NCAA ruling defies common sense
You thought this was Bowl Month?
It's We Didn't Know Month.
From Cam Newton to the memorabilia peddlers in Ohio, that's the operative phrase allowing them to continue playing in what has been a deeply tainted 2010 college football season.
We didn't know.
Newton, the Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, said he didn't know that his father attempted to sell Cam's services to Mississippi State for $180,000. That plausible (or implausible, if you prefer) deniability has kept Newton on the field as the Tigers have marched into the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.
Thursday at Ohio State, we learned that five players -- many of them stars -- didn't know it was a no-no to sell championship rings, game gear and personal awards for cash. Why didn't they know? According to the NCAA release, the players "did not receive adequate rules education" from the school at the time of the transgressions, which occurred in 2009. That plausible (or implausible, if you prefer) deniability will allow all five to play in the Buckeyes' Allstate Sugar Bowl showdown with Arkansas on Jan. 4.
So there you have it, future NCAA rules breakers of America (and your parents). Go for the gold. When you get caught, shrug and say, "Why, I had no idea." Blame it on your dad and/or a negligent compliance staff at your university.
The NCAA dropped the hammer on the Buckeyes -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas -- for 2011. They're all suspended for the first five games next year.
But the hammer only hurts if there's someone there to feel it hit. We'll see how many of the five salesmen are still Buckeyes by next season. I'll set the over/under at 1.
Ohio State reaction
What does the suspension of five Ohio State players for the first five games of next season mean? Plenty, both now and later, as ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg details. Blog
If that strikes you as nonsensical, well, get in line. That line currently stretches from Fayetteville, Ark., to Saigon. And back.
The NCAA has done it again, producing a ruling that defies common sense and provokes suspicions about ulterior motives. Even as the organization has taken admirable steps in terms of aggressive enforcement and attempted transparency, it still has a unique ability to leave the public baffled and skeptical.
The Newton ruling was widely ridiculed for the loophole that allowed the quarterback to play in the SEC and BCS title games -- two of the most important games of the year in terms of revenues and ratings. In the open-and-shut Ohio State case, the NCAA is delaying punishment long enough for the Buckeyes to play in another game that packs a huge revenues-and-ratings payload.
The We Didn't Know defense was cited by the NCAA as one mitigating factor in this decision. Another was the fact that postseason play provides a "unique opportunity" and is "evaluated differently" when it comes to suspensions, according to an NCAA Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement policy that was enacted in 2004.
Well, sure. It's a unique opportunity to get a new jersey that could be worth a lot of money on the memorabilia market. If Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green can get a grand (and a four-game NCAA suspension) for selling his Independence Bowl jersey, imagine what Pryor can get for one from a big-time bowl such as the Sugar Bowl?
Commerce aside, deferring punishment until after the biggest game of the season doesn't seem like the greatest deterrent to future rule breaking. Especially in this instance, when the rule breakers have the option to go pro instead of ever paying the piper.
Seems to me that if these guys were busted for breaking the rules, the punishment should be rendered in a timely fashion. Like now. No matter how inconvenient it might be, or how "unique" an "opportunity" it is to play in a bowl.
That's another thing that makes this ruling something of a joke. Rhapsodizing about the "unique opportunity" of playing in a bowl game would seem to be completely lost on the Buckeyes in question.
If they had a full appreciation of what it means to play for Ohio State, and to play in a bowl, and to be part of a tradition much larger than themselves, they wouldn't have sold what they sold. The championship rings would mean too much. So would the gold pants, which are small jewelry awards given to every Buckeye for beating Michigan.
I've seen Ohio State players wearing their gold pants proudly on necklaces. I've heard them talk about what those trinkets mean.
To Pryor and Thomas, they meant one thing: cash on the flash.
I understand that some, most or maybe all of the players involved come from economically challenged families. And poverty will make people do things they would refrain from under better circumstances. And it can be much harder as a young adult to appreciate the emotional value of rings and trinkets than it is at an older age.
But a full scholarship and all the perks that come with being a football star at Ohio State are no small advantages on a college campus. I'm fairly certain there are others in Columbus making do with far less.
The bottom line is this: These players slapped Ohio State tradition in the face, for a profit.
I'd imagine a large segment of the Buckeyes fan base is insulted by their actions. Some of them probably would rather not see them play against Arkansas. Jim Tressel has the opportunity to display the guts and integrity the NCAA didn't show by sitting the players on his own.
But he was given an out -- a handy, trendy out.
They didn't know.
It's the phrase of the month in this scandal-scarred season.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.