Sean Olenek’s narrative featured in NCAA: Dreamcatchers illustrated how the NCAA’s rules–or lack thereof–can foster an environment with harmful, unintended consequences. While not all student-athletes experienced what Sean went through, Sean wanted to tell his story “because I don’t want this to happen to any other kids and have their dream taken from them…or to at least know that kind of world they will be dealing with.”
Hopefully Sean’s story will be a catalyst for a review of the current NCAA system. While some rules may not technically have been broken, they are being interpreted and used in ways that are detrimental to student-athletes.
Sean’s story elicited comments from players and coaches alike. Although not confirmed personally by either coach, two of the Mercer coaches purportedly commented on the article.
Coach Gibson and Coach Shade did not respond to requests for interviews.
The alleged comment, however, by Craig Gibson referred to Sean as “one of Booty’s recruits.” Booty turned out to be Tim Boeth, the individual who actually recruited Sean to play at Mercer. Boeth worked at Mercer for approximately four and a half years. He was assistant coach for the first year and was recruiting coordinator for the succeeding three and a half years. Coach Boeth provided insights about the NCAA, and those insights allow for a greater understanding and unique perspective of a system that has let down many student-athletes. The NCAA makes well-intended rules for which there are serious, harmful, and unintended consequences.
Coach Boeth reflected on his experience with the NCAA: “As somebody that dealt with it for 10 years, and saw it evolve and change, I don’t envy the job that they have to do. I don’t understand what it is a lot of times they’re doing, but the rules that they create, in a lot of ways, it’s a reactionary institution. They see something that’s not … that they deem unfair, or something that they don’t particularly think should be happening, and they make a policy to try to stop it. Obviously, everything has an opposite reaction, or something always changes on the other end.”
Coach Boeth explained Sean’s situation in the context of larger issues. “I think it’s an interesting story to tell, but this type of thing happens in every sport across the country every single year…I think that the bigger issue is what is the NCAA, and how are the rules set up? What is the ultimate goal of the organization in total, and how can you fix it and make it better for student athletes? Which essentially is, I think, what the NCAA is supposed to be protecting or presenting. I think ultimately, that’s not really what the NCAA does, or I don’t think that’s … It might be a tradition, but it certainly falls short of protecting these student athletes and creating a great environment for them to get an education and for them to compete at the sports … and have some kind of stability.”
Coach Boeth delineated specific inconsistencies within the NCAA’s operation system. One of the rules had to do with transferring between Division I schools. “It used to be that baseball players were allowed one transfer per one Division I school to another without having to sit out a year as long as they were given a release.”
What ultimately began to happen, Coach Boeth explained, was that there started to be coaches who were recruiting players from other programs. “Essentially, players could go out to play summer baseball, and coach from X university goes out to a summer baseball site and sees a player from Y university, and decides that’s the player that I need to make my team better, and I’ve heard he’s unhappy. They would go about the business of recruiting that player away.”
While the old transfer rule allowed coaches to recruit from summer baseball leagues, it actually gave players who excelled the freedom to transfer to another Division I school if he was unhappy and sought a change. The NCAA put an end to this migration of talented players.“What the NCAA did is they said, ‘No more exemptions. No more transfer rule.’ They took it out. What that did was it locked players in. When you go to a Division I school now, you have to go … You have to play there.”
Coach Boeth explained the new rule. “If you decide you want to leave, you either have to go down a level to Division II, so you can play right away, or you have to go to junior college if you have the right eligibility, you meet the right eligibility criteria. Then, you can play at the junior college level, and then you can come back. What ultimately happened was the side effect of that is that now players are locked in. When a player signs a letter of intent, there’s nowhere else they can go.”
