The case of Purdue forward Sandi Marcius is hardly cut and dry.
Here's the deal: After Purdue's season ended this spring, Marcius asked Purdue coach Matt Painter for his release from the program so he could seek a post-graduate transfer -- and play somewhere else right away -- after he finished his undergradate requirements this summer. Painter reportedly told Marcius to think about it and come back after the Final Four, when they could discuss further. Then, Marcius didn't attend Purdue's season-ending banquet, and a day later Purdue released the news with a none-too-pleased quote from the head coach:
“We have invested four years and significant resources into helping Sandi develop from both an educational and athletic standpoint,” Painter said. “Certainly, having Sandi here for a fifth year was in our plans and we anticipated him having a great final year in our program.”
Now things are getting even hairier: The Journal and Courier's Jeff Washburn confirmed Tuesday that because Marcius has announced his plans to transfer, the school is not on the hook for the costs of his summer school, which he needs to be able to transfer in the first place, and will not be paying those costs. With tuition, fees, room and board, and books, the costs for Marcius to finish up with school will be about $7,000, which is a sizable chunk of change. That has put him in the middle of a rather interesting dynamic, which Washburn described on his blog:
If Marcius planned to return to Purdue for the 2013-2014, as he said in March was his plan, I’m sure the athletic department, which pays for all scholarships without state assistance, would gladly come up with the $7,000 tuition and fees costs.
But those Purdue fans on message boards and Twitter on Monday, especially those who belong to the John Purdue Club and whose donations fund scholarships, are up in arms, saying that if Marcius isn’t going to be a Boilermaker next season, there is no way they want a single JPC penny paying for his summer school.
I tend to find fans to be far too bloodless when it comes to the way their rosters are constructed in a way that is often at odds with the things -- real student-athletes, four-year citizens, respectable members of the community, etc. -- those fans say they want from their favorite basketball program. In the end, fans really want to win, and they are willing to accept all manner of cold calculus to do so. (Sometimes I think fans care less about their program cheating because it's "wrong" than because it can end up being counterproductive and damaging in the long-term. Maybe I'm too cynical.) These desires don't often match the rhetoric. Such is the nature of modern college sports.
Point is, this is the kind of situation where you might expect me to get on my high horse about helping Marcius finishing his education and how many marginal dollars Purdue has made from the "significant resources" it has lavished on the Croatian since he arrived in West Lafayette, and so on. But in this case it's kind of hard to fault Painter or his athletic director, Morgan Burke. The deal is pretty simple: If you play here, we pay for your school. If you're leaving the team, we no longer pay for your school. Purdue isn't preventing Marcius from transferring, or holding him hostage via his release; they're simply saying they're not going to subsidize his last summer on campus before he leaves to play somewhere else.
He can take out a loan. Student loans are rough, but there are plenty of college grads (ahem) who would be thrilled to owe just $7,000 when they got their diploma. (Likewise, John Infante noodles the possibility of another school picking up the bill here. Update: John later explained via Twitter that Marcius that getting a loan may be more difficult than I originally thought: "For practical purposes, he cannot get a loan. Not eligible for any federal loan, needs US co-signer on a private loan.") Anyway, it's easy to be reflexive about a player vs. program dispute, but even if borne of some anger or even spite, Purdue's decision seems relatively fair to me.
An aside: One of the most difficult things about the oversigning argument in college basketball is the sheer number of transfers we see each season. When you have so many players moving to and fro, it's a lot harder to gin up outrage (if outrage is even deserved in the first place; I think it is) over a coach making promises to players and their families he can't, by the sheer force of arithmetic, keep. Someone will leave, right? And if someone leaves, how do we tease out the reasons? Was he pushed out? Was a living room promise broken? Or is he just another of the hundreds of unsatisfied players seeking greener pastures? How do we know?
Marcius' case is a bit more clear-cut, and has little to do with oversigning, but it highlights the same underlying issues: What do schools owe players? What do players owe schools? These are the fundamental questions the amatuerists must answer in the coming years, on a vast array of rhetorical fronts. It doesn't seem to be getting any easier.