The big news in college football the past couple of days has been the report that Coach Rich Rodriguez and the University of Michigan football program have been systematically cheating by mandating that players participate in football activities for hours well in excess of the daily and weekly limits set by NCAA rules. It has been surprising to me that much of the early spin from the talking heads at places like ESPN has largely been of the "If you're not cheating, you're not trying" variety. Commentators are basically accusing the former and current Michigan football players of whining about the hard work required to play Division I football, even at a lesser program like Michigan's. (Cheap shot. Sorry. Not.)
Here, very quickly, is why I think the current scandal at UM ought to be taken very seriously.
1. It's an integrity issue. As an NCAA institution, Michigan has agreed to abide by a certain set of rules. If they knowingly and consistently break those rules they are cheaters, and it is fair to call their integrity into question. If I were a UM official, employee, alumnus or student, I would probably not want my University's integrity ridiculed. This doesn't appear to be an isolated incident either, as Dick Rod's integrity has been questioned since the day he left West Virginia for Michigan (and tried to renege on his contract buyout clause at WVU).
2. Competitive balance. There's a group of football players at Western Michigan University who are getting ready to play the Wolverines this Saturday. The Broncos already have to contend with playing against a team full of superior athletes. Now they have to contend with playing a team full of superior athletes that is breaking the rules to gain an unfair competitive advantage. That sucks for WMU, and it isn't fair to any team on Michigan's schedule (including Notre Dame). Do you remember how OUTRAGEOUS steroid use was in baseball, because it created an unfair competitive advantage? How OUTRAGEOUS the New England Patriots' filming from the sidelines was because it created an unfair competitive advantage? Consistently getting more hours of supervised workouts or mandatory training or coaching sessions in each week is an unfair advantage every bit as serious as either of those situations.
3. These are STUDENT athletes. At least they are supposed to be. Michigan has already been identified as one of the football factories that steers its players (mostly its black players) into worthless academic majors, and then fails to graduate them. They are already under criticism for sacrificing the education of their student athletes on the altar of football, so you would think that UM administrators would be paying a little more attention to the academic progress of their student athletes. Even at a school like Michigan, only a handful of players will ever play football professionally. The vast majority of student athletes will need to find another way to make a living, and they SHOULD be able to fall back on a Michigan education. I have no doubt that Dick Rod and his assistant coaches go into the homes of their targeted high school recruits and sell the academic excellence of the University of Michigan. No doubt they promise these kids' moms & dads that their son will get a world class education at U of M. But if the football coaches are placing unreasonable and illegal demands on the students' time, it is clear that the coach and the University do not consider actual education to be a high priority. Which is a moral problem as well as an integrity problem.
If these allegations about Coach Rodriguez and U of M prove to be true, I hope Dick Rod is humiliated and unceremoniously fired. Cheating should not be tolerated. Cheating that deprives student athletes of the opportunity to actually get the world class education they have been promised should be punished.