About two weeks ago, USA Gymnastics – the organizing and oversight entity for gymnastics in the US – suspended coach Maggie Haney for 8 years. The suspension came after a hearing into charges that Haney “verbally and emotionally abused her gymnasts”. The next day, the Washington Post had a story that called this suspension a “micro step long overdue”. Haney’s accuser won an individual silver medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and was part of the US women’s team that won the team gold medal.
Since I did not witness any of the alleged incidents of abuse here nor do I follow gymnastics at all, I do not know if this was either a “micro step” or if this is “long overdue”. What I will say is that an awful lot of successful coaches (for both male and female athletes) have behaved in ways that were not always totally supportive or uplifting for the athletes on the receiving end of the coaching. Maybe it is indeed a micro step but is it necessarily one in a positive direction? Time will tell…
Last week, the NCAA Board of Directors for Division 1 chose to table a recommendation for a full vote on a recommendation from a working group set up by the NCAA. That recommendation would allow athletes in football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and men’s hockey to change schools and be eligible to play immediately. The current rule is that these athletes must sit out a year at their new school unless they are granted a specific waiver from the NCAA allowing them to play immediately. The sports identified here are the so-called “revenue sports” meaning that colleges take in some revenue because of the games played in these sports. It is interesting to note that most of the athletes in the “non-revenue sports” can transfer and participate immediately. So, why the distinction here?
Far be it from me to assert that I have mind-reading skills sufficient to plumb the depths of the intentions of the folks who create the NCAA rules. I would need the combined powers of Rasputin, Wolf Messing and The Amazing Kreskin to be able to do that. However, here is an indicator of why the rule exists and why it is not a candidate for change:
- Coaches – highly regarded by alums and donors – are almost unanimously against relaxing that rule.
If I set out to try to convince you that most college coaches in the “revenue sports” are control freaks who do not like surprises, I do not think it would require the persuasion skills of Clarence Darrow for me to accomplish that objective. Allowing athletes to transfer at will would diminish their control over a critical aspect of their programs and I doubt there is a single coach out there in the “revenue sports” who thinks more randomness in the program is likely to breed more success into that program. Of course they do not like the idea of easy transfers.
I think there is another force at work here that may not be as obvious as the one above. There is a pecking order on college sports. Take men’s basketball for example:
- Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan St. and UNC are on one level.
- Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisville and Villanova are on a lower level
- Gonzaga, Ohio St., Syracuse, Tennessee and Wisconsin are on a still lower level…
The teams closest to the top of the hierarchy can “poach players” from teams lower on the pecking order. The three levels I listed above may not be sufficiently far apart to allow a lot of such poaching, but remember there are more than 350 Division 1 basketball schools and lots of them have one really good player who is “toiling in anonymity” at a place like Whatsamatta U. The big time coaches can – should they choose to do so – poach players from the schools that are way down on the totem pole but might have more difficulty doing that in an environment where they have to defend their flock in addition to “go out hunting”.
Rather than just identify problems, let me try to offer a solution here. I would like to use such an opportunity to pay tribute to something that the NCAA pretends to hold in high esteem – – the student-athlete. And I suggest that in this matter we put the emphasis on “student”. So, suppose the NCAA would allow the transfer and the immediate eligibility of a “revenue sport athlete” under these circumstances:
- The student-athlete must have achieved class status equal to the number of years it has been since his high school graduation AND (s)he must be carrying a GPA of 3.0 or better AND (s)he must be majoring in an academic subject.
- The head coach who recruited the player to come to Wherever Tech has left and gone to some other job.
If those were the two open-door transfer policies, coaches would no longer have the “control argument” in their favor because once they leave Wherever Tech, they should not care what decisions their former players make. In addition, if the path to a transfer demands academic achievement in addition to athletic achievement, then the NCAA golden calf – the student-athlete – might make a comeback on some college campuses.
Having offered those suggestions, let me be sure to note that neither of them will happen…
Finally let me close today with an entry from The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm:
“Endangered species: an organism that faces the risk of becoming extinct. Among the most widely known endangered species are the Siberian tiger, the blue whale and people who still have a landline.”
And – maybe – the “student-athlete”?
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………