Every good HR person knows the importance of setting a precedent and making sound business decisions based on that precedent. Sometimes a precedent must be changed, but in most cases, care must be taken to ensure the stable foundation of an established precedent.
So what is a precedent? A precedent is an act or instance that may be used as an example in dealing with subsequent similar instances, or a convention or custom arising from long practice. In legalese, a precedent is a judicial decision that may be used as a standard in subsequent similar cases. My question is, who in their right mind made the precedent-setting decision of allowing Auburn quarterback Cam Newton to play in the SEC Championship on Saturday against the South Carolina Gamecocks?
I understand the argument for allowing him to play. The NCAA has determined that although Cam's father, Cecil Newton, admitted to working with an agency to try to solicit his son's quarterbacking services for up to $180,000, they could find no evidence that Cam knew anything about this rule-breaking activity. Their final decision was summarized as "Can't punish the player for an activity that he didn't know about." I believe in innocent until proven guilty, and Cam is innocent until evidence is established that he did know about the rule-breaking efforts and/or received money in any way, shape or form. My jaded mind finds it hard to believe that Cam didn't know anything about his father's activities, and there is a long way from "lack of evidence" to "innocent." In a couple of years, after Cam has been stripped of his Heisman Trophy and Auburn has been stripped of a National Championship (if they indeed go 14-0), people will probably look back at the decision of the NCAA and scratch their heads at the short-sightedness of this terrible decision.
The NCAA has now set a precedent that as long as the student-athlete knows "nothing" about the activities of those around him or her, that the athlete cannot be punished. Is it fair to punish the athlete for the actions of another? Perhaps a long-lost uncle trying to cash in on some sleazy back alley deal could be explained away. But how can allowing Cam Newton to play in the SEC Championship Game even though his father has admitted to trying to shop his services for money not be a precedent-setting decision? I am a WVU Mountaineer alumnus, and I love the football team to the core of my being. At 8-3 in a down year, I find it hard to believe that the NCAA, or West Virginia University at the least, would allow our quarterback, Geno Smith, to avoid a suspension or expulsion if the facts were to arise that his father solicited money from WVU for his services as quarterback, even if it were shown that Smith knew nothing about the activity. Why do I say this? I say this because this is the most sacred of NCAA rules - no pay for play - and the NCAA has just set a precedent with a GIANT, UNIVERSE-SIZED loophole. If I'm a coach, or a father, or a close cousin of a 5-star recruit looking to get paid, as long as I don't talk to the recruit about it, there is now no punishment for me asking colleges for money. Oh, wait, maybe I cannot attend practices. Whoop te doo. I'll skip practice while I'm spending my $180,000, and I'll hope that my athlete son or daughter turns professional and makes millions more because of his or her skill.
As an HR person, when we have to make a decision, one of the first questions that we ask is "What have we done in the past?" In other words, what precedent has been set in the past? If you make a decision contrary to the precedent that has been set, in many instances, you can find yourself looking at a discrimination or disparate treatment legal claim against you or the company that you work for. Don't believe me? Try firing one employee for stealing a screwdriver from your workplace, but letting another one off with a slap on the wrist for doing the same thing. Of course, prior performance, disciplinary procedures, etc. always come into play. But imagine treating two employees with the same employee records, in the same situation, so differently. Any HR person would squirm in his or her seat knowing what the possible, and probable, consequences of making this type of decision will be.
The NCAA has just opened the door for any athlete to be able to claim that he or she should be eligible to play, even if their parent, brother, sister, favorite uncle, high school coach or pastor acted as an agent trying to sell his or her services to the highest bidder. As long as the athlete wasn't recorded or videotaped, how is anyone going to be able to PROVE that an athlete had knowledge or not of the activities? Cecil Newton admitted what he did, which is why we know for a fact that it occurred. There were supposed phone calls that Cam made that seemed to show that he knew what his father was doing, but there was nothing recorded. Nothing recorded, nothing videotaped, nothing in writing, means nothing happened. Cam is innocent until proven guilty. His father has already admitted his guilt. What the NCAA should have done is force Cam Newton to sit out of the SEC Championship Game, and their subsequent Bowl game, as a precedent to every father, mother, friend or associate of big-time athletes who must be salivating at the decision that was made yesterday. Force the player to sit, even if the player didn't know about the activity, as a precedent to ensure that everyone knows the rules and what happens if you break them. Can you imagine the lesson that would be learned by every college athlete, and everyone on the Auburn team or rooting for them on Saturday, if their perfect season and chance at a National Championship were derailed because of the actions of their star quarterback's dad?
The NCAA had a chance to set a fundamentally strong precedent, and they absolutely blew it. Now, they will have to reap what they sow in the years ahead. Imagine the fallout the next time the NCAA tries to suspend or expel a student athlete faced with similar circumstances as the Newton family. I guess that's why they pay the lawyers of the NCAA big bucks. Good luck NCAA, you're going to need it.