College football season is upon us and with that comes the usual debates about playoffs, the validity of preseason polls and my favorite: paying players.
My feelings are simple: There is so much money involved with big-time college sports, it's unethical that they're not better compensated. That's why I'm not too disgusted with third-party runners -- such as relatives or AAU coaches -- who shake down schools for cash in exchange for highly sought after recruits. I understand how moving cash underneath the table is cheating, but it's hard for me to characterize the schools or their coaches as cheated.
In any case, intent on weeding out these interlopers, the NCAA has increased its focus on the schools who entertain them and as a result, the University of Central Florida received the first major NCAA sanctions since Penn State. The school is banned from postseason play in football and men's basketball for one year; is hit with a reduction in scholarships; and is on probation after the NCAA committee on infractions ruled that runners and cash were involved in attracting a high level of talent to UCF. The runners in question were a pair of men with ties to a sports agency.
Now I'm not saying what they did was right, but it's not hard to see why UCF felt it needed to cheat. Since joining Conference USA in 2005, the school's athletic program has exploded in terms of infrastructure -- an athletic village was built, an indoor football practice facility was constructed and in 2007-08 it the school opened a stadium and arena.
If you're gonna do all of that, you gotta win big. And in order to do that, you need big talent.
Unfortunately for UCF coaches and officials, the NCAA didn't approve of the way they acquired that talent, fearing the practice of using runners will erode the moral fiber of college sports.
And there's a lot of truth to that. Not only are there no guarantees an athlete is going to see much of the money being exchanged but they can also become indebted to the runner in a way that isn't healthy or equitable.
UCF should have been punished.
But what about the moral erosion caused by the system perpetuated by the NCAA and its members that gave birth to these runners in the first place?
• "The average scholarship shortfall (out-of-pocket expenses) for each 'full' scholarship athlete was approximately $3,222 per player during the 2010-11 school year."
• "The average Football Bowl Subdivision 'full' scholarship athlete earns less than the federal poverty line by $1,874 on campus and $1,794 off campus."
Think about it: Millions of construction dollars flew out of the door in a handful of years at UCF, but the young men expected to create the cash flow of tickets, memorabilia, TV appearances and postseason games couldn't take an equitable sip from the stream.
You wanna know how these runners gain so much influence in the lives of highly recruited athletes? They show them how much a jersey costs in a bookstore.
Student-athletes are not slaves, but given the amount of money associated with big time college sports, it's not a stretch to view them as the NCAA's version of indentured servants.
Ohio State got in trouble last season because eight players exchanged their rings and jerseys for tats and cash totaling $14,000, roughly $1,750 a player. The football program made a net profit of $35 million. And while it is true much of that money is used to fund other departments, the notion that a school like OSU can't afford to pay players seems disingenuous. The argument that Title IX complicates the discussion is a cop out. And college coaches calling runners "the most serious problem facing men's basketball and football," as reported in a recent USA Today article, is just plain shameful.
Runners may be sleazy, but they are only the byproduct of a system that feels worse.
So the NCAA has every right to turn its focus on the UCFs of the world, but until its members start paying student-athletes, it's not going to generate much sympathy from me. For as long as the student-athletes responsible for generating millions are living in poverty, runners have a better chance of being viewed as Robin Hoods than the NCAA as victims.