Rules aren't made to be broken

Updated: February 22, 2004, 2:59 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

The great thing about Jeremy Bloom's position in the Jeremy Bloom case -- The Lovable Little Collegian vs. the NCAA Grinch Who Stole Endorsements -- is that he has made it so strikingly simple, you'd be sorely tempted to forget why there's an issue in the first place.

Jeremy Bloom
AP PhotoJeremy Bloom is a special athlete, but the NCAA isn't about to make a special case for him.
It's a brilliant tack on Bloom's part. It is a shrewd, intuitive, attention-getting move.

It is also utterly deceptive. But I suppose you can't have everything.

At first glance, the case appears almost overwhelmingly one-sided. Bloom is a well-liked and valuable scholarship football player for the University of Colorado who also happens to be one of the better moguls skiers in the United States. His dream is not to play in the NFL but to win a gold medal for Team USA in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Alas, competitive skiing costs money not readily available in NCAA form (I'm guessing they don't sell enough "Bloom" model mogul jerseys in the Buffs bookstore). The answer, not merely for Bloom but for pretty much anyone who wants to ski at an elite competitive level, is endorsement money, primarily from the manufacturers of ski equipment and those who like to advertise with the skiing crowd.

Double alas, the NCAA has rules prohibiting its athletes from accepting endorsments of any kind. This, of course, is not to be confused with whole athletic programs prostituting themselves to the highest shoe bidder, or Bobby Knight striking ye olde back-room deal with a regional auto-parts dealer to sew something new into the sweaters of his coaching staff.

Nope, this is the NCAA telling Jeremy Bloom that, as long as he wants to play football at Colorado, he cannot collect in endorsements the money he needs to ski -- not even if, as Bloom suggested, the money could be placed in a trust and used only to pay his expenses.

Bloom, having had time to think it over (and also having failed at achieving a Congressional bill allowing some compensation for college jocks), has decided he still wants both.

And so he announced that he's going to take the endorsement money that will allow him to pursue his Olympic dream -- and also remain on the football team, until such time as someone tells him he has to leave. In essence, Bloom declared himself open for business, and dared the NCAA to do something about it.

It was an outrageously good maneuver. Bloom got himself the kind of national attention that can only help him in the endorsement drive, and he also placed himself in the role of David against the NCAA's Goliath, an organization whose public job-approval rating generally falls somewhere between Not Acceptable and Y'all Stay Here While I Fetch My Gun.

You'd almost be tempted, amid the flow of ink directed favorably toward Bloom, to forget that there's a reason the NCAA doesn't want its athletes connected with individual endorsements in any way. You'd almost be tempted to declare Bloom's case no different from that of an NCAA football player who -- with the association's blessing -- plays minor-league baseball on the side, collecting paychecks along the way.

But it is different, of course. It's as different as night and day, clean and corrupt. The difference is that endorsement money can be manipulated and sent down side roads in ways the casual fan might never consider. It's the NCAA's job to consider that kind of rot, and to act against it in every way possible.

Let us agree that Jeremy Bloom is on the up and up, a young man who is simply trying to find a way to do two things he loves. Let's declare Bloom to be as honest as the snow is white. He poses no threat to the sanctity of an NCAA football game just because he takes money from Dynastar or some SUV-maker to support his ski dreams. If the issue were only about Bloom, then it'd be a slam dunk.

Unfortunately for Bloom, the issue isn't only about him. It's about every potential endorser who finds in an athlete's "second love" an avenue to exploit a program. It's about the local ski outfitter who, say, decides to throw some endorsement money in Bloom's direction and who also -- coincidence of coincidences! -- happens to hold season tickets to Colorado football games.

Not that I'm suggesting college sports boosters would ever seek to find a loophole through which to funnel goodies to top athletes. But, just in case, is not the NCAA on the right side of the concern here? Didn't the assocation spend the past decade coming to a real recognition of the sleazy underbelly of boosterism in college sports? Isn't that the reason so many athletic programs today are controlled by university presidents, no matter how clumsy and ill-structured that arrangement becomes?

It isn't about Jeremy Bloom. It's about fighting off potential corruption wherever it's found. It has nothing to do with a 100 percent guarantee of purity in college athletics, a laudable but utterly unattainable goal. But it almost certainly has something to do with looking forward and seeing the myriad ways in which such a seemingly benign grant -- let Jeremy Bloom do what he wants! He's a great kid! -- could become twisted and used to sham the NCAA.

Look, it's no fun agreeing with an institution. It's so much more interesting to take the side of the individual. Jeremy Bloom, a bright young man with a bright future, is certainly smart enough to know all that, and he's currently reaping the benefit of strong public sentiment flowing his way. Beyond all that, there's no future arguing in favor of the NCAA's rulebook, a thing so byzantine you need an interpreter to read the table of contents.

But there is a reason college sports stands against accepting individual endorsements, and it's as obvious as a stone-broke kid suddenly driving a Cadillac Escalade. The reason is the potential for corruption -- if not in Bloom's case, then in someone's.

The rule is certainly extreme. It might even be absurd, as Tulane sports law professor Gary Roberts called it. But it is also both clear and functional. Jeremy Bloom wants someone to tell him it's OK to skirt the rule. I wouldn't count on the NCAA's executives, no matter how much they like Bloom, to be at the front of that line.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist wityh the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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