college.

If we're talking about confusion and hypocrisy, the subject must be the NCAA.

It's legislating itself in circles, like a dog perpetually chasing its tail. It enacts rules, waits for the fallout, enacts more rules to make amends and never solves the problems. You almost get the feeling it's about to crack from the weight of all its regulations.

We won't try to fool anybody with the idea that all of the athletes who play the revenue sports (football and men's basketball) are in school primarily to get an education. But their best interests are served by having them in a structured environment, with at least some exposure to learning.

The NCAA's actions this year are having the opposite effect, giving the athletes every reason to leave. Suspensions are coming down left and right for infractions that have nothing to do with the colleges themselves. And with each game the punished players sit out, the temptation to be rid of it all and bolt straight to the pros has to increase.

UCLA's JaRon Rush received a 44-game suspension for taking money from his summer league coach and an agent. Rush's brother, Kareem, had to sit out nine games at Missouri, and Oklahoma State's Andre Williams missed five games for similar violations.

Michigan's Jamal Crawford almost lost his whole college career before he finished his freshman year. First he served a six-game suspension for his relationship with a businessman in his hometown of Seattle who provided him with housing, cars, clothes and money while Crawford was in high school. Just as that suspension wound up, the NCAA slapped a lifetime ban on Crawford because he applied for early entry to the NBA draft after his senior year of high school. Even though the application reached the NBA after its early entry deadline, the NCAA ruled he had violated a rule that denies high school players college eligibility if they apply for the NBA draft.

Thursday, the NCAA reduced Crawford's suspension to eight games.

That doesn't change the fact that he is being punished for a rule that the NCAA knows is wrong. The NCAA adjusted its policy to allow college players to declare themselves eligible for the draft and then return to school if they do not sign with an agent. Now it's considering an amendment that would allow players (high school and college) to retain college eligibility even if they have played professionally.

The NCAA already allows athletes to play one sport professionally and retain amateur status in other sports (although they can't receive athletic scholarships). One notable recent example was 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, who played in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league baseball system and played football at Texas.

This is the next step, to give athletes the right to pursue their dreams--and fail--without throwing away their best shot to go to college. But nothing would change for the next two years at the earliest, far too late to help Crawford.

It's important to remember that the NCAA is not some Politburo making decrees whenever it wants. The member schools vote on all the rules, so everything in the rules book is the result of a majority decision. The problem is the schools don't trust each other, so they try to regulate as much as possible. And now they've taken to acting on what transpires before players even get to campus.

One of the byproducts of the initial eligibility standards (originally known as Proposition 48) was that players who had some trouble meeting the requirements wound up at prep schools such as Maine Central Institute. Thats where Erick Barkley went before enrolling at St. John's, and now the NCAA wants to know who paid his tuition at Maine Central.

He already had to sit out two games because he upgraded cars in a switch with a family friend who coached his summer-league team. The big tuition investigation could make him miss St. John's showdown with Duke today. Should the NCAA really punish Barkley because someone paid for him to be in school? Isn't that where the NCAA wants him?

That's what you would think, but it's difficult to put the words "think" and "NCAA" in the same sentence.

As the NCAA prepares to start its grand tournament, the one that recently earned it a TV contract worth $564 million, just remember that Crawford has to pay back $11,300, JaRon Rush must repay $6,000, and they'll never get back the college games they missed.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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