Oversigning: The unexamined immorality of the SEC

After putting on a 60-minute clinic on smash mouth football on Saturday, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama left a ton of college football fans anxious for a rematch between the two, this time for all the marbles, in January. Even though I’m one of the biggest fans of Southeastern Conference football in the Northeast, I just can’t agree with that.

This has nothing to do with my distaste for the Bowl Championship Series system, nor with the fact that my beloved Georgia Bulldogs haven’t been in the BCS conversation since 2007. It has everything to do with the practice of oversigning, which primarily gained exposure from blogs and message boards in the past few years, and is gradually making its way into the national spotlight.

The NCAA allows each university 85 football roster spots per season. Each year, coaches devote dozens of hours per week recruiting high school players with attrition in mind, i.e. players graduating or leaving early for the NFL. Schools are allotted 25 scholarships for freshmen, but some coaches have found a way to exploit this regulation. The main culprits can be found in the SEC’s western division in schools such as Alabama and LSU. These schools sign players in order to gain a competitive advantage or to protect their programs from crippling attrition by unethical roster management. Each spring, teams go through attrition by way of transfers, arrests, players quitting, medical hardships or academic ineligibility. The NCAA does not require coaches to reveal the exact details behind each player’s departure to the media. Thanks to these freedoms, coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban and LSU’s Les Miles have developed reputations as shady roster managers.

Saban has issued at least 12 medical hardship scholarships in his four short years at Alabama, while the rest of the SEC combined for 23 in that span. Former players have expressed disgust with these decisions, some claiming that Saban encouraged them to quit because of problems they believed they could have played through. Others were flat-out told that their spot would be taken by a more talented player.

At a school like Alabama, arguably the most successful school of the past half-decade in terms of recruiting, oversigning serves as the gift that keeps on giving. Every offseason, the coaches purge the roster of the dead weight, and as long as they keep winning, more and more five-star caliber players will want to jump on the bandwagon.

The saddening part of this cycle, however, is that no matter how many kids lose their scholarships, the nation’s best recruits will work as hard as the can in the weight rooms and on the field to get a shot to play for Saban, because virtually no athlete skilled enough to earn a scholarship from a school like Alabama or LSU considers the possibility that he won’t eventually become an All-American, first-round draft pick. Most of these kids are totally unaware that an athletic scholarship is not a four-year agreement, but a one-year agreement subject to yearly renewal.

To be such a die-hard college football fan at a time like this is morally conflicting, to say the least. The average college football fan will regurgitate ESPN talking heads’ rhetoric on the state of college athletics, while ignoring the ambiguity of the term “student-athlete” to begin with — a term originally created in order to deny injured players workers’ compensation. Realizing that none the revenue that fans like myself generate actually goes in the pockets of the kids who deserve it is bad enough. The most disturbing part of it all is that the blatant absence of morality exhibited by coaches is constantly overlooked by the media, whereas illicit payment scandals at schools such as Ohio State and the University of Miami are not.

I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of morally reprehensible acts committed by the NCAA, and while I might not be able to convince you, maybe this quote from a memoir by Walter Byers, the NCAA’s inaugural executive director, may be of some assistance: “The college player cannot sell his own feet; the coach does that. Nor can he sell his own name; the college will do that. That is the plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today’s campus executives.”

The term student-athlete is deliberately ambiguous. College players aren’t students at play, for that understates their athletic obligations. Nor are they just athletes in college, however, for that implies professionalism. Since they are great athletes, they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers. But because they are students, they do not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies.

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