On Monday August 22, the NFL held its supplemental draft, wherein former Ohio State star quarterback Terrelle Pryor was selected by the Oakland Raiders with their 2012 3rd Round pick.  Regardless of prognostications regarding Pryor’s future as an NFL-caliber signal caller, Pryor cannot be expected to make an immediate contribution for Al Davis’ ghost as he faces a 5-week suspension before he is even able to dress for an NFL regular season practice or game.  Before entering the NFL supplemental draft, Pryor had accepted a five-game suspension from Ohio State for the start of the 2011 season resulting from his role in a autograph-for-tattoo scheme that eventually led to the dismissal of Coach Jim Tressel.

Already delayed by the extended NFL lockout, the supplemental draft was originally scheduled for Friday the 18th, but was rescheduled at the last minute by the NFL – which many took to indicate that the league, mainly Commissioner Roger Goodell, had yet to decide whether to allow Pryor to enter the draft.  The final ruling from the league, however, surprised virtually all parties.  In its announcement of the eligible players for the supplemental draft, the NFL noted that Pryor had “made decisions that undermine the integrity of the eligibility rules for the NFL Draft.  Those actions included failing to cooperate with the NCAA and hiring an agent in violation of NCAA rules.  This resulted in Ohio State declaring him ineligible to continue playing college football.” Thus, Commissioner Goodell had decided that Pryor would be ineligible to participate in the first 5 weeks of the NFL season.

At first glance, the NFL appears to be enforcing the NCAA-imposed sanction, right down to the length of the punishment.  However, the NFL subsequently responded that it was merely applying its own rules, which generally allow a former college athlete to enter the supplemental draft if their college playing status changed between the regular draft entry deadline in January and the college season.  In the NFL’s view, Pryor’s own wrongful conduct resulted in a change in status – likely permanent NCAA ineligibility from hiring an agent and other misdeeds – and therefore he should not be permitted to benefit from such actions by direct entry into the NFL.

Although the NFL’s justifications appear reasonable, Goodell’s then-private letter to Pryor indicates a more intricate tie between his own decision and the NCAA penalty it mirrors.  In his letter to Pryor, Goodell indicated his belief that NCAA rule-violating players should not be able to benefit from their violations of NCAA rules as a way to enter the NFL, and cited the NFL’s long-standing support of college football as a justification for his decision.  Further, the NFLPA apparently acquiesced to Goodell’s conclusion, reducing the likelihood of a successful appeal (which would be judged by Goodell himself).

Given the breadth and discretion of Goodell’s disciplinary powers over the league, this may set a precedent for players found to have committed NCAA violations moving forward.  Although the NFLPA will certainly get involved if Goodell seeks to punish a current player retroactively, say, a few prominent ‘Canes, it is less certain whether De Smith, NFLPA’s executive director, will object to punishments imposed on incoming rookies.  Commentators are already lining up on both sides of the issue – either lauding Goodell for finally striking a blow against the offending party, rather than the locus of the crime, or criticizing Goodell for punishing Pryor for trying to work things out at Ohio State.

This author’s forthcoming publication with JETLaw discusses the current regulatory scheme for unethical sports agents, especially the multiple enforcement holes and contradictions.  Part of the proposed solution was increased cooperation between the NCAA, the professional sports leagues, and the professional players’ associations.  If Goodell’s ruling in the Pryor case indicates a movement toward integration of enforcement, the step is certainly a positive one and takes the pressure off of state and federal investigators to seek criminal sanctions – an NCAA athlete may no longer be able to bank on an NFL career (thereby losing his only fungible service) in his cost-benefit analysis regarding improper benefits.  Indeed, those improper benefits may be his last benefits from playing football.

However, special attention will need to be paid to any role an agent or booster might play in such a scheme – the NCAA and the general public already single out the college athlete for special scrutiny, for Goodell to take unilateral action against the athlete could morph into piling-on, while at least 1/2 of the unethical scheme goes unpunished.  Players’ associations should consider decertifying agents who cause NCAA violations (although good luck doing that with Drew Rosenhaus).  Further, the NFL should consider leniency for players who come forward and expose schemes of which they were a part, so as to eliminate the root of the problem – parties’ willingness to skirt the system.

Whatever one’s position on the justifiability of the NCAA’s amateurism rules, they are still the rules of the game until changed.  Thus, for all parties involved, compliance is the best policy.  Nobody wants the referees to play a role in the outcome of a game – it’s best for the fans, players, and leagues if all players obey the rules and stay on the field.  Until all parties are willing to comply, perhaps a strong referee is necessary.  Mr. Goodell fills that role pretty well, at least until Ed Hochuli retires.

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– Alex Payne

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