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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Corey Surrency: swallowed by the system?

Florida State wide receiver and senior-to-be Corey Surrency's life has taken several twists. As the Orlando Sentinel reports:

Surrency dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, he said, to support his family. He served jail time, 90 days, after being charged with various crimes, some felonies. He decided to make something of himself. Earned his diploma. Began playing football. Wound up at a California community college, then at Florida State.

. . .

Before enrolling at Florida State and before enrolling in El Camino Community College, where Surrency played for two seasons, he played with the Florida Kings, a South Florida "minor league" football team that has helped athletes with troubled pasts to earn opportunities to play in college.

Quite the saga. But there's a new twist, and it's the cruelest yet:

A little-known NCAA rule has jeopardized his future.

The rule is No. in the NCAA Division I Manuel. It is titled, "Participation After 21st Birthday," and it mandates the following: If an individual participates in an organized sport after his 21st birthday, but before enrolling in college, that participation "shall count as one year of varsity competition in that sport."

. . .

Surrency played with the [minor league] Kings after he had turned 21. Had he not, he might never have had the chance to go to college. Regardless, though, his time with the Kings has cost him his final year of eligibility — at least for now. Florida State is appealing on Surrency's behalf.

If FSU loses the appeal, Surrency's college football career would be over. It's likely, too, that his pursuit of earning a degree in criminal justice — Surrency would become the first member of his family to earn a college degree — would also be over.

Sad stuff. Dr Saturday rightfully rails against this rule as "tone-deaf bureaucracy par excellence, and I have little to add to that.

But I was curious: does Surrency have a chance on his appeal? Unfortunately, my tentative answer is no. I don't have all the resources and I'm no NCAA expert, but Surrency is behind the eight ball having already been ruled ineligible, and things from here look bleak.

His best shot is on his appeal before the NCAA, being fought for him by Florida State. I tried in vain to locate all the standards for NCAA eligibility appeals, but it looks to me they don't have the power to just cast aside a rule that should otherwise apply. In that case the only way around the rule is for the NCAA, through its rulemaking body, to remove it. But in that case it wouldn't even be clear that the removal could work retroactively in Surrency's favor. The upshot is that unless the NCAA appeals body decides to (and has the power to) act charitably in direct defiance of the rules, Surrency will probably lose.

So what does that leave? Litigation. But litigation on these eligibility questions rarely goes well for the would-be student-athlete. There's not much of a hook to hang it on: you have to find a source of law that allows you to overturn what some NCAA body does -- or, more precisely, tells the University to do: the NCAA doesn't have the power to fire employees or take students off the football teams, they just threaten the University with fines and sanctions if they don't comply. This is relevant when it comes to litigation because, while the University typically supports the student during the appeal to the NCAA, after that the school tells the kid to get lost lest it lose money, wins, or scholarships, so the student often winds up suing both the NCAA and their school that had formerly supported them.

Anyway, there is no constitutionally protected property right to participate in college sports, and further undermining any suits against the NCAA grounded in the constitution is that the Supreme Court has ruled that NCAA is not a "state actor." (Set in stone in the famous NCAA v. Tarkanian case involving former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.) This is important because only governments and related "state actors" can violate people's constitutional rights; private parties aren't restricted by the various amendments, something many people -- including plenty of public officials -- don't realize.

So what could he say? Well, when Ben Mauk, former Cincinnati quarterback, sued to get his seventy-third year of eligibility, sued he tried to hang it on a theory that the NCAA had deprived him of a a shot at playing professional football by -- and this is important -- making an erroneous factual finding that his redshirt year at Wake Forest was not injury-related. The court didn't buy it, partially because the standard is so high and the supposed harm to Mauk (a ruined shot at an NFL career) was so ephemeral. (I can only imagine a trial where Mel Kiper Jr. is an "expert witness.")

And that's really about it. Any hope for Surrency? I guess he could try for the Mauk "this-is-killing-my-pro-career," but it's not like it worked for him, and I'm not even sure it's a real lawsuit even if you could prove it. The NCAA has been deemed a private body, and their even arbitrary rulings on who gets to play a college sport are, rather understandably, something courts don't want to be in the position of constantly second guessing. (And I leave aside the issue of whether Surrency can afford all this costly litigation as compared with Mauk.)

But that means that just about all of Surrency's eggs are in this NCAA appeal, and it appears that the rule was properly applied to Corey; it's just that the rule itself is stupid.

Good luck to Surrency and FSU, and I'll leave him with the last word.

Surrency said this experience has worn on him. He is beginning to question his love of football. He said, "It's killing me, man. I'm losing my fight for the game right now."


Anonymous said...

What many reporting on the situation haven't mentioned is that his mother passed away shortly before the 08 season started. Really gotta feel for the guy.

