A bad precedent for the NFL

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As pro football’s first Sunday gets underway this weekend, there will be more than a few of the league’s employees missing from the sidelines. And no, I’m not talking about the absence of Peyton Manning from the Indianapolis Colts lineup for the first time since the Clinton administration.

Instead, I’m referring to Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel, a quarterback and his former head coach. It’s a pair who by all rights ought to be in the process of challenging for a national championship in college football at Ohio State, but instead find themselves scrambling to salvage their careers in the National Football League. And thanks to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, there’s going to be a significant delay before those careers get started.

The situation will be more than familiar to anyone who’s ever followed college football, where the clean programs are all alike and the dirty programs are all dirty in their own way. In short, Pryor and a passel of his teammates got caught — with the help of a U.S. attorney — trading autographed Ohio State items for favors at a tattoo parlor. Instead of turning his players in, Tressel tried to cover it up, which as we all know is normally considered to be a transgression worse than the original “crime.”

You’ll excuse me if I can’t manufacture any high moral dudgeon over what Pryor and Tressel did or did not do. From my point of view, all college football scandals like the one at Ohio State are enabled by the convenient fiction that the young men in uniform are amateurs and not actual professionals — folks who normally get to barter autographed items without encouraging any raised eyebrows.

The NCAA regulations that Pryor and his teammates violated aren’t designed to protect student athletes. Instead, they’re meant to protect member institutions from one another so no school will be able to gain an “unfair” recruiting advantage over another. (Much to the chagrin of the Big Ten, the co-ed recruiting advantage enjoyed by the SEC and Pac-12 seems more or less intractable.)

Think of it as a form of athletics arms control, one that comes along with all of the same bells and whistles as its geo-political counterpart: just about everybody cheats and tries to get away with it, and then does their best to sound the alarm to make sure the other guy gets caught.

Back to the situation at Ohio State: once the whole megillah was exposed, Tressell went into full damage control mode. Pryor and his buddies were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season, but curiously, not for Ohio State’s postseason bowl game. Meanwhile, Tressell went so far as imposing a five-game suspension on himself in an attempt to save his job.

Predictably, it wasn’t enough, not with the threat of NCAA sanctions that could have paralyzed Ohio State’s football program for years hanging over the school’s head. Just Google “loss of institutional control,” and you’ll get a better idea of what I’m referring to. Tressel and Pryor wound up getting run out of Columbus, but despite the fact that they’re now separated in distance by thousands of miles, they can’t help but still be joined by the hip.

Pryor, who was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the NFL Supplemental Draft, suddenly found himself suspended for the first five games of his NFL career. The reason? According to the NFL, it was because the quarterback “made decisions that undermine[d] the integrity of the eligibility rules for the NFL Draft.”

As for Tressel, he can’t catch a break either. When news broke that he had been hired by the Indianapolis Colts as a “game day consultant,” demands began almost immediately that he be forced to serve a suspension of his own in recognition of the down time Pryor would have to endure. Soon enough, the Colts and Tressel announced — presumably at the behest of the league office — that he’d delay his start date with the Colts until the seventh week of the season.

Aside from the thorny question of what the NFL is doing enforcing NCAA rules — perhaps there will come a day when Goldman Sachs suspends its employees for recruiting violations committed at Yale while they were members of Skull and Bones — we need to remember that investigations can often drag on for years. In many cases, it isn’t out of the ordinary for players who have already graduated and signed with NFL teams to be accused of running afoul of the NCAA.

That begs a question: in the wake of the suspensions of Pryor and Tressel, just how long is the statute of limitations in cases like these? Several of Pryor’s former Ohio State teammates now employed elsewhere in the NFL have also been accused of trading Buckeyes swag for favors. Are they due a visit from NFL Security? And if so, will the league compel them to testify in NCAA investigations as a means of avoiding the sort of sentence that was leveled on Pryor?

It’s no wonder several member of the National Football League Players Association have expressed their concerns out loud about Goodell’s actions. If I were a graduating senior looking to be eligible for the 2012 NFL Draft, I’d be looking for a pretty good lawyer right now.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.

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