NCAA’s message in the Gurley case: Honesty doesn’t pay

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Todd Gurley didn't catch a break from the NCAA despite his honesty. (Associated Press)
Todd Gurley didn't catch a break from the NCAA despite his honesty. (Associated Press)

Todd Gurley didn’t catch a break from the NCAA despite his honesty. (Associated Press)

For those who prefer to dwell on the positive, you can check out my Blawg on favorite plays from the Georgia-Florida series over the years here. For the rest of you, here are some thoughts on UGA’s latest unsatisfactory interaction with the NCAA …

Let’s say you’re the next high-profile college athlete who runs afoul of the NCAA rule against profiting from your own name and image (and Todd Gurley surely won’t be the last). Are you going to follow the admit-everything-and-throw-yourself-on-the-mercy-of-the-NCAA approach taken by UGA and Gurley, or are you going to opt for the deny-everything model that’s worked so well for Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston?

It’s absurd that Georgia and Gurley are being hammered by the NCAA in this case while FSU skates and apparently will never receive any sort of punishment or even scrutiny from the organization.

Jameis Winston provides the model: Deny everything. (Associated Press)

Jameis Winston provides the model: Deny everything. (Associated Press)

It seems that, unless you self-report, the NCAA doesn’t make a move.

Yes, Georgia’s hand was forced in this case by the disgruntled memorabilia dealer who was contacting media outlets saying Gurley had sold autographs. But I’d be surprised if there was any hard evidence of that fact, considering these are usually cash-only deals.

So, if Gurley hadn’t confessed, Georgia could have reported back to the NCAA like FSU did (“nothing to see here; move along”) and the star tailback could have continued to play, like Johnny Football did (for all but one half) and like Florida State’s poster boy for clean living is still doing.

Gurley must suffer for his own honesty.

I’m not suggesting UGA should have ignored evidence of a violation of the rules, definitive or not. But I believe a system that penalizes honesty is fatally flawed.

The lesson schools and athletes can take from today’s NCAA sermon: It’s best for the athlete to deny everything and the school to look the other way. Otherwise, you could wind up with your best player suspended for four games instead of heading to the playoff without skipping a beat.

It’s bad enough that Gurley has to sit for four games for simply doing what UGA and the NCAA do: profit off his name. But the additional requirement that he do 40 hours of “community service” is an arrogant move on the NCAA’s part. I understand that the intent is that the athlete has to pay back all the “profits” from his misdeed, and, in lieu of cash, community service is thrown into the mix.

But it treats Gurley like he broke the law, which he did not. The NCAA’s standing in these affairs is simply that of an association the school belongs to. Considering the obvious injustice of the NCAA plantation system, such a punishment is particularly galling.

Yes, Gurley was incredibly shortsighted (in terms of his Heisman Trophy prospects) and selfish (in terms of his team’s goals), but he no doubt looked around, saw a bunch of other in-demand athletes doing the same thing, and, in the wake of the Johnny Football affair, figured: What will I get, maybe suspended for half a game?

Johnny Manziel was suspended for only half a game for selling autographs. (Associated Press)

Johnny Manziel was suspended for only half a game for selling autographs. (Associated Press)

The fact that the NCAA rule is unfair — and probably will be loosened considerably, if not abandoned, in the relatively near future — does not let Gurley completely off the hook. But his frankness in admitting his transgressions, compared with the way Manziel and Winston handled it, should have counted for something.

As for UGA, the behavior of athletic officials there over the past week was just plain bizarre. This result is consistent with the worst fears that were bandied about right after the story broke, and yet after submitting their findings to the NCAA, Georgia officials acted like they expected Gurley back for the Florida game, even moving J.J. Green back to defense from the depleted tailback corps.

Perhaps they were gambling that the overwhelming public sentiment against this rule in the wake of the announcement of Gurley’s suspension, added to the contrast with the way FSU has thumbed their nose at the NCAA, would result in a lesser penalty. Or maybe they’re just terrible at reading the NCAA.

But they should have remembered: They’re at UGA, which helped lead the revolt years ago that stripped the NCAA of control over college football’s ultra lucrative TV rights. Georgia is never going to get a break from this organization.

However unfair, the perception among many out there in the Bulldog Nation is that Greg McGarity and his folks botched the handling of the Gurley case. Once their appeal of the NCAA ruling is denied, as it no doubt will be, McGarity would help his standing with his own fan base considerably if he comes out and strongly condemns a system in which self-reporting and honesty hurt you while openly flouting the rules like FSU does allows you to go on your merry way.

It would help calm some of the fire directed at McGarity and also would help really start a much-needed conversation on whether the NCAA is still a viable regulator of college sports.

Based on what we’ve seen from McGarity in the past, I don’t expect that to happen, but it ought to. It’s not like UGA could suffer any more in its standing with the NCAA as a result of such a move, and it would be an opportunity for McGarity and the school to show leadership in the campaign to get rid of such antiquated and unfair rules and turn the spotlight on the inconsistent way the NCAA handles “enforcement.”

As a friend put it today, it’s understood that Gurley broke the rules, but the NCAA enforcement model is broken, essentially relying on the rule-breakers to report their own crimes. So, the honest programs like UGA get punished while the outlaws flourish.

“I don’t mind getting punished as long as the playing field is level,” my friend said, but “it clearly isn’t.”

Next time: How this could affect Georgia against the Gators.

Go Dogs! Beat Florida!

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg


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