Anonymous said...

Definitely a bad situation, but why wouldn't he get his degree? Considering his age and financial situtation (as implied by the post), I'd guess he qualifies for in-state tuition and significant need-based aid. Considering his limited role on FSU in what apparently will be his only year playing D1 ball, he seems a longshot to catch on in the NFL, such that it's precisely the time for him to hit the books. And given his history, the prospect of graduating from one of the better schools in Florida with minimal debt seems like a solid silver lining to this story.

Richard said...

Like some, one ”feels” for the guy except for a few things. The rule is not “obscure”. It was proposed in 1998 and adopted in its current form in 2004, replacing a similar rule. Apparently FSU (and the 8 other Division I schools that offered scholarships) claimed ignorance, despite having numerous highly paid staff who are supposed to know the rules (and, in fact, participate in writing them).
Once Mr. Surrency was offered and accepted, and *before* his first Div I season, the NCAA found he had, after turning 21, played a season of “flag football” with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and another season with a Minor League Football semi-pro team. Each costs a year of eligibility, both in the intent and the letter of the rule, but FSU appealed. The NCAA ruled forgiveness for the flag football but not the semi-pro league, thus giving Mr. Surrency *one* more year of eligibility. He had already played two years on full “scholarship” with a California community college. After playing for FSU last year (as a junior), his eligibility is over. But FSU is appealing, again. Having appealed both years eligibility before, and only regained one, what is the basis? They can’t say they didn’t know, again. Evidently, the only people that didn’t know going into this spring were the sports writers, who are now all repeating an Orlando Sentinel story that makes no mention of the rule's purpose, or FSU’s (and Mr. Surrency’s) obvious pre-existing knowledge of this heretofore “obscure” rule.
A rationale from NCAA records: “(There is) an opportunity for member institutions to gain a significant competitive advantage through the use of student-athletes that have played in professional competition prior to their initial full-time collegiate enrollment. The numerous professional leagues create difficulty in the enforcement of the NCAA amateurism legislation. This lack of enforcement, coupled with the fact that prospective student-athletes may delay their enrollment in a collegiate institution until their 21st birthday, has provided schools an opportunity to compete with older players that have played professionally, thus providing those institutions with a significant competitive advantage.” So the rule is there to keep pros, semi-pros and under-the-table pros from being stashed in development programs until they can be re-discovered and become “student-athletes”.
In the FSU case, if they are really concerned about Mr. Surrency’s plight, they can certainly honor the scholarship they offered him without his having to play his senior year. That should allow him to finish his degree in criminal justice. He could even try out for the NFL (US or EU), arena ball and other paying sports franchises. But it’s not like no one saw this coming. Maybe FSU can work out a deal with the NCAA to use one of its soon-to-be-forfeit scholarships for Mr. Surrency, thereby sparing a year’s loss of a scholarship for a player that actually is eligible.
WAISAD, we don’t particularly sympathize with Mr. Surrency. He has played three years on full scholarship. He had the opportunity several times to accelerate his class load to complete graduation requirements. He had over a year’s notice that his eligibility would end in 2008. Frankly, he has done a lot better than some other people in worse circumstances, with equal or better athletic skills. Be thankful Mr. Surrency was able to turn the page, and now it’s time to turn another, da’gummit.

Unknown said...

Definitely a tough situation. The poor guy has a past and is trying to do what he can to erase it and all people do is make it harder. Imagine that.

Chris said...


I did not know that FSU had previously appealed. That said -- and I'm not proposing unique rules for football -- but do you think football was the sport they had in mind? I think they had in mind baseball or basketball, where someone could go play in significant, competitive leagues (minor league baseball, Europe for basketball) and really gain a competitive advantage. Does anyone think Surrency gained a huge "competitive advantage" by playing for a minor league team in Florida designed to help troubled people use their talents to go to community and other colleges? I am not confident that Surrency's time -- or anyone else's time -- at that minor league team really does give anyone an advantage.

Now, if someone went and played arena football or something maybe, and yes I understand the nature of rules (will cover some undesirable cases) versus standards (more flexible for case-by-case determination), but I think we can at least say that Surrency is not who the rule was designed for.

Anonymous said...

The rule actually makes more sense as to football than basketball or baseball. With respect to basketball, there is little value in trying to "hide" a player in semi-pro ball because (1) the coaching and competition likely will be bad and (2) most basketball prospects, unlike most football prospects, are physically ready to play immediately in college (else the redshirting process would be used frequently).

