The NCAA just can't win.
This Thursday, the latest chapter of the seemingly endless novel of NCAA violations was sealed with the announcement that five Ohio State players would be suspended for the first five games of 2011 for selling their trophies and uniforms and receiving improper benefits.
But instead of criticizing the Buckeye players for their stupidity, today has turned into yet another round of criticisms for the already shambled NCAA. And an organization with a lower popularity rating than "Legends and Leaders" has become even more unpopular after Thursday's announcement.
The NCAA has become a model of inconsistency, particularly over the last decade. It hands out violations left and right, but rarely does the punishment fit the crime. USC gets a two-year bowl ban for a former player accepting gifts, but a current player at Auburn gets suspended for one Monday after his dad solicited money from Mississippi State.
Makes sense, right?
Conspiracy theorists have been trying to prove the NCAA is corrupt for years and those theories have generally been dismissed. However, it's hard to ignore the inconsistencies that the organization continues to relay.
This outcry didn't start with Ohio State, nor did it start with Cam Newton or USC. It has been a continuous string of hits and misses by an organization that has lost all credibility.
For the latest miss, look no further than Columbus.
Punishment 1: The players in question, including stars Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey and Dan Herron, will be required to repay all money they earned from selling their trophies and apparel to charity.
Really, there's nothing wrong with this punishment. The players broke the rules and should be forced to pay back the money they "illegally" earned.
Punishment 2: Those five players are allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, but will be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season.
Here lies the problem. Pryor and company will have to serve a suspension because they did something wrong, but because they "didn't know it was wrong," they can still play in their bowl game. In other words, NCAA policy is this: Do something wrong and you get suspended, but if you didn't know it was wrong, you sort of get suspended.
Clear as mud.
In an age of political correctness, the NCAA tries to make sure it shields itself from accusations of racism or false convictions. It tries to come down hard on players and institutions who break the rules, but is afraid to make a statement without complete, obvious proof. Even the legal system only requires guilt to be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt." The NCAA needs more.
Because of its desire to be politically correct, the NCAA has allowed players to get away with just about anything. Players, such as Cam Newton, can manipulate the system with the "I didn't know it was wrong" card. Newton's case is a perfect example. According to the NCAA, the conversation between Cam Newton and his father, Cecil, went something like this:
Cam: Hey, Dad, I want to go to Mississippi State.
Cecil: No, you're going to Auburn.
Cam: Oh, okay.
Is that how the conversation really went? Of course not. Everyone involved with football knows that Cecil Newton probably told his son, "sorry, Mississippi State didn't give us enough money." No future college student accepts that they are going to a school they don't want to without questioning the reasoning.
But none of that matters to the NCAA, because knowing what is right isn't enough.
Although the NCAA needs absolute proof, it also tries to come down hard on those violators that it can prove guilty. However, players and schools are often found half guilty and half not guilty. This sends a hypocritical message to those who violate the rules.
Take Ohio State, for example. The NCAA was politically correct on one hand, letting the players compete in the Sugar Bowl because they "didn't know what they did was wrong." However, it still wanted to be tough, so it gave those same players an extremely harsh suspension in 2011. Something doesn't add up.
The reasonable thing to do would be to suspend the five players for the Sugar Bowl, punishing them for a stupid action, but not ruining their careers.
But as we have learned, reasonable and NCAA don't belong in the same sentence.
It's amazing how such a powerful organization, the most powerful one in sports, can be so oblivious toward its mistakes.
Rarely does the NCAA admit it is wrong, but it so often overlooks the fact that athletes are given benefits all the time.
We'll save the "should athletes be paid" debate for another time, but the fact that the NCAA ignores the issue is laughable.
It claims that student-athletes are already "paid" through scholarships, which is true. But college football players are typically there for football, not college. Whether that is right or wrong isn't the issue, it's that the NCAA ignores that reality.
Back in the 1950s, the "student" part of student-athlete matters. However, save for a minority of players, that term as become obsolete and the NCAA refuses to acknowledge that fact.
College football players have become celebrities, and a "broke" college player who is offered a free pizza by a loyal fan is going to have a hard time turning down that deal.
Rules are necessary in college sports, but the NCAA refuses to change its rules as the atmosphere around collegiate athletics continues to change. Even if it won't change, the least it can do is be consistent with its punishments.
However, the past is the best teacher, and judging from the last decade, don't expect the NCAA to change. No, Ohio State won't win its appeal because the NCAA can't admit it is wrong. No, Cam Newton won't be punished for his family's solicitation of money from Mississippi State, because knowing it happened isn't enough.
Until the NCAA holds itself accountable for its mistakes, the controversies surrounding college sports will remain. Players will continue to manipulate the system and the NCAA will continue to send mixed signals.
Because as the latest round of NCAA violations proved, college football is operating under a broken system.