What Is The Michigan Story Really About?

Everyone is really worked up about Rich Rodriguez and his problems at Michigan, but maybe there's something else going on here that doesn't have anything to do with the Wolverines.

There is a bigger issue that is getting lost in all the whining about bias and anonymous sources and what Michigan State (or Florida or Alabama) does or doesn't do at their practices too. It will be at the heart of any investigation of Michigan, but it's really at the heart of all college sports. When you are a scholarship athlete, can anything you do ever be considered truly voluntary?

First, let's back up a bit and look at the Free Press story again. There are basically two parts to it. The one that seems to be getting the most focus is the claim that Michigan players routinely spend more than 20 hours a week on football related activities during the season. This is not unique, nor is it a problem for the NCAA. Players can spend as much time as they want on football, provided that everything above and beyond the 20 hours is voluntary.

(If there is one criticism of the article that truly resonates, it's that it doesn't clearly explain the distinction between "counted" and "non-counted" activities, nor does it distinguish between the two when talking about the time demands put on U of M players. But the time factor, while eye catching, is not really the issue.)

The second, more crucial point of the piece is that some Wolverine players specifically stated that many activities that are supposed to be voluntary are not. Coaches are watching, attendance is taken, and those who don't comply are punished. The end. Everything else is just window dressing.

Rich Rodriguez will argue—and he may be correct—that no one was ever explicitly punished for missing a workout. No one was told, "Lift weights or we move you down the depth chart." No one is told to break NCAA rules. But they don't have to be told. Just like the NFL players who understand that there are consequences to sitting out with an injury, college athletes understand that if they're not doing everything possible to make themselves better, then someone else will. And they'll be out of a job. Even if a coach tries to be completely fair, he knows who works hard and who doesn't and that will always affect his judgment of who plays and who doesn't. It's a completely unspoken part of the culture, which is why it's so difficult to prove wrongdoing before the NCAA and so difficult to combat.

Perhaps the Wolverine's case will shed some light on this problem—and it is a nationwide sports problem, not just Michigan football. Maybe they will be made an example of and it will lead to more transparency and clearer rules. Is it fair that Michigan is being singled out? Probably not. But "The Leaders" comes before "Best," remember? I know, I know ... it's tough being you.

I wouldn't worry too much though, Ann Arbor, because the fantasy I imagine—the one where U of M gets the death penalty and college sports becomes a place of goodness and hope? That won't happen. At worst, you'll get a slap on the wrist, the team will start winning again and everyone will forget why they hated Rich Rod in the first place. Most of all, sports will not change, because it is fueled by competitive people who take every advantage they get, any time they can get it. The NCAA has no real interest in putting a stop to that. Maybe they shouldn't have one.

Rich Rodriguez knows the gravity of U-M's situation [Drew Sharp]
West Virginia says no time violations under Rodriguez [ESPN]
University of Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez sued for defaulting on real-estate deal [AnnArbor.com]