Given the large number of pro and semi-pro baseball leagues, it could make sense that the rule was developed with that sport in mind. But baseball is a non-revenue sport (at least as to 99.9% of schools), which makes it highly unlikely that it was the NCAA's focus. Also, the existence of a very strong minor league and professional scouting system mitigates against the risk that teams might "hide" players. If you're good enough to be a ringer on one of the two dozen(?) NCAA baseball teams that care enough about the sport to "hide" you, you likely have options in the MLB minor leagues.

The higher-order question, though, is whether a high-BCS caliber football prospect can truly be "hidden" in a semi-pro league in the internet age. Perhaps it's possible, but it seems highly, highly unlikely.

Richard said...

As usual, Chris, you ask an insightful question. There have been some changes to the rule that are indicative of the NCAA intent. Those changes tightened the rule for tennis, swimming and diving, and women's volleyball. For those sports, the student-athlete has one year following high school graduation to enroll in a full-time institution in order to retain four full years of eligibility to compete. It appears that the original rule had all sports in mind, irrespective of whether there is a viable pro development system. And, BTW, there has been a recent flurry of activity touting the formation of an AAU All-Star program for football, similar to that already in existence in basketball and other sports. You may recall the New York Times article about the 13-year-old basketball player who flies around the country participating in AAU all-star basketball tournaments.
And, in answer to another commentor, I didn't really mean that players could be "hidden" although you have to admit that certain elite academies (Fork Union) have been used to stack academically ineligible athletes in storage until they can acquire a respectable enough qualifying score. But what I did mean was that there are very talented athletes who either dropped out of high school or spent time in jail, or, both as in the case of Mr. Surrency. And if those athletes pass their GED, complete probation (if necessary), there is nothing to stop them from "redshirting" in some athletic development program until someone offers a scholarship (except the NCAA rule). How much more beneficial it is to be able to "redshirt" without having to start the eligibility clock ticking? Better still, how much more beneficial when one does not have to be bothered with academics or restrictions on "financial assistance"?
If each case has to be individually judged, and we have to, as a self-regulating society, take into account what is in the heart, well then the rules are unnecessary. The NCAA or some independent arbitrators' association can appoint the eligibility czar, who can then make rulings of complete inconsistency based on every case's uniqueness.
Mr. Surrency has recovered from his earlier life of poverty, burglary, grand larceny, and dropping out of high school. By all accounts, there were some admirable people who helped him along the way. One of them even managed to get him into college on a full scholarship. Is the fact that he is a Division I level competitive athlete currently on scholarship at a major university a reason why he should be exempt from the rules? In the eyes of the NCAA he is both older, and more experienced, than the other athletes with whom he competes by virtue of having played for a semi pro football team 4 years *after* what would have been his normal high school graduation date. And the NCAA makes it clear that they are not interested in trying to decide whether it was a "huge" or de minimis competitive advantage. It simply set out the rule and said "this is the path". And it's not like that path hasn't already reaped enormous rewards for Mr. Surrency based solely on his athletic ability. I agree that had he not played, he would never have been noticed. So it is ironic that what got him opportunity is what also used a fraction of his eligibility. It happens to many. Ask Mitch Mustain.

Tom said...

Not that I have a whole lot of sympathy for FSU in this scenerio, but what does strike me is how the age of 21 really seems to be some sort of arbitrary cutoff point.

Richard said...

Arbitrary? 21 happens to be the year (age 21-22)that most college athletes finish, with the exception of redshirts, military returnees, or medical hardship appeals. The most recent (defeated)proposal for this rule was that it be lowered to 19. And remember, the compensatory loss of one year's eligibility is one-for-one for play AFTER age 21. Is 22 less arbitrary? How about 23? 42?

On another note, the rationale quoted in a previous post did not emphasize enough the NCAA was not ruling against competitive advantage for the individual, but for the institution.

A final comment (I hope). My D-line coach in high school had played Div 1 football as a walk-on on the GI Bill. He had just completed 8 years in the USMC, finishing as the Pacific Fleet light-heavyweight boxing champion. In his own words "Those @#%$&* 18-20 year old kids just out of high school didn't stand a chance against me. I could look at 'em and make 'em shake." (And he didn't lose that ability as a coach either.)

Mr.Murder said...

Compelling story. IF he is out school is he draft elgibile? Would he be available as a supplemental? Sounds like UFA/seventh round special teams prospect.

Developmental league prospect otherwise. Seems like he was made to be a Raider, to this Raiders fan....

Anonymous said...

I thought the difference between amateur and professional was that professionals get paid. If Surrency never received payment, how could his former status be considered professional?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I am helping some young men on a minor league team and need to make them aware of this rule so they don't lose any eligibility unknowingly when they turn 21. It is sad though, because they don't get paid and they only play because they love the game.

Anonymous said...

Corey just signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. So his football carer is back on track. We hope to see him do well for the Ticats next season.