SOURCE: MARK MURPHEY SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS
When I was a student at the University of Georgia, I had the privilege of watching a spectacularly gifted running back play for the Bulldogs. Some of you may remember him — a humble, unassuming guy named Herschel Walker. He wore No. 34.
After three seasons of running roughshod over, around and through SEC defenses, Herschel Walker won the Heisman trophy and signed a contract with the New Jersey Generals of the now-defunct USFL, prematurely ending the career of the most gifted college football player I had ever seen.
"He's like Halley's Comet," my brother Andy once said. "You won't see another one like him for 30 years."
Andy's words proved prophetic. Thirty years later, along came Todd Gurley in the same uniform, wearing No. 3.
Gurley burst onto the scene as a true freshman, rushing for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns while leading his team into contention for the national title. After an injury-plagued sophomore season, he became a Heisman trophy candidate this year, averaging 8.2 yards a carry and scoring eight touchdowns in his first five games.
But Todd Gurley did not travel to Columbia, Mo., for Georgia's pivotal SEC East game against the Missouri Tigers on Oct. 11. Two days earlier, it had been announced that he was "suspended indefinitely" for violating NCAA rules.
Media reports soon centered around the reported sale of signed memorabilia by Gurley for a Villa Rica man named Bryan Allen. Allen, an unabashed Florida Gators fan, had directly approached the University of Georgia compliance officer after unsuccessfully shopping the story to various online news outlets for a couple of weeks.
According to the media, Gurley — who was raised by a single mother in a trailer in rural Tarboro, N.C. — has admitted he was paid about $400 for several pieces of signed memorabilia.
If Gurley indeed signed items and was paid for them, that is a violation of NCAA Bylaw 188.8.131.52.6, which mandates specific suspensions from game activity for athletes who receive such benefits. The rule states that for benefits of $100-$400, the athlete must miss 10 percent of a season's games and repay the benefit amount to charity; for benefits of $400-$700, the penalty is 20 percent of a season's games and repayment; and for benefit of more than $700, the penalty is 30 percent of a season's games and repayment.
This incident underscores the sordid hypocrisy rampant in college athletics. Universities make millions from the sale of athlete-related memorabilia, but the players themselves cannot benefit.
The NCAA has a $5.64 billion contract with ESPN for the college football playoff and an $11 billion contract with CBS and Turner Sports for the NCAA basketball tournament. More than 70 college football head coaches make in excess of a million dollars a year — yet the players, the stars of the league, often have no spending money at all and are prohibited from making any money from their college football "likeness."
There are signs things may be changing. Last July, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled against the NCAA in a related matter in the Ed O'Bannon case.* Players may now start getting some sort of stipend, possibly ranging from $2,000-$5,000 a year. The NCAA, not surprisingly, is appealing the O'Bannon decision, citing a desire to protect college athletes' "amateur" status.
This is an absolute farce. At the end of the day, it's all about the money. The NCAA makes a lot of it — and they want to keep most of it for themselves.
The hypocrisy extends even further when one looks at the differential application of the NCAA rules regarding the "extra benefits" issue.
The Johnny Manziel case involved a memorabilia dealer claiming he had paid Heisman winner Manziel $7,500 for signing numerous items for him — there was video of Manziel signing the items — but Manziel claimed he had not received any money, and the NCAA could find no hard evidence money had, in fact, been paid.
They subsequently handed down a half-game suspension in a meaningless game against Rice as punishment.
The father of Cam Newton, Auburn's Heisman-winning quarterback, admitted to trying to sell his son's services for hundreds of thousands of dollars to the highest bidder, but Newton claimed ignorance of his father's behavior and was suspended for only one day before being re-instated. He missed no playing time.
Moreover, there is more authenticated signed school memorabilia for sale online for Florida State's Jameis Winston, last season's Heisman trophy winner, than for any college athlete, including Todd Gurley — including dozens of sequentially-numbered FSU mini-helmets.
Coincidence? Unlikely. But Winston has denied that he has taken any money for these items — hence, no suspensions.
When it comes to other "bad behavior" by athletes, discipline has largely been left up to individual schools. The NCAA has consistently not involved itself.
The aforementioned Jameis Winston has been cited in a rape investigation, was seen on-camera last spring stealing crab legs from a store and was reprimanded for shouting out an offensive expletive phrase demeaning to women in a cafeteria. Thus far, he has received only a single one-game school-mandated suspension for his activities.
A damning article in the New York Times reveals how the Tallahassee Police and Florida State University officials have repeatedly conspired to keep the FSU football players out of legal trouble despite numerous incidents in the past few years.** A recent Fox Sports News article further details how FSU officials and university police actively hindered Winston's rape investigation.***
And while suspensions for positive drug tests have become an annual phenomenon at Georgia, which has one of the most strict drug test penalties in the NCAA, there is no uniform NCAA or SEC policy regarding this issue.
