Pay-to-play junior hockey programs have all but criminalized the practice of allowing some players to play for free on the back of others that are paying the full fee. The practice is perceived to have a negative impact on a player’s eligibility to participate in National Collegiate Athletic Association programs.
Unlike many other clear violations of the many NCAA eligibility standards, the section related to Improper Financial Benefits is very vague and subject to interpretation. Clearly a gift of $100,000 in cash would be considered improper, but I have to question if being permitted to play for free is. Let me explain.
The NCAA offers athletic scholarships to gifted athletes. The same goes for any number of private secondary schools across the continent. How can those benefits be perceived as acceptable but a free-ride to a Tier III team is not?
The case gets stickier for junior hockey. The common thought is that every player on a team must be charged and treated equally. That rarely occurs even at the free-to-play levels that the Canadian Junior Hockey League (really ten leagues), United States Hockey League or North American Hockey League play at.
In the CJHL, some prospects are paying a fee, some are just paying for the billet, others are not paying anything at all, and others are getting it all for free along with a nice spending allowance from the team. This is not news by any stretch of the imagination, and every college hockey coach knows about it, yet the NCAA has turned a blind eye to the practice. Now why is that? We know that USA Hockey teams have complained that it’s not fair, yet the NCAA’s position is that they do not have any jurisdiction over the practices of the CJHL. Meanwhile, the CJHL continues to produce a large number of NCAA Division I hockey players every year.
In the USHL, things are a bit more buttoned down, on the surface anyway. Yes, the league covers all he costs and that includes the billet. But are all billet situations equal? No. Let’s face it, players living at a millionaire’s house is going to have a few more amenities than if living at the average police officer’s home. Is that considered an improper benefit? What if the millionaire billet dad allows the player free use of the family car or maybe even the private jet?
All things are not equal in the NAHL as well. How many teams are covering billet fees for individual players or know about billet families that never cash the monthly checks from the prospects?
Over the last few years, I’ve uncovered numerous instances where Tier III teams were allowing certain high-end players to play for free. I’ve gone as far as opened communications with compliance personnel from the NCAA to ask the question; is the practice permitted? We get the same response each time. The NCAA does not have jurisdiction over non-NCAA programs.
Some pay-to-play leagues are now taking things one-step further and declaring that teams are not permitted to assist players in securing funds for their player fee. This is entirely opposite of what is occurring across the entire spectrum of organizations that develop NCAA athletes.
American Legion baseball programs across the United States have permitted players to sell individual sponsorship packages to offset their portion of the cost to play. Let us not even get into the various high school fundraisers that are in place because select families are unable, or unwilling, to pay the participation fee.
Maybe it’s high time to end the charade. The NCAA could not care less about how a team finances their operation or how little Tommy paid for his development. This goes for hockey, basketball, football, soccer, or even bowling. Leagues need to be more concerned about an operation’s ability to cover expenses to complete the season.
The issue is more about protecting pay-to-play owners from themselves than it ever was about NCAA eligibility. Enough is enough and I’m tired of hearing it.