MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- When they arrived this week for the Liberty Bowl, a bounty of gifts awaited each member of the Georgia football team: an I-pod nano, a Fossil watch and a backpack full of Nike equipment, including shoes and sunglasses.
They also got a $300 Visa gift card, courtesy of Georgia. It’s all allowed by NCAA rules.
But if any player turns around and sells any of it, or their game jersey, it would be a violation, with potentially harsh consequences.
Star receiver A.J. Green was burned by that rule this year, and it may have derailed Georgia’s season. A half-dozen Ohio State players were suspended last week for violations that included selling gifts.
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Those incidents have led to a debate: Should players actually be allowed to do what they want with those gifts or their own game apparel? Many say yes, including some Georgia players.
“I think if they give it to us, I think it’s ours,” Georgia tight end Aron White said. “In my opinion, you should be able to do whatever you want with it. If yours is more valuable than somebody else’s, that’s because of what you’ve done in your life, in your career, that you’ve worked hard for.”
White said he has had this very debate, including the larger one over whether players should be paid, many times with administrators at Georgia. One of them may have been athletics director Greg McGarity, who presented the NCAA’s reason for having the rule: The chance that unsavory agents or boosters would exploit it.
“What would stop a booster from saying, ‘Hey, I’ll buy your jersey for 50 grand’?” McGarity said. “So that’s why I think it’s in place.”
Green himself didn’t want to wade into the debate.
“See, that’s not my place to take on,” he said this week when asked if he felt he should be able to sell his gifts. “They (the NCAA) do their job the best. And my job is to play football and follow the rules.”
One of those little-known rules, at least little known to the public, is that players are paid -- sort of. Besides having their scholarships paid for, the NCAA allows them to receive a monthly stipend to cover rent and expenses.
But players say it only goes so far.
“We get a check every month,” said Georgia senior lineman Clint Boling, estimating it to be a little more than $2,000. “And usually by the end of the month I’m either scrounging around, trying to find something, low on money, or asking my parents.”
Boling also agreed with White that players should be allowed to do what they want with their gifts. As to the larger issue of paying players, Boling sees something inherently wrong with the current system.
“You see somebody like A.J., who everybody else is selling his jersey and making money off of it. But he can’t even sell his own,” Boling said. “So stuff like that just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. You never know. You’ve gotta follow the rules. Maybe some day it’ll change.”
That sounds doubtful.
McGarity said he wasn’t sure if the NCAA could consider some “modifications” to the rules. But he said it was important to avoid large amounts of money changing hands.
There’s also a principle involved, McGarity added.
“Those are keepsakes, kind of like championship rings. If you want to give them to fathers, brothers and family members, I think that’s fine,” he said. “But once you start putting them on E-bay, I think it just kind of cheapens the award, lessens it, and gets it in the hands of the wrong people.”
White said players actually look forward to the bowls because it’s the rare time of the year they’re allowed to make some pocket change. The NCAA allows each player to receive a travel stipend to the bowl, with the amount depending on where they’re coming from. They also receive a per diem for meals.
So in order to save money and have extra cash, the players carpool or find the cheapest possible travel. For instance, White and Logan Gray drove to Memphis from their hometown of Columbia, Mo., although each received a separate stipend. Players also look for cheap meals and pocket the extra cash. It’s all perfectly legal.
But White still thinks there are inequities in the system, especially when it comes to those gifts and jerseys.
“I really think a lot of times that the benefits the university receives far outweigh what the college athlete receives,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s a best way to do it. I don’t know how to do it. But I do think a lot of times the student-athlete is put at a disadvantage because we don’t have the time to work, we have full schedules, we have a full academic load, a full athletic load. And beyond that, we still have to try to have time to have a life, to have a social life, to go out and meet people and mingle.
“So it’s hard. I know they have to protect amateurism and all that. But at the same time it’s not really their property, it’s your property.”