Former Florida and NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has been accused of murder, reportedly failed more than 10 drug tests while at the University of Florida but missed no playing time. Worse, former Florida (and current Ohio State) coach Urban Meyer allegedly covered up the drug test results and other bad behavior by Hernandez while he was at Florida, including a drive-by shooting.****
And players who are expelled for bad behavior can transfer to other schools with impunity. For example, former Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who was kicked off the team for repeated drug-related incidents and a case of domestic violence, has transferred to Oklahoma, where he will play next season.
There is no penalty for those "superstars" who cannot keep out of trouble — and that's wrong.
So what does this mean? It means that when it comes to the NCAA, honesty is not rewarded. A coach such as Georgia's Mark Richt, who consistently adheres to the rules, is placed at a disadvantage when competing with programs such as Florida State that are willing to bend the rules.
Players such as Todd Gurley, who tell the truth, are penalized. By contrast, players and teams who lie to NCAA investigators are often exonerated. This sends the wrong message to the young men playing intercollegiate athletics.
And the NCAA's hypocrisy becomes even worse in cases such as Gurley's current one when the NCAA — a multi-billion dollar business that benefits tremendously from collegiate athletic stars such as Todd Gurley — is more willing to penalize athletes who make a paltry few bucks by signing memorabilia than it is to go after those who engage in felonious behavior.
Don't get me wrong. I am not defending Todd Gurley's actions. Even if the rules are petty and ridiculous, they are still the rules — and Gurley was well aware of them. If he did indeed accept money for autographs, his actions were selfish, and he should pay a price for his transgressions.
But there needs to be consistency in NCAA rule application. Honesty and fair play should be rewarded. Institutions that consistently cover up bad behavior by their athletes need to be held accountable for their actions. And archaic rules that allow the NCAA to penalize athletes merely to protect its brand need to be struck down.
Reform college football
Part of this problem stems from one simple source — us.
College football is big business because its fans are willing to pay a lot of money to watch it. Universities with winning athletic teams generate a great deal of school pride — which brings in more student applications, more alumni contributions and more revenue from trademarked school memorabilia.
As a result, high school athletic superstars are heavily scrutinized. Ninth graders are offered college scholarships by some programs. And these kids are praised and lionized all through adolescence.
As a result, they grow up thinking rules don't apply to them — hence all of the inappropriate actions we often see from elite athletes. The cold, hard truth is only 2.4 percent or so will ever play professional ball.
For the rest, a college degree is the best thing they will get out of all of this. And while that is a great thing, it is undervalued for too many college athletes, whose eyes are focused solely on their prospects for the NFL.
I would propose that we begin to reform college football by focusing on the players themselves — especially the 97.5 percent for whom college football marks the last time they will ever set foot on the gridiron.
First, no high school student should be offered a college scholarship before his or her junior year of high school — giving the students a bit more time to grow up emotionally before being labeled a "superstar."
Second, the NCAA should drop its appeal of the O'Bannon case. Players should be allowed to have stipends for living expenses. They should also be given five years of guaranteed financial support. Currently, athletic scholarships are awarded on a year-to-year basis.
An even greater focus needs to be placed on athletes obtaining their degrees. For the vast majority of them, a college diploma is the most valuable thing they will obtain from playing collegiate athletics.
There should be uniform drug-testing policies throughout the NCAA, with uniform penalties — and with drug rehab mandated for repeat offenders. Players who are expelled from one Division I school for misbehavior should be prohibited from playing at any other Division I school.
There should be a uniform methodology for dealing with illegal activities by student-athletes, as opposed to having those punishments meted out by the schools themselves. And schools who cover up felonious player behavior should be subject to severe post-season play bans for up to five years.
Finally, the archaic NCAA rules banning payment for player signings should be abolished. If college students who are not athletes become famous (as authors or actors, for example), they can sell signed articles without fear of retribution — or of jeopardizing their careers. Collegiate athletes should enjoy the same liberty.
Perhaps these signing events could be limited, or regulated by the individual universities, but change needs to occur.
I didn't see the real Halley's Comet the last time it came through our skies in 1986. I have been fortunate enough to see the Georgia football version twice. For Todd Gurley's sake, I hope sanity reigns and we will soon see him streaking across the Sanford Stadium field before he catapults into the NFL firmament.
And perhaps, if this highly publicized incident catalyzes real change in NCAA governance, there will ultimately be a silver lining to this latest chapter in the Todd Gurley playbook.