Joe Henderson Columns
Tampa attorney has key seat at NCAA infractions table
TAMPA - While you were sleeping, five other college athletic programs were placed on probation. That's an exaggeration, I think, but maybe not. The University of Central Florida just hit the daily double — official NCAA letters of inquiry for alleged misdeeds in its football and men's basketball programs. Credit the Knights with good timing, though. Because its letter came at the same time Miami was shown to be behaving in ways better suited for the Playboy mansion, hardly anyone was paying attention to little ol' UCF. Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor, Lane Kiffin, Butch Davis, the University of Oregon football team, and probably half the Southeastern Conference also send their thanks to Miami for grabbing the spotlight with tales of hookers, felons, cash payments to players and more, all while coaches and administrators looked the other way. All of this means you probably shouldn't expect Tampa attorney Chris Griffin to show up at many social occasions for a long while. The man is going to be a little busy. He is the newest member of the 10-person NCAA infractions committee, which means he'll be among the judges when the accused try to explain themselves."I am reminded of the Chinese proverb — may you live in interesting times," Griffin said with a chuckle. None of this is new to college sports, of course. We remember how SMU got the NCAA's death penalty for repeated violations, or when Charlie Pell cheated so blatantly he nearly destroyed the University of Florida program. Florida State players had the run of a Tallahassee Foot Locker store, prompting Steve Spurrier to mock the Seminoles as "Free Shoes U." The NCAA was supposed to have a handle on all that stuff by now, though. There are rules for just about everything governing college athletics, right down to when it's OK to send a text message to recruits. The stuff we're hearing about now is way beyond that, particularly at Miami. "What I will tell you is at any given time, the association is always looking at its rules to see if they are appropriate and fair. It's not like any particular event causes them to be reactive. They actually are thoughtful and proactive," Griffin said. Griffin played football at FSU during the Seminoles' infamous "chicken wire" days in the early 1970s. The wire was hung low over a floor in a training room and players had go man-on-man under the mesh for three minutes. That would get a coach expelled from the profession today. Stuff like that tends to stick with a man, and so it did with Griffin. He has risen in the NCAA enforcement ranks as a "public" member without a direct school affiliation, powered by the belief that student-athlete doesn't have to be a contradictory term. Obviously, he'll keep his thoughts about Miami or the other scandals to himself. In our chat the other day, he said he treats these situations much like a juror who has been ordered by the judge not to read news stories or watch TV about the case he is deciding. "If I'm doing a channel-surf and I come across a story on ESPN that school A, B, or C is being investigated, I change the channel quickly," he said. My guess is he won't be watching much TV or reading many newspapers in the coming months. "Someone asked me the other day why I do this. College sports have become such a critical part of our culture and society. Having lived through the worst part of what can happen to a student-athlete in that system, I have been given this opportunity to contribute to making what remains viable despite all the strains upon it," he said. NCAA president Mark Emmert released a statement last week that seemed to suggest a major overhaul may be coming to the organization that governs college sports. "If the assertions are true, the alleged conduct at the University of Miami is an illustration of the need for serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports," he said. The gravity of this issue is obvious, but there is no magic pill to fix a system run amok. We saw that when the NCAA put strict limits on when coaches are allowed to communicate with potential recruits. So what happened? We saw the rise of street agents, those go-betweens who become the contact for elite recruits when coaches have to stay away. In some cases, they basically launder the money — for a modest fee, of course. That's just one example of ways to skirt the rules. There are many, many others. At least it makes for "interesting times" for men like Griffin. For everyone else, just follow the example of UCF. If you're about to get nailed, remember that timing is everything.