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Rearview Mirror: The Sanity Code

And a quick assortment of other relevant topics to this thoroughly newsworthy week.

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ACC Championship - Clemson v Georgia Tech Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

So much timely stuff to cover this week, from the Investiture of Ángel Cabrera as Tech’s 12th President to the news that the NCAA is going to loosen the binds around image and likeness for student-athletes, it becomes necessary to push off the departure from the SEC yet another week - yes, I know, I’m sorry - because that not only deserves more time than I can give it on Homecoming Week, but, also, because in order to understand why the departure for the pastures of independence was even on the table in the first place, let alone some of the significance of this week, we have to turn the clock all the way back to 1948.

Before I began, thanks to Dr. Smith’s HTS 2015 class for starting me down a deep rabbit hole to learn more about the idea of scholarships and the history of the student-athlete. Again, very fortuitous timing for that to have come up recently in lecture.

Pre-Column Notes:

If you missed it last week, check out the Homecoming Premier here!

The Investiture of Ángel Cabrera was a great ceremony on Monday that lasted about an hour and a half and saw several campus leaders, and figures from nearby, around the state, and further afield speak or offer words to the incoming president. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, check out the full length version here and the sizzle reel, including his snazzy entrance, here.

If you haven’t been around since the beginning of this column, the early days of college football were a wilderness. An army doctor registered for classes at Georgia Tech in 1893 and both coached and played their nascent football team to a curb-stomping of some team up in Athens. A while later, he was gone. The man who would become General Leonard Wood wasn’t breaking any rules. He was a matriculated student. But he was able to come and go, seemingly at will. The problem was more that, well, there were no real rules.

After the turn of the twentieth century, increasing concerns about the dangers of playing collegiate athletics, specifically football, led to the creation of the organization that would eventually become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The body, however, was essentially toothless. Mandated to alleviate danger and standardize rules, as well as organize championships, it could hardly do that, especially in the early days. Helmet rules? Non-standard. Championships? The National Invitational Tournament beat them to the punch in basketball, and even though the NCAA’s Division I tournament - the transcendent cultural phenomenon known as “March Madness,” which is a term the organization didn’t even coin, but rather, uh, borrowed - has since surpassed the NIT, the football bowl system is more or less just as broken and outside of the NCAA’s purview as it was in 1950. Leave that one to the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association, I guess. Point is, the NCAA had no power to do much of anything.

And that’s where money came in, as it so often does.

I guess back in the day, schools were less subtle about it. Many openly admitted to it. The status of amateur, held in such high esteem, was constantly being worked around by sham jobs, under-the-table pay, and booster slush funds. For all the work Banner Society’s Stephen Godfrey can put into a project like Foul Play: Paid in Mississippi, that’s pretty much par for the course in 1930s era college football.

I’m not saying it doesn’t happen now - there’s a reason that The Bag Man was both a big story, yet ultimately not all that surprising - because it most certainly does. But, back then, it was a fact of life. Fans ignored it. Colleges didn’t care. Good sports, just as they do now, breed academic success and desirability. It’s happening to Clemson right now, it happened to Wake Forest when they went to the Sweet Sixteen, and it happened so prominently to Boston College after Doug Flutie that they named the whole phenomenon after him. Sports are a marketing tool and a vessel for the mission of the schools that sponsor them. Being good at them increases their profile.

In the days before the concept of athletic scholarships, there were no rules. To prevent things from spiraling out of control, the NCAA, now with a bit of clout, implemented something called the “Sanity Code.” This stated that athletes could only be provided with a scholarship if they met the school’s academic standard and demonstrated fiscal need. After a scandal in which several schools openly admitted to still flaunting the rules, the Sanity Code was repealed. Many, especially in the west and midwest, thought this would be the death knell of athletics. Meanwhile, in the east and south, schools believed that administration fell largely to the schools or, more specifically, the conferences. In the days of the pre-power NCAA, it wasn’t unusual, either. The Southeastern Conference, for example, probably did have more enforcement clout amongst its members. By 1952, the Code had been replaced with a simpler rule: individuals can be given scholarships to a school simply based on athletic prowess.

It was this change that ultimately led to the 140 Rule, that there would be 140 scholarships dedicated to split between the football and basketball teams per school, which Bobby Dodd publicly stated was the sole reason Georgia Tech left the SEC. Were there other factors at play in the shadows? Perhaps. But we’ll get to them next week. What matters today is this: even once athletic scholarships were invented, they weren’t guaranteed. Per Taz Anderson, former Tech player, “Coach Dodd would not run you off if you met the part he required. If you went to class and did the work, he’d get you a degree.” Not everyone was a Bobby Dodd. SEC schools saw a lot of roster turnover for those 140 scholarships.

Nowadays, though, things are a little more stable, at least in the world of scholarships. This isn’t to say sketchy things no longer happen on rosters - we could dive into the fascinating world of redshirting, “processing,” and other forms of tinkering with the active roster - because they definitely do. It’s not Eric Dickerson driving around a spiffy car, but there’s a reason there was an impetus for Banner Society to publish the Bag Man piece. Only recently have scholarships been fully guaranteed, fulfilling what the visionary Bobby Dodd preached five and six decades ago. There’s also a cost of living adjustment. If there’s a market for a student-athlete to have a shoe endorsement, why not let them have it? I sure don’t have companies lining up to sponsor my washed-up self in swimming, but that’s the free market. But, let’s not forget that, while it’s a little modest, scholarships and cost of attendance aren’t nothing. Name and likeness, a logical step, make the collegiate model more fair to athletes. A good education, if harnessed, has immeasurable value. These are, after all, students.

The question with this week’s announcement becomes: how will it affect competitive balance? This isn’t necessarily fully fleshed out in my head, but, on the surface, it seems like a productive switch. Why shouldn’t a relatively burgeoning YouTube star also be permitted the same benefits as a kid who doesn’t have a rocket arm or killer serve? If there’s money in a kid’s name and likeness, and especially if it brings back a revenue stream in the NCAA Football games, wouldn’t that be a plus? But what about the same sham jobs that were causing fits in the 1930s? It seems like a logical step for a well-heeled donor to use the likeness of a five star athlete to sell used Fords about 30 miles outside of Athens, Georgia, to pick a random example. This is where what was already a grey area before gets even murkier.

Clearly, it’s been an ongoing debate for the better part of a century.

The question becomes, does the NCAA have the teeth to do this right?

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

There’s an interesting implication of these latest few columns - we’ve transcended the past into living memory. However, I can’t do what I do without the insights I have from readers like you. If there’s things I wouldn’t know just from reading about them, or important things you think I miss, please let me know. And, as always, thank you for reading the latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.