Sports

How Virginia Tech Football Fines Undermine the NCAA

When Virginia Tech assistant football coach Bud Foster talked about fining players, his real mistake was telling the truth about "amateur" NCAA sports.

by Kevin Trahan
Aug 27 2015, 6:35pm

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

While discussing discipline among college athletes with reporters after practice on Wednesday, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster floated what seemed to be a novel idea: fine players for misconduct, just like in the National Football League.

Of course, you may be wondering how said fines would actually work, given that said athletes are, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association constantly reminds us, budding scholars who just happen to play amateur campus football and therefore cannot, under any possible circumstances, be paid for playing.

Starting this fall, athletes at many school, including Virginia Tech, will begin to receive cost-of-attendance stipends alongside their scholarships—which is to say, money. So it's easy to understand Foster's logic: players are getting some cash, so why not use the prospect of losing that cash as a behavioral incentive?

Read More: Why The NCAA May End Up Embracing Athlete Unions

Less than an hour after Foster stopped talking, Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock put the kibosh on the possibility of a fine system involving the cost-of-attendance stipends. "That was Bud speaking alone and proposing something," he said. "But nobody had gotten fined under the new system and we squashed it."

On Thursday, though, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Virginia Tech apparently did have a system in place for fining players for team infractions. "I don't know of any past practice and I didn't know about this today either," Babcock told the Times-Dispatch. "All of it discontinued immediately."

I imagine that even after a stern talk with Babcock, Foster still doesn't understand the problem with his idea. It's hard to blame him. If the players are at Virginia Tech to play football and they don't live up to the program's expectations in breaking a team rule, why shouldn't they be fined some of the money they're paid for playing football?

Even though that's a valid question, the NCAA's entire system of amateurism depends on pretending otherwise—and on convincing federal judges to do the same.

"Yes, the fine will be coming out of your price-fixed paych—er, cost-of-living stipend." --Photo by Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports

Again, don't fault Foster. At a big-time football school like Virginia Tech, coaches treat their athletes like employees, like laborers, because that's what they essentially are. National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr reached the same conclusion in the recent Northwestern University football unionization case, and while the NLRB's national office declined to assert jurisdiction over matter, it didn't disagree with Ohr's ruling.

Indeed, Foster isn't the only college coach or athletic administrator to slip up and forego fanciful amateur rhetoric for, well, the truth. When the disconnect between what the NCAA says and what it does is so very, very vast, gaffes are inevitable.

There have been plenty of other examples over the past year showing that coaches and schools see their athletes as employees, separate from the rest of the school environment. To wit:

Many of these contradictions will likely be mentioned in court; indeed, they already have. At least year's O'Bannon v. NCAA trial, Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky said that her job is to protect athletes from commercial exploitation, but the plaintiffs brought up email correspondence between Texas and Nike about how to monetize quarterback Vince Young's success.

Plonsky was technically a witness for the NCAA, but the O'Bannon lawyers thought differently: "She was our witness," they said in interviews later that day.

"Some of my best witnesses are NCAA administrators." --Photo by RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

That inability of humans to lie all the time—be it over email or following football practice—is a boon to labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler. Kessler is leading an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, where he will try to prove that athletes are treated like employees, and that they receive their scholarships for athletic purposes (not academic purposes), with the NCAA rigging the market by setting the maximum salary at the value of a scholarship without negotiating with its clients.

Foster's quotes will almost certainly be brought up when that case goes to trial, and I imagine that the conversation will go something like this:

NCAA: "Our athletes are not paid for athletic performance. Cost of attendance is just an add-on to the scholarship, which is academics-based and not at all conditioned by how they perform on the field."

Kessler: "Oh really? Then how come one of your coaches, who makes $1.3 million per year, thinks he can dock pay based on football team rules?"

The NCAA's would likely respond that Foster is a lone wolf just speaking his mind, and that they can't control that. The second part would be correct. The first part? Not so much! Just a day after Foster was ridiculed for his comments, Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville came out and said the exact same thing:

This time, the athletic director was on the coach's side, as Cincinnati AD Mike Bohn said that he supports using fines as "a tool"—a tool to take money out of a supposed academic-based scholarship due to "accountability" related to athletics.

That's all well and good, but expect Bohn to get a memo from the NCAA soon enough. Subject line, Re: Shut up. There will be no fines at Virginia Tech this season, or at Cincinnati, because nobody riding the gold-plated gravy train of big-time college sports administration wants the association to lose its future legal battles.

In the NFL, teams can fine players because those players are employees earning salaries, and they've agreed to having those salaries docked through collective bargaining. In college football, players don't have those same fundamental economic rights. At least not yet.