Published February 21, 2012 - 9:22pm
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Nick Saban is a bully and a hypocrite who won the national championship last season. Randy Edsall is a bully and a hypocrite who won two games last season. That distinction makes Edsdall, entering his second season at Maryland, a prime target for media pundits forever in search of reasons to condemn college football. It also shows how skewed the media’s priorities are when it comes to dealing with injustices, real and imagined.
No, you can’t transfer to Vanderbilt
Edsall’s most recent sin, according to his critics, was his conditional release of several scholarship players, including former Maryland starting quarterback Danny O’Brien. Edsall himself confirmed to Comcast SportsNet that he had “stipulations” for releasing O’Brien — meaning there was a list of schools he could not immediately accepts athletic scholarships from. Edsall would not say what schools were on the list, but numerous media reports said it included other ACC schools, Maryland’s future non-conference opponents and, most notably, Vanderbilt. The only connection between Maryland and Vanderbilt is Commodores head coach James Franklin, who was previously the offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting for the Terrapins. Franklin recruited O’Brien to Maryland.
Let’s establish the regulatory framework. As a general rule, if a player transfers from a four-year school to another four-year school, he must be enrolled for one academic year at his new school before he can play football again. This rule only applies to the four moneymaking sports: FBS football, baseball, basketball and men’s ice hockey. During this one-year period, the new school cannot provide an athletic scholarship to the transferring student.
There’s an exception to this rule that O’Brien reportedly wants to invoke. If he completes his bachelor’s degree at Maryland this semester, he can receive a “one-time transfer exception” under NCAA rules that would allow him to enroll as a graduate student at another school and play right away.
But there’s another set of rules that affect O’Brien’s ability to accept a scholarship from Vanderbilt or any other school. NCAA recruiting rules state a school’s athletic staff may not “make contact with” another school’s players without “written permission” from that school. “If permission is not granted,” the rule states, “the second institution shall not encourage the transfer and the institution shall not provide athletically related financial assistance” until the student had completed a year at the new school. In other words, O’Brien can transfer to any school and play right away, but he cannot receive an athletic scholarship without a written release from Maryland. He could, however, receive academic and need-based financial aid.
Like many coaches, Edsall selectively granted permission to some schools but not others. O’Brien can ask for a hearing to review Edsall’s denials, and under NCAA rules, that appeal is heard by “an institutional entity or committee outside the athletics department.”
As far as NCAA rules are concerned, Edsall acted well within his authority. The rule does not limit the reasons a coach may invoke for denying written permission. If, as some pundits charge, Edsall put Vanderbilt on the “no-scholarship” list simply because he simply doesn’t want O’Brien excelling under former Maryland assistant Franklin, that may be unethical, but it’s not illegal.
Edsall has also come under fire for accepting transfers from New Mexico, where new Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley was head coach last year. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg complained, “Evidently, Maryland thinks it’s perfectly fine for players to transfer into its program to play for a former coach, but terribly wrong for players to transfer out of its program to play for a former coach.” This ignores the fact that New Mexico has the same right as Maryland to deny written permission for any other school to contact or recruit their players. (I also believe the New Mexico transfers did not invoke the graduate exception, so they’ll be ineligible for one year at Maryland.)
On Twitter, Rosenberg added that Edsall had “absolutely no defense whatsoever” for denying O’Brien permission to accept a scholarship from Vanderbilt. But Edsall may have had a very good reason. Remember, the point of the NCAA rule is to prevent schools from actively recruiting players under scholarship with another institution. If Edsall believed Vanderbilt’s Franklin was somehow jumping the gun — or possibly encouraging O’Brien to request a transfer — then Edsall wasn’t just complying with the letter of the law, but the spirit as well.
Now, I don’t know if Franklin did anything along those lines. The issue isn’t what I believe, it’s what Edsall believes. Unfortunately, Rosenberg and his fellow pundits have jumped to the conclusion — without knowing the facts themselves — that Edsall had no rational basis to conclude Franklin may have been improperly recruiting one of his players.
The problem here isn’t what Edsdall did. It’s that he (a) didn’t win a lot of games last year and (b) didn’t do enough to ingratiate himself to the local and national press corps. You can get away with one of these when you’re a head coach, but not both. The circumstances surrounding Edsall’s hiring last year hasn’t helped. Edsall was essentially the second choice, after Mike Leach, to replace the popular Ralph Friedgen, who was unceremoniously dumped by Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson.
That said, even if Edsall did not abuse his authority, it’s still fair to question the underlying rule that gave him that authority. There’s nothing wrong with the press highlighting what appears, on the surface, to be an unfair rule. What I find interesting is that, given the rush to declare Edsall a “self-serving, hypocritical turd” (as Michael Rosenberg put it), the press seems far less concerned with other apparent unfair acts that impact the sports world.
