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NCAA message sours Sugar Bowl

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In football, we hear so much about sending messages.

Practices are filled with coaches sending them to their players. Players send them to each other with early-game hitting. Teams send them to pollsters with blowout wins.

A word of warning to those trying to decipher the message -- any message, really -- in the mess surrounding Ohio State and their trinkets-for-services-inclined players ... Don't.

Doing so will only leave you exasperated and exhausted from talking yourself in moral and ethical circles.

In case you were too busy stuffing your gills with figgy pudding over the holidays to hear, five Buckeyes -- including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, leading rusher Dan Herron and wide receiver DeVier Posey -- were disciplined for selling championship rings and other memorabilia, in addition to taking discounts from a Columbus tattoo parlor.

Each player was suspended five games.

No player was suspended for tonight's Sugar Bowl against Arkansas.

We start counting to five next year. But don't worry, they promise to accept their punishment.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel made the quintet promise to return next year so that they didn't "skirt the consequences."

That means if the NFL-ready Pryor keeps his word, he will return for a truncated senior season -- and perhaps return with no shot at winning a national title or going to a Rose Bowl.

The problem isn't the rule or the NCAA's head-scratching policy of crime, punishment and timing.

The problem isn't that the punishment isn't severe enough. In a perfect world where everyone's word is bond, it is, in fact, too severe.

The problem is that it just flat-out doesn't make sense.

Why the delay? Why the January exception?

When kids do something wrong, they get punished immediately. They don't get to go out for ice cream, then get grounded. They don't get ice cream.

On the field, when a penalty is committed, it's enforced then and there --- not in the next game.

Look, I am not going to get on my soapbox here about their violations. The NCAA needs to revisit the existing quid pro quo between athletes and universities. While players are far from martyrs, the monetary benefits they receive in return for pumping copious amounts of money into their schools has remained somewhat static as the collegiate game has become a big-money machine.

In this case, the five in question earned their medals of honor. Once they received them, they were their property.

Selling them wasn't a capital offense. But it's something that just can't happen. Imagine a world where the All-Everything Player could sell his 1992 Ford Taurus to a booster for, say, $600,000.

It just wouldn't be kosher. And it would happen.

Sure, it's troubling that the prospect of selling priceless Buckeye history didn't stop these guys from, well, putting a price on it. That's an entirely different issue reflective of the current sporting climate.

But the biggest issue I have is the layaway justice on display here.

Is it any coincidence that they're being allowed to compete in the most important monetary game of the year? Is it just blind luck?

In a statement posted on the NCAA website, the organization scoffed at the connection.

"The notion that the NCAA is selective with its eligibility decisions and rules enforcement is another myth with no basis in fact," it read. "Money is not a motivator or factor as to why one school would get a particular decision versus another."

OK, fine. Universities get bowl-game money, not the NCAA.

But why are college football's decision-makers opening themselves up for this type of criticism in the first place?

Immediately suspending the players would have been the right -- and only logical -- move. Barring them from the culmination of their season and brightest spotlight of the season is absolutely necessary as a deterrent to this type of behavior.

And you know what? That could have been the end of it. Missing the biggest game of the year would have been enough. A team without these stars would be hard-pressed to beat a Razorbacks team that ended the season playing as well as any other team in the country.

Instead, we get this. A Sugar Bowl with a unsettling undercurrent running through it: the knowledge that some guys in scarlet and gray really don't deserve to be out there and the promise of this becoming a 10-month ordeal when it could have been resolved in 10 days.

And, above all, one muddled message when clarity and clear-cut common sense was needed.

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