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NCAA referee conflict of interest -- Time for a change

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Gary Parrish reported yesterday on an important story, an enlightening one in my case.  It seems that NCAA officials are often taken on foreign trips by teams that are allowed to make them by NCAA rules.  During these trips, the NCAA referees essentially get an all-expenses paid free vacation courtesy of the school in return for officiating a game or two.  Parrish describes this practice in more detail in these two paragraphs:

College basketball programs, you see, regularly hold intrasquad scrimmages in the fall and during the season, and it's common for NCAA referees to officiate those scrimmages. In fact, I couldn't find a single coach in a random poll at the LeBron James Skills Academy earlier this month who doesn't use NCAA referees for scrimmages, and the going rate for an hour of work is somewhere between $100 and $200, most acknowledged.

Furthermore, schools also typically take referees on foreign trips, meaning referees enjoy what is basically a vacation to Mexico or Europe or Canada every year with schools paying all their expenses. So what we have are referees making thousands of extra dollars per year from schools -- and taking all-expenses-paid trips out of the country with teams -- and then calling games featuring the same schools from which they literally receive paychecks.

Does this sound wrong to you?  I'm betting it does, and it should.  This is called a "conflict of interest," an ethical quandary where the person involved is an actor in two competing interests -- in this case, that of the school who is paying him these bonus dollars or trips, and that of a basketball conference paying him to impartially officiate basketball games during the season.

Back in 2005, Gregg Doyel wrote this piece regarding Rick Hartzel, Northern Iowa University Athletics Director by day and NCAA official by night.  I am not in a position to challenge the assertion by Hartzel that he "just [tries] to get calls right," and I have no reason to disbelieve him.  Doyel concludes, though, that although this looks like a problem, it really isn't:

Having the AD of one bubble team officiating games for another bubble team is another potential worry, but here's the truth of the matter: The Big Ten is comfortable with Hartzell overseeing its bubble teams, and the Big Ten has plenty to lose, considering it earns revenue from every NCAA Tournament team it produces.

My question, though, is this -- why is this behavior allowed?  Is the NCAA so hurting for good officials that they can't eliminate these nasty little deals that open them up to criticism?  We get all up in arms when our politicians own a few shares of stock in companies who's business they might be in a position to influence, but we consider college athletics folk somehow above reproach or scandal?  Rick Greenspan, Kelvin Sampson on line 1.

Back during the Donaghy affair in the NBA, we saw NCAA officials beginning to squirm -- now we can see one of the reasons why.  Imagine if this little-known practice had been revealed right in the middle of the Donaghy investigation -- think a few questions might have popped up?  This conduct is not good for the game, not good for the leagues and not good for the schools. 

Imagine if Kentucky paid an official to go with it to Mexico or the Bahamas as Parrish says is commonly done, and that official was later involved in a controversial call in an important game that favored the 'Cats.  People might accuse the University of Kentucky of trying to influence officials with favors, and it would certainly have the ring of credibility, even if totally false.  This is known as the "appearance of impropriety."

This off-season referee employment by the schools clearly a practice which should be stopped, but the NCAA says it is up to the individual conferences, and the League supervisors of officials aren't returning Parrish's phone calls on the subject.  From that, we can conclude that they don't want to talk about it, and that makes it look all the more controversial.

I have been hard on officials last year, particularly in the SEC, and in my opinion rightly so.  I figure the SEC has way more than enough problems with officiating without potentially scandalous revelations about conflicts of interest.  It should immediately take control of these exploits or ban them.  If league officials are to be taken with teams, then either the league should compensate them or they shouldn't be allowed to officiate at games involving the schools that they are paid by.  I am not accusing the officials or the league of wrongdoing, there is no real evidence of that.   But why wait until that argument can be persuasively made?

In the end, this seems an obviously questionable custom, and the conference supervisors of officials do themselves no credit at all by dodging questions about it.  The NCAA and its member athletic conferences needs to lead the way when it comes to ethics in officiating, not compound the problems recently uncovered in the NBA by burying their collective heads in the sand.