Let’s consider the aforementioned Mike Leach, who interviewed for the Maryland job and was thought to be the early front-runner. What scared Maryland away was Leach’s controversial firing by Texas Tech and the resulting litigation. Leach claimed Texas Tech officials deceived him into signing a contract that the school had no intention of honoring. When Leach subsequently sued for breach of contract, a Texas appeals court threw out the case on “sovereign immunity” grounds. That is, even if Leach’s claims were valid, he couldn’t pursue them in a Texas court because as a state institution, Texas Tech enjoys the state’s immunity from such suits. “That the State is not acting as a sovereign (but rather a private party),” wrote the court, which was composed entirely of Texas Tech graduates, “when withholding money due under a contract but nonetheless enjoys immunity from suit for withholding that money because it is deemed the sovereign is somewhat of a contradiction.” Or as a sportswriter would call it, hypocrisy.
Now, if you ask me, the Leach case is a far greater injustice than the O’Brien situation. Here you have a court saying a contract with a state institution is not legally enforceable because of an antiquated legal doctrine. But the Leach case barely registered in the press, in large part because the country’s largest sports media outlet, ESPN, had a direct hand in getting Leach fired in the first place. (Leach continues to pursue a separate defamation case against ESPN.)
On a slightly less alarming note, the same pundits who rail against Edsall and the evils of the NCAA tend to be less critical when similar policies are pursued by professional sports leagues like the NFL. Consider the NFL’s “restricted free agency” and “franchise tag” policies, which I wrote about recently:
The [Philadelphia] Eagles drafted [DeSean] Jackson in 2008. At that time, the NFL clubs were governed under the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council. Jackson was not a party to this agreement, as he was not a professional player at the time. Nonetheless, federal law required him to abide by the CBA’s terms, which permitted the NFL to allocate new players via a draft. Jackson either had to sign a contract with the Eagles — the terms of which were further restricted by the 2006 CBA — or not play in the NFL at all in 2008. He signed a four-year contract that expired after the 2011 season.
After the 2010 season, the NFLMC terminated the 2006 CBA and “locked out” Jackson and the other players, ignoring the fact he remained under personal contract with the Eagles. The NFLMC’s actions were expressly designed to coerce the NFLPA into signing a new CBA more favorable to the NFLMC. The NFLPA initially responded by disclaiming its status as a federally recognized labor union. A group of players, in concert with NFLPA leaders, then filed an antitrust lawsuit, arguing the league’s business practices were no longer immune from the Sherman Act absent a collective bargaining process.
Despite the legal fiction the NFLPA no longer functioned as a union, lawyers working at their direction negotiated a “settlement” to the antitrust lawsuit that included a new CBA. The NFLMC then imposed the 2011 CBA terms on existing contracts, including Jackson’s, negotiated under the now-defunct 2006 CBA. That included the franchise tag (which also existed under the 2006 CBA).
At any point, it’s not clear how Jackson could have granted “consent” to the Eagles’ ability to unilaterally prevent him from seeking employment elsewhere after his contract expired. Even before he joined the NFL, the NFLPA assumed the “right” to negotiate on his behalf without his express consent. The Eagles and the NFL were allowed to blatantly ignore their own player contracts when they imposed a lockout after voluntarily and prematurely terminating the 2006 CBA. And there’s little reason to believe Jackson had any meaningful role in negotiating the 2011 CBA. The lawyers drafted the agreement and then quickly organized a mass player vote where a simple majority could legally bind any dissenters.
And most egregiously, the “franchise player” provision of the CBA is, by definition, selectively enforced. It’s not as if all players whose contracts expired after 2011 are subject to it. A club can only designate one such player each season. Even conceding the entire CBA process is legitimate, if the provisions don’t equally apply to every person covered, that’s inherently suspect from the standpoint of ascertaining consent.
It would be one thing if Jackson signed a player contract that expressly said there was a team option to extend the term for one year. That would demonstrate a clear “meeting of the minds” in the course of negotiations. But here, the contract provided for an express term that ended after 2011, and the Eagles are now claiming a right, that wasn’t directly negotiated with Jackson, to extend the agreement against his will. On the surface, that looks like fraud to me.
This sounds suspiciously similar to the NCAA transfer rules that are the subject of universal press condemnation. But aside from a recent Howard Bryant column at ESPN, I rarely see anyone claim the NFL’s “franchise tag” policies are hypocritical and unjust. This is due largely to the press’s subjective valuation of college players as more deserving of sympathy than professional players. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It’s also the case, as we saw in the aftermath of the 2011 lockout, that the press is simply more predisposed to give the NFL the benefit of the doubt. When the NFL does something, it’s brilliant marketing. When the NCAA does something similar, it’s a sign of the apocalypse.
The Edsall-O’Brien affaur also shows how the media’s natural reaction to any dispute is to reduce it to a contrast of simple personalities: the brutish coach versus the All-American kid. It’s a chore to actually look at the underlying policies involved and assess them in context. It’s easier just to engage in childish name-calling: Randy Edsall is a turd, and that’s all there is to it.