The NCAA's Pressure Defense

The case of football player Steven Rhodes shows public pressure can push the NCAA to be less terrible.

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This Aug. 16, 2013 photo shows former Marine and walk-on freshman NCAA college football player Steven Rhodes in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The NCAA says it's working with Middle Tennessee and hasn't made a final decision on the eligibility of Rhodes, a freshman attempting to play after serving five years in the Marines.

Yesterday, the NCAA came to its senses and announced that Steven Rhodes – an ex-marine looking to play football at Middle Tennessee State – will be eligible for the upcoming college season. For a moment, it looked like the NCAA might bar Rhodes from playing because – get this – he had participated in a recreational football league on his military base.

"It wasn't semi-pro, I didn't get paid for it. It was just an intramural league to build comradery between troops," Rhodes said. The NCAA originally ruled that it would force Rhodes to forfeit two years of eligibility, as well as take a mandatory redshirt year (during which he wouldn't be allowed to play in any actual games), due to his participation in the recreational league.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should NCAA Athletes Be Paid?]

It took less than 24 hours for the NCAA to reverse course and decide that it would not keep Rhodes off the field, though the usual appeals process typically takes much longer than that. How much of the NCAA's quick turnaround was due to public pressure? Well, it probably didn't hurt Rhodes' case that, in addition to the media attention he received, a U.S. Representative, Tennessee Republican Scott DesJarlais, and a U.S. Senator, Arizona Republican John McCain, were publicly scolding the NCAA on his behalf.

NCAA should allow Steven Rhodes to play - don’t penalize him for serving his country

— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 19, 2013

As if we needed more evidence, this incident really does show that the NCAA's mantra about preserving amateurism is rank nonsense. (What possible harm would be done to the NCAA if someone who had played in a military league, even if he was paid, then came and played college football?) Furthermore, it shows that public pressure applied correctly can get the NCAA to change its mind in a hot second.

But the far more interesting NCAA case going forward is that of Johnny Manziel, the Heisman trophy winning quarterback of Texas A&M. The NCAA is investigating whether Manziel accepted money in exchange for signing autographs last year, which would be a clear violation of the NCAA's rules against players receiving compensation.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Yes, Manziel probably should have known better. Plus, he's heading to the National Football League, barring a catastrophic injury, and probably didn't need the money, making his move even more boneheaded.

But the NCAA, along with Texas A&M, are making boatloads of cash off of Manziel, on everything from video games and television broadcasts to merchandise and jerseys. The only one not profiting from Manziel's labor every Saturday is Manziel himself; according to a recent report, the average amount lost by a player in college football's top-tier is $715,000 over a four-year career. (I know he gets a scholarship, but c'mon.)

After the Manziel investigation came to light, ESPN's Jay Bilas expertly exposed the NCAA's hypocrisy by showing that typing "Manziel" into the NCAA's online search engine gave one the opportunity to buy tons of merchandise that, it just so happens, featured Manziel's team and jersey number. In that instance, too, the NCAA quickly responded by deciding to no longer allow shoppers to purchase jerseys through its website.

The moral of the story is that, with enough public pressure, the NCAA can eventually be forced into doing the right thing. Today, that's good news for Steven Rhodes; hopefully somewhere down the line, it becomes good news for all the athletes who are putting their bodies on the line so that the NCAA can reap a profit.

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