You know the NCAA rule book is confusing when multiple people looking at the same situation and the same set of rules all arrive at different conclusions. And that’s just what’s happening when it comes to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and the NCAA’s investigation into his many, many signed and numbered autographs.
Bruce Feldman of CBSSports.com recently reached out to the assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University. Dr. David Ridpath, according to Feldman, is “an expert on NCAA and compliance issues.” So what’s Dr. Ridpath’s take on the current Manziel mess?
Asked specifically about the Cam Newton loophole — which has supposedly been closed by a new rule — in relation to Manziel’s high school friend and sorta/kinda manager, Nate Fitch, Dr. Ridpath sees an escape route for the elusive QB:
“I think this is the get out of jail free card — if there is no evidence pointing to Johnny’s knowledge and/or actual evidence of payment or perks, then this may all be a moot point. If I am A&M, I am praying to a higher authority this works out — and frankly the NCAA is hoping the same thing. Johnny may know, but if Fitch takes the bullet or truly acted on his own without any knowledge from Manziel than I think we have a simple eligibility restoration process and he misses zero games.
If there was some or even overt knowledge, I think the NCAA invokes the “Sugar Bowl” rule and figures out a way to let him play or just miss one or two games. The NCAA wants no part of this and is desperately hanging on to amateurism and they are losing grip every day.
If Johnny is suspended for a length of time — the impact would be huge, but there might be a larger victory in that we can finally decide to let players capitalize on their own marketing utility and restrictions like this are silly. No one cares if he or the OSU players profited off their likeness — we will still watch A&M versus Alabama. That’s the bottom line — but in the present A&M has to deal with the crazy system we have and if they can pawn it off on Fitch or someone else — this might be Johnny Football’s greatest escape.
Also — in defense of the NCAA — they cannot win regardless of what is decided, but it is the world we live in.”
So we’ve got a rule book. That rule book has a new rule to prevent family members or handlers from acting as agents for athletes and asking for cash. Yet the NCAA — because no one wants to bench Johnny Football — is going to ignore that rule and let him play anyway?
If Dr. Ridpath is correct — and he probably is — this NCAA ruling will be just as much of a sham as its rulings in the Cam Newton, Tattoo-gate, and Penn State scandals.
Personally, I hope that Manziel is cleared and does play this season. I think most people hope the young man will play. He may find all kinds of ways to keep himself in the news, but at the end of the day he’s still a fun guy to watch play.
I just hope he can play because he and his pal didn’t ask for cash, not because the NCAA’s searching feverishly for a way to ignore it’s own rules. If that’s the goal, however, it should be easy for the governing body to interpret its rule book in such way that Manziel can play.
Let’s take a quick look at what the NCAA’s 2012-13 manual has to say about the “Use of Agents” and how agents are defined:
12.02.1 Agent: An agent is any individual who, directly or indirectly:
a) Represents or attempts to represent an individual for the purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability or reputation for financial gain; or
b) Seeks to obtain any type of financial gain or benefit from securing a prospective student-athlete’s enrollment at an educational institution or from a student-athlete’s potential earnings as a professional athlete.
12.02.1.1 Application: An agent may include, but is not limited to, a certified contract advisor, financial advisor, marketing representative, brand manager or anyone who is employed or associated with such persons.
Let’s stop there for a second. According to Wright Thompson’s deep-dive into Manziel’s life for ESPN The Magazine, Nate Fitch — or “Uncle Nate” as he’s called by friends — is Manziel’s “personal assistant” and “high school buddy.” Thompson wrote that Fitch “dropped out of school this year to act as Johnny’s assistant and manager, handling media requests and helping coordinate” bodyguards for Manziel.
If the NCAA wants to live up to the letter of its recently-written law, it will view Fitch — if it’s found he asked for cash in exchange for his pal’s autograph — as an agent via clause 12.02.1 (a) above.
If the NCAA would prefer to look the other way on this, it could simply claim that it does not view Fitch as an agent. Easy enough. That would open the door for other “buddies” of student-athletes to start sticking their hands out in cash-for-autograph schemes, but when has the NCAA ever thought two steps ahead on anything?
Back to the rule book…
12.3.1 General Rule: An individual shall be ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport if he or she ever has agreed (orally or in writing) to be represented by an agent for the purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability or reputation in that sport. Further, an agency contract not specifically limited in writing to a sport or particular sports shall be deemed applicable to all sports, and the individual shall be ineligible to participate in any sport.
And there’s another loophole that the NCAA can use to get out of this mess.
If an agent is anyone close to a player who tries to make a buck off of that player’s athletic ability, Fitch would surely apply. He’s with Manziel on a regular basis and even quit school to act as his handler. And if he asked for cash for autographs, that should be viewed as marketing the “ability or reputation” of Johnny Football. But it doesn’t have to be viewed in that fashion.
It appears the NCAA can rather easily state that Fitch was trying to make money off of his friend’s reputation, but he was not marketing his friend’s reputation (as in promoting that reputation). Churning out thousands of autographed items would seem to me be marketing one’s reputation, but if the NCAA wants to let this slide, it can take the opposite view.
Again, I hope Manziel is allowed to play this year. But he should not be allowed to play if Fitch asked for cash for autographs.
But the NCAA rule book remains murky. And college sports’ governing body continues to be consistently inconsistent when it comes to rule book interpretations. So we expect Manziel — like Newton and the Ohio State tattoo patrol before him — to be cleared in the end.
Just one thing is certain in all of this, though — if Fitch asked for cash and Manziel is still deemed eligible, the Cam Newton loophole was never actually closed. Three years later, people can still argue over whether or not a player knew someone was making money off of him. People can still argue about the definition of the word “agent” and of the word “marketing.”
So it appears that the NCAA’s rule book is really just one giant loophole after another. And if Dr. Ridpath is correct, it won’t be long before the NCAA allows Manziel to slip through one of them and break into open field.