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Holloway: Oversigned student-athletes are defenseless

POSTED: July 16, 2011 5:48 p.m.
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Former South Carolina football player Bryce Sherman says he's a victim of oversigning.

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When college football coaches hand out more scholarships than they have to give, it isn’t always the incoming freshmen suspended in gridiron purgatory. For every Elliott Porter left in a lurch, there’s at least one Bryce Sherman.

Porter was an incoming freshman offensive lineman enrolled at LSU last summer when he was asked to accept a grayshirt – in other words, to leave the program for a semester before returning to accept the scholarship that had been offered. Porter declined, accepting instead a scholarship at Kentucky, but has since returned to Baton Rouge.

Sherman is his upperclassman counterpart, a now-former member of the South Carolina Gamecocks. His future is a little less clear after he learned Tuesday that his football scholarship would not be renewed.

The reason, Sherman said, has to do with a numbers crunch. The Gamecocks are oversigned and must find ways to trim the roster until it is in compliance with the NCAA’s limitations of 25 incoming scholarship players and 85 total scholarship recipients on the roster.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier disputes that Sherman was a victim of oversigning, but his explanation — that the Gamecocks signed better players, leaving no room for Sherman — sounds like the very definition.

Sherman, a 5-foot-4 backup wide receiver who served as the team’s primary kickoff returner last season, said he first learned his position with the team might be in jeopardy a little more than a week ago. His fears were confirmed Tuesday in a meeting with Spurrier.

“They just said they got better players over the last year,” Sherman said. “Everybody they recruited committed and that never happens. And then everybody qualified (academically) and that never happens.”

That’s almost accurate. Not all of South Carolina’s incoming recruits have qualified, but there’s already too many to squeeze into compliance. In fact, the Gamecocks realized they were over budget back in February, withdrawing scholarship offers from two recruits who had already verbally committed to the program because there was no longer room for them in the incoming class. That led one high school coach in Florida to ban South Carolina coaches from his campus. Two years ago, Tucker High School coach Franklin Stephens did the same when one of his players had his scholarship offer rescinded late in the process.

The Gamecocks, according to Rivals.com, still signed 32 players in February. Add that to 23 in 2010, 29 in 2009 and 23 in 2008 and you end up 20 over the NCAA limit.

But some of those players never make it to campus. Some fail to qualify, some drop out of school, some get hurt, some give up on football and some get kicked off the team for a variety of disciplinary reasons.

That’s why coaches like Spurrier say oversigning is necessary. He admitted as much to the Wall Street Journal in an article published in March and went as far as to say the Big Ten was doing its schools a competitive disservice by enforcing rules designed to curb oversigning.

Say what you will about the Old Ball Coach, at least he’s above the board with his ethically questionable opinions.

Sherman confirmed that. He said he was aware that his scholarship was a year-to-year deal, not a four-year pact between school and student-athlete. He said players at South Carolina are also aware that they are competing for their roster spots.

”It is what it is,” Sherman said. “It’s a business. I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s not my call.”

 An astute observation for a 21-year-old. It is a business and it’s not fair. Those are the realities of big-time college athletics. But need they be?

That’s a question the NCAA needs to answer for itself. Does it want to be an organization that allows its student-athletes to stand defenseless against the steamrolling, win-at-all-costs machinery? Currently constructed, it’s a system in which rising seniors can have their financial aid pulled out from under them, or freshmen who already enrolled in classes can be told they’re no longer part of the team, not because they failed a class or got in trouble, but because the coach at their school treats a scholarship like an expiring contract and there’s a hot new free agent he’s got to make room for.

Not that Sherman’s life is ruined. That’s not the way he sees it.

“I’ve got some schools calling me for football and track,” he said. “I’ve got to talk to my parents. I don’t really know yet. I know God has a plan for me, and I know everything happens for a reason.”

But Sherman shouldn’t be the one doing the soul searching. It’s time for the NCAA to appeal to the better angels of its own nature and put an end to oversigning.

Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him at Twitter.com/gitmesbholloway.



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