So I took some time away from The Hip for the holidays and a whole lot has happened since the last time I put fingers to keys. The NBA season is hitting its stride, college hoops have begun in earnest, the Winter Classic went down on a cold night in Pittsburgh, and the college football bowl season has damn near reached its end. Beyond all of that, the biggest story that popped up from my perspective is of course the suspension of five members of the Ohio State Buckeyes football team for the first five games of the 2011 season.

The news broke on my birthday, December 23rd, and as an unmitigated Buckeye fan, there was nothing that could've spoiled my born day more. Not only did I learn that five members of my favorite team in all of sports would miss the first five games of next season, but I learned that among them were the Buckeyes' top running back, wide receiver, and our star quarterback, Terrelle Pryor. The players involved in the suspensions were found to have sold several of their trophies and awards earned during their college careers and to have traded autographs for tattoos and other discounts. 

After the shock wore off, I started thinking more and more about the situation from a non-Buckeye fan perspective. The whole thing leaves me confused, angry, and frustrated. I was of course disappointed in the guys from my team for making some truly bonehead moves, but as a guy that follows sports and especially college football with a religious enthusiasm, I can't help but be most puzzled with the increasingly hypocritical way in which the NCAA doles out punishment.

First of all, the players involved in the scandal will be permitted to play in the team's bowl game, the Sugar Bowl, which takes place tomorrow night in New Orleans against the Arkansas Razorbacks. As a fan, I want nothing more than to see my guys get to play, but as a realist, I know in my heart that if they're going to miss the first five games of next season, there is no earthly reason they should be allowed to play in the bowl game, which if you believe what the NCAA consistently tells the media, is a reward to the school and in particular the players for a spectacular season on the gridiron.

The student athletes from OSU involved in this whole shitstorm do not, in my eyes, deserve anything resembling a reward for what they have done. It turns out that the violations they are being punished for occurred in 2009 and that the items that they sold for thousands of dollars are awards and trophies that include those given to them for past bowl appearances as members of the Buckeye football team. Now that just doesn't smell right from the jump, but it stinks for more reasons beyond the obvious (that being the fact that they sold-out on the rewards previously given them, only to be rewarded with another bowl appearance and a list of new swag that comes to all athletes participating in bowl games).

Pushing beyond the fact that the players will be allowed to participate in the game and collect its accompanying perks, the whole situation raises numerous red flags because of the way the NCAA continues to shift the way it punishes schools and athletes according to the ring of theirs and the television networks' cash registers. The bowl games are incredibly big business, bringing in millions of dollars for the schools, networks, the NCAA and of course, the organized crime syndicate that calls itself the Bowl Championship Series

If Boom Herron, Devier Posey, and Terrelle Pryor hadn't been Ohio State's leading runner, receiver, and pass-thrower respectively, I doubt that we would see them tomorrow night in the Sugar Bowl. But because the bowl system is reliant on television contracts and the resulting revenue, the players will be on display because of their star-power and to ensure a more competitive game. The Sugar Bowl president has already come forward and said as much, and I'm sure ESPN (who will broadcast the game) is thinking the same thing to themselves, even as they devote their networks' echo-chamber to reporting the story ad nauseum. 

This whole situation stinks to high heaven, but it isn't the first time the NCAA has picked and chosen who to punish and to what extent. What I keep coming back to in regards to the institutions and athletes involved is my old man's favorite words of advice: 

Heed the voice.

My father is always ready with a piece of advice when I need it, but usually boils things down to that simple dictum in more cases than not.

What he means by that is: get to know your conscience, because it has an uncanny ability to steer you in the right direction. The voice inside your head seems to be indelibly linked to your brain's moral compass, no matter how often yours points towards the right thing to do. It's a simple acid test anytime you're faced with a decision between right and wrong. Despite any rationale or gimmick you may use to force yourself into the wrong move, that voice, that immutable internal dialogue that is always going on in your head, it knows which decision is the right one. It's up to us all to listen and act accordingly.

That said, the players involved in this scandal had to know that they were making bad decisions, even if they felt they were not in the wrong (for though they have apologized, some have indicated that the items sold were theirs after all, and they do have families back home that might be struggling). Selling the trophies and awards you've earned, no matter what the reason you may give, is wrong however, and their internal voices all knew it. 

Not only that, but getting tattoos in exchange for jerseys or autographs or their notoriety in general (which are among the other NCAA violations that resulted in punishment) is wrong, and they knew that too. It doesn't matter if a coach or advisor hasn't spelled out the letter of the NCAA law to the players regarding such actions, they knew what they were doing was wrong. They had to have known and as such, deserve whatever punishment follows. 

But that doesn't mean they're the only ones misreading their moral compasses. The NCAA and the BCS are made up of boards and committees, which are in turn made up of individuals. The individuals who make the decisions that govern these institutions prove in this case and many others (AJ Green comes to mind) that they refuse to heed the voice as well. They have to know that they have created a corrupt, money-hungry system that does not reward the student athlete, the university, or the fan, but instead continues to pad their pockets and increase their level of power over college football and in a broader sense, college athletics as a whole.

Perhaps they are listening to a voice, but it is the ghostly howl of dead presidents, not the admonishing din of their collective consciences.

By allowing the five suspended Buckeyes to play in the Sugar Bowl and by sweeping the allegations against the sport's biggest star, Cam Newton (who you may remember from a couple posts back...), under the rug because of his team's appearance in the National Championship Game, the NCAA and the BCS are ignoring the cause of morality and justice in order to garner the highest possible ratings and reap the continuing financial gains that are a direct result of the on-field ability of the student athletes involved in the games in question.

There are now generations-old debates about whether student athletes (especially those involved in the two big money-making sports - basketball and football) should be paid a stipend in addition to their scholarships while attending school, but I don't think I've got time to sort all of that out in a book, let alone a blog post. All I will say is that if you're going to make near-criminal amounts of money off of these kids and expect them not to do a bit of paper chasing of their own, you're delusional at best and outwardly hypocritical at worse.

Sure, my knucklehead Buckeyes didn't heed the voice, but they only learned that ignorance from their NCAA and BCS parents, who never stood on the kind of moral ground necessary to offer that sage piece of the old man's advice.

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