The result, Boeth pointed out, was “it really gave kids no choice, and so you have coaches who probably already view, in general terms, already view kids as commodities. It just takes it even a step further now. ‘Now, I’ve got a commodity that I don’t even have to treat well, that I don’t have to be fair to, that I don’t have to explain things to, that I don’t have to do anything with. If this guy’s good enough to help me win baseball games, I’ll treat him well. If he’s not going to help me win baseball games, I’ll treat him poorly. It doesn’t matter to me.’… or vice versa. It just doesn’t matter. ‘If the guy’s a great player, I can still treat him like garbage. He’s not going anywhere. He can’t go anywhere.’”
Coach Boeth added, “I can say there’s a quote that I had from a coach that I worked with that basically said, the guy told me on multiple occasions, ‘It doesn’t matter. Once they set foot on campus, we can treat them any way we want. They’re stuck here.’ When I heard that, it made my skin crawl. It was offensive. Unfortunately, there are coaches out there that are like that.”
“At the end of the day, for the coaches involved, for the athletic department, it’s a business,” Boeth said. “I think that’s where the real problem lies in all of this is that from the athletic department, from the university, from the coaches’ standpoint, it’s a business. You’re feeding a family by winning baseball games, by winning football games, by winning basketball games. The kids that are up-and-coming, at 17, 16, or 18 years-old, it’s a passion.”
Therein lies the problem: one side is business and the other is a passion for the game. The goal of a business is to generate profit. Division I athletes are dedicating their bodies and time to something that they love. In the process of participating, the athletes, especially athletes on sports teams with no transfer rule basketball, football, baseball and men’s ice hockey—generate enormous sums of money and publicity for their school.The coach is always looking for the next best player to boost wins and money for the school. The coaches, in turn, receive constant pressure from the university to perform. It is, after all their career; they have to feed their families and generate money for the school. The coaches’ athletes are their means to that end. Now, however, it comes at the expense of the students and, in many instances, their scholarship money and, ultimately, their future. The pressure is understandable, but is it right to exploit a student athlete whose desire is to excel in his or her sport and attain an education?
As Boeth succinctly put it, fundamentally, the scholarship locks the student into the university; it does not lock the university into the student. According to the NCAA website: “The scholarship is an agreement between the school and the student-athlete with expectations on both sides.” The school’s side is heavily weighted, however.
According to Coach Boeth, student-athletes who depend on the scholarship money are in a tough spot. “The scholarship renewal issue is absolutely ridiculous. That’s a concern. There was a university in Georgia, and it’s not Mercer, but there was a university where in one calendar year, they signed I want to say 23 players. By that team’s senior year, there were three of those guys left…Do the math on that. It’s a baseball program. They brought in 23 players, a combination of scholarship and walk-on, and there was three out of 23. 20 guys left the program, were cut, didn’t have their scholarships renewed, whatever, whether it was their hands or the coaches’ hands, but 20 guys left the program inside of a four-year period.”
What the rules do not take into account is that the scholarships are at the whim of the coaches. Coaches are licensed to act with a Machiavellian vigor. The scholarships can be cut at any time, thus leaving the student-athlete with no money to continue with school. In addition, the student-athlete cannot transfer if he or she still wants to play for a Division I school because of the transfer rule. Not only must the athletes have to renew their scholarships every year, but coaches can also change the monetary amount of the athlete’s scholarships from year to year.
In addition, Boeth explained, that because the coaches control the fields and playing time, coaches can arbitrarily remove players from the line-up knowing their players want to be scouted by a professional team. This enables the coaches to hold all the cards and leaves the players with no recourse.
The NCAA rules on transfers and lack of rules on scholarships places the school in a superior position to that of the student-athlete. Coaches can manipulate the system to achieve their ends at the expense of players. Coaches exalt school notoriety and profits ahead of the best interest of the game and their athlete’s education and passion for the sport. The NCAA must analyze the unintended consequences of its rules which have given unprecedented power to coaches and staff over student athletes who no longer have a voice and are at the mercy of a system geared toward profit.
The views and personal experiences expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Sweet Lemon Magazine.