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May 31, 2011

HURT: Like it or not, rule changes are coming

DESTIN, Fla. | Today the Southeastern Conference is set to discuss the issue of "oversigning" among its football programs. Whether that discussion will lead to major changes or whether it will be a case of "overhyping" remains to be seen.

"Oversigning" or, in Mike Slive's more technically correct euphemism, "roster management" has been a volatile topic for several years now depending on which side of the issue you, or your favorite team, happens to fall.

The parameters of the debate are familiar. It does not violate any current NCAA legislation to sign as many players as you want in February, as long as your squad is at the NCAA-mandated limit of 85 when fall practice begins in August. No one is breaking any rules. But is a team that follows the NCAA rules with no additional limits imposed by the school or a conference "creating a competitive advantage" for itself? Or is it simply choosing not to put itself at a "competitive disadvantage," which those schools who voluntarily adhere to a different standard choose to do.

The rhetoric gets pretty heated at times, with charges of "unethical conduct" flying around. People cite the case of Elliott Porter, who enrolled at LSU for summer school but was denied a scholarship in August, as evidence of "unethical" behavior, and since it appears Porter was lied to, it probably was unethical. But that means lying is unethical, not the rules themselves.

As a counter-example familiar to Alabama fans, what about the case of John Parker Wilson? He delayed enrollment for a semester voluntarily and went on to quarterback a team in a BCS bowl, graduate and become an NFL player. Was that unethical? Was it unethical to give Tyrone Prothro a medical hardship scholarship after a catastrophic, career-ending injury? If not, then is it a matter of some medical hardships being "ethical" and others being "unethical?" Who makes that judgment call?

I am not making it, by the way. I am just pointing out it isn't easy to know the history of every case, and reminding everyone that such moral verdicts usually depend on particular circumstances.

And if oversigning is unethical in football, why is it not unethical in other sports? Basketball has no single-season signing cap at all, and it is not rare for teams to anticipate attrition and exceed their projected 13-scholarship limit in the November signing period. Certainly, ethical behavior isn't different in different sports. Yet, there is no rush to put basketball on the docket.

Or what about the baseball player, who participates in a partial scholarship sport? He may be getting 50 percent of a scholarship as a freshman, but if he hits .178, he is probably looking at getting cut back to books-only for the next year. Is that unethical, too? If so, legislation better be pending, because it happens that way in baseball programs all over the country.

The search for ethical absolutes makes things cloudy, not clear. Is there a perfectly ethical program in big-time college football? Sometimes programs which posture as morally superior find its own flaws exposed, although I can only think of one example in the past 24 hours.

The SEC "roster management" proposals will spark a lively couple of days, nonetheless.
Two of the four proposals should pass unanimously. One would create SEC "oversight" of medical hardship scholarships. Schools should love that one, because it puts an outside stamp of approval on those decisions without really changing the process. Does anyone really think the SEC would ever actually overrule a team doctor's medical decision and put a player who has been ruled to have a career-ending injury back on the field? The potential liability issues would be staggering. The measure will have no practical effect, but (or, more accurately, "therefore") it will pass. That's not an endorsement, just an acknowledgment of the measure's benignity.

There shouldn't be much dispute about the proposed rule determining when a player signs his SEC financial aid agreement, either. Waiting until enrollment instead of signing earlier makes sense.

The battle will be over the other two proposals. The first, in essence, would stop summer-school evaluation by forcing a figurative balancing of the books in June instead of August. Although it will encounter resistance, this is not an unreasonable proposal.
Where the majority of coaches - reportedly an 8-4 majority, with the West Division coaches aligned with South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and Tennessee's Derek Dooley - will attempt to draw the hard line is on the reduction of the signing-period limit of National Letters of Intent from 28 to 25. There is already some loophole language about mid-year enrollees, but if the rule imposes a "hard cap" of 100 over four years, it will reduce a lot of wiggle rooms for teams whose four-year totals have been higher (including all the teams in the West.)

The change would seem to be in line with the spirit, although not the letter, of NCAA legislation. Questions do arise. Should the SEC be in the business of "levelling" its teams against those from other conferences? Is the real impetus for this move being spurred by the schools with the largest in-state populations (Florida and Georgia) and thus the least to lose?

I am not sure change will carry the day in Destin, although I would not be shocked if a compromise measure - a gradual rather than an immediate reduction, for instance - ultimately passed.

Even though Alabama, among other schools, will oppose it, the day is coming - perhaps not here in Destin but somewhere at some time - when the rules will be made more uniform. It is inevitable, not because of ethics, but because of the number of schools whom feel the status quo hurts them competitively.

So change is coming, either gradually or quickly. And while most of the coaches here will oppose it, maybe Destin wouldn't be a bad place for that process to start.


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