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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."

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"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."

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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.

"I can assure you that not only are the players very knowledgeable about what they have and what they are receiving but they also are, the schools are very interested, too," says Jon Cooperstein of Davene Inc., a Memphis, Tenn., promotions company that served as an intermediary between companies and almost half of the nation's 34 bowl games. "Brand is a big deal."

This year's bowl gifts bear out Mr. Cooperstein's observation. The Emerald Bowl handed out an HP Netbook to the Eagles of Boston College and the Trojans of USC; the Pittsburgh Panthers and North Carolina Tar Heels walked away with a commemorative Richard Petty driving experience photo; and the Capital One Bowl threw a Best Buy party for LSU and Penn State, with each player walking away with up to $420 in merchandise. And at the Sugar Bowl, held in New Orleans, players from Florida and Cincinnati took home a Lane recliner.

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.