Is bowl swag ethical for schools in final BCS standings?
A spot in the final BCS standings means a post-season bowl game – and buckets of free stuff after a season in which players are told to avoid "free."
During the majority of their college football careers, players at the football powerhouses populating the final BCS standings have to eschew free stuff.Skip to next paragraph
Why It Matters
Free benefits can endanger student athletes' amateur status. But bowls shower up to $500 worth of gifts on the same players. The issue raises questions of what it means to be "rewarded" as a student athlete and what counts as an endorsement. Share your thoughts about this article on Twitter.
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They do so because getting untoward benefits as student athletes can jeopardize their future eligibility to run, block, and tackle and, by extension, their opportunity to reap a bigger future payday in the NFL. (And forget sponsorships. College athletes lose their ability to take the field by entering into corporate pacts.)
But during bowl season, game organizers shower these same athletes with up to $500 in free merchandise that athletes then wear and use on campuses across the country, giving brand names a boost in the process. What happens at a bowl gift party that makes it any different from the other 364 days a year?
"When players come down to these bowl games, you don’t want to just lock ‘em in the hotel room," says Geoffrey Rapp, a law professor at the University of Toledo who contributes to the Sports Law blog. "Part of the fun is going some place warmer, getting to to go Disney land, and if there was a strict ban on any contributions or any value given to players, you’d have to be very vigilant on your players. But that said, iPods and PlayStation 3's and other electronics seems to be a bit inconsistent with the spirit of the NCAA rules."
The NCAA argues that disallowing post-season gifts would mean the end of any sort of end-of-year token.
According to the organization's website, "To not allow this would mean national champions could not receive a ring, Heisman winners could not receive a trophy, or seniors could not receive a keepsake honoring years of hard work. Allowing these awards with reasonable limits is well within the confines of amateurism."
The challenge is rewarding student athletes while maintaining their amateurism, NCAA director for football and baseball Damani Leech.
"We’ve tried to adapt to modern times. We try to provide benefits to student athletes but understanding that they are amateur athletes," Mr. Leech says. "That’s our daily challenge as an association in trying to marry those two things together and maintain that balance."
Leech likens the current NCAA stance on the bowl bonanza to distinctions in where students get money to pay for college. Wealthy college boosters can't use wads of cash to persuade athletes to attend their school. The NCAA prohibits students from taking money from a wide range of sources other than the university.
"You just can’t go get money from anyone and say I’m going to use this to pay for my books and use that for my room and board," Mr. Leech says. "I don’t think [the bowl situation] is significantly different."
But the financial-aid restriction is a blanket one, whereas the prohibition on free gets lifted for a glimmering moment during bowl season.
"On one level, it’s good that players are getting something for all they are contributing to the school," says Michael McCann, an associate law professor at the University of Vermont who studies sports law. "But it invites the question of why this is an exception and where should you draw the line. Should there even be a line?"
Big money and the ethics of amateurism
National corporations work with bowl organizing committees to get their merchandise into bowl goody bags, worth about $12 million a year, the Sports Business Journal estimated.
Additionally, while historical prestige and the amount teams receive for playing in a given bowl pull far more weight than swag bags, maintaining a top-flight bowl brand means making sure every part of the bowl operation is seen as gold-plated.