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Friday, March 14, 2008
Updated: March 17, 2:40 PM ET
Clemson's treatment of Ray Ray McElrathbey is simply wrong

By Jemele Hill
Page 2

What happened to Ray Ray McElrathbey wasn't a travesty as much as it was reality.

In case the name doesn't sound familiar, McElrathbey is the Clemson running back whose triumphant story struck such a chord he was named an ABC News Person of the Week. Or rather, he was a college football player, until Clemson coach Tommy Bowden recently made the controversial decision not to renew McElrathbey's scholarship.

Ray & Fahmarr McElrathbey
Ray McElrathbey won the Orange Bowl Courage Award -- now Clemson's running him off the team.
Scholarships for college athletes are revoked all the time. But this particular rip wasn't just business as usual. McElrathbey became a national story in 2006 for raising his then-11-year-old brother, Fahmarr, while his mother struggled with a crack cocaine addiction. McElrathbey's father never was in the picture because of a gambling problem.

I understand why Bowden's decision has rubbed so many people the wrong way and why he and the school are facing mounting criticism. Most people feel Bowden was obligated to do right by McElrathbey, since the school had no problem pimping his story to the national news outlets until a serious knee injury made saving a roster spot for him inconvenient.

But the issue here isn't Bowden's decision. It's the unequal landscape in college athletics, where schools are allowed to operate in their own self-interests but players are penalized for doing the same -- even when it's the appropriate decision for themselves and their families.

McElrathbey's situation represents college sports hypocrisy at its finest. Basketball and football players face stipulations regarding when they can become professionals. If a college athlete wants to transfer, he or she must sit out a year. An athlete doesn't commit to a binding four-year scholarship but a one-year renewable deal.

Those are the rules, but it's a one-sided commitment. The money inequity is so blatant, it's not even worth discussing. Coaches can hop from one million-dollar job to the next, and it's up to them to renew an athlete's scholarship from year to year.

A couple of years ago, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier decided not to renew the scholarships of six players before the 2005 season based on their performances on the field, and he was vilified by some for it.

Just another day at the office for most college coaches.

"We had some walk-on players who were actually contributing more," Spurrier said at the time. "I don't know what to say, but to me, in life you put people on scholarship who deserve it the most, and that's what we tried to do."

However, it doesn't always work that way, either.

Take the case of Percy Romeo Miller Jr., better known as rapper Lil' Romeo and the son of rap mogul Master P. Obviously, money isn't an issue for the Millers, but nevertheless, Romeo is headed to USC on a full basketball scholarship reportedly worth $44,000 -- chump change for a kid who once was on MTV's "Cribs" and flaunted the mansion his father built for him on the family's lavish property.

You might think USC is paying for cheap, easy publicity. But according to a Wall Street Journal report, a lot more is at stake. For USC, this really might be about landing Miller's best friend, 6-foot-6 shooting guard Demar DeRozan, who is one of the top recruits in the country and also has committed to USC. The price for DeRozan might be a banged-up 5-10 point guard who averaged just 8.6 points a game this season for a losing team.

Fahmarr McElrathbey
Ray McElrathbey has taken care of his little brother Fahmarr. It seems Clemson hasn't done nearly as good a job taking care of Ray.
Just another college working the angles.

In a way, McElrathbey should feel fortunate, because he'll have a softer landing than most athletes would in his situation. Clemson has offered him a graduate-assistant position that will pay for his tuition, books, housing and meals. According to a story written by ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach on Thursday, McElrathbey's mother, Tonya, has been clean for 18 months and is working full-time at an Atlanta communications company. The school also helped set up a $100,000 trust fund for the brothersl. McElrathbey is expected to graduate with a sociology degree in August, a considerable achievement, considering the odds he faced. For sure, whenever he leaves Clemson, he will be far better off than when he arrived.

But Clemson deserves the bad publicity it's received since word got out about McElrathbey's scholarship. Not because the Tigers executed an unfortunate but common practice, but because it's starting to appear the school is retaliating against McElrathbey -- who reportedly is strongly considering transferring -- by soiling his reputation. All of a sudden, there are media reports about missed appointments, unanswered telephone calls and texts, and disagreements with the coaching staff.

Certainly a college student trying to raise a boy on his own is going to have some issues. But the fact that McElrathbey is graduating in a few months says everything you need to know about his character and determination.

So the next time someone gripes about an athlete turning pro early or complains that college athletes receive too much, he should be reminded of McElrathbey's story.

College is a business. It's only personal to us.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.