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MARCH 02, 2017

It’s officially March. While for a select few this means that we are that much closer to National Frozen Food Day or Manatee Appreciation Day, for most it’s all about March Madness. It’s almost time to give those couple dollars to your acquaintance Andrew, fill your bracket with Cinderella upsets that you’ll most likely get wrong and watch more Division I college basketball than you have all year long.

There are few serious sports fans who don’t play some form of fantasy sports. If you’re reading this column, there is an easily 97 percent chance that you have at least a fantasy football team or have put a couple bucks into a March Madness tournament.

You can’t escape it if you watch or follow any type of sports today. It’s a part of TV commercials and ads online. How can you seriously watch the NFL and not have an opinion on whether Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell should be taken first in next year’s fantasy draft?

This week it was revealed that five Richmond baseball players were suspended indefinitely for playing fantasy football. They are prohibited from playing in the sport that they have worked their entire lives to find success in because of their participation in a game that millions of people across the country play. A type of game that the NCAA website not only promotes, but in fact has a countdown to brackets opening on its homepage.

The five players’ suspension was originally announced Feb. 17, the day of their season opener. At that time, it was not revealed which players were being suspended and what in particular the infractions were.

The timetable for their return was only denoted by, “As a result of these violations, these five student-athletes will be ineligible for competition until the NCAA’s reinstatement process has been completed.”

On Feb. 24, the Richmond News-Dispatch reported the names of the five baseball players and that the infractions were related to their participation in fantasy football league with an entry fee. The players will remain suspended until the NCAA has completed its “reinstatement process.” Allegedly, the NCAA found out about the players’ participation and then informed Richmond of the infractions.

According to the NCAA rulebook these players should have been suspended. There’s no doubt in that. The rule states the following:

“You are not eligible to compete if you knowingly participate in any sports wagering activity that involves intercollegiate, amateur or professional athletics. … Examples of sports wagering include, but are not limited to, the use of a bookmaker or parlay card; Internet sports wagering; auctions in which bids are placed on teams, individuals or contests; and pools or fantasy leagues in which an entry fee is required.”

The NCAA is concerned with the amateur nature of student-athletes and wants to ensure it does everything to prohibit them from gambling on their own games. And in order to maintain that, there needs to be a gambling rule. It’s taboo in all sporting leagues, and the NCAA has dealt with players betting on their own games in the past.

Athletes gambling or putting money down on their own sport is bad and should absolutely be reason for punishment. But a student-athlete playing in a fantasy football league with some friends shouldn’t hurt their opportunity to play the sport on one of the highest levels.

But the NCAA needs to remember the very thing that it preaches most when considering these rules — the “student” part of “student-athlete.” At the end of the day, almost of these athletes are also here to be young adults and experience college. These are not the only five players in the entire NCAA playing fantasy leagues. It’s just not possible. It’s too common of an activity. The NCAA having and enforcing rules on things that so many student-athletes take part in makes no sense.

The NCAA consistently uses the fact that they are students to prohibit many activities and explain away practices that are often confusing. But student-athletes cannot just be students when it best suits the NCAA. They need to consistently be treated like the amateur athletes that they are and not held to the same standards as professionals. They aren’t getting paid, but that’s certainly a column for another day. For now, it’s enough to state that they deserve the opportunity in college to be both students and athletes.

The NCAA makes more than $1 billion from the NCAA March Madness Tournament, a significant portion of which comes from media rights. Sure, portions of that go back to the students or conferences, but that’s an absurd number. That price wouldn’t be nearly as high if people weren’t watching to see how their bracket is performing.

Things are complicated enough for student-athletes to ensure they fit every rule that the NCAA sets up. Making things simpler will only help the compliance with regulations and to ensure things are truly done fairly, instead of restricting someone from picking a professional quarterback too early in the first round of their draft.

Let’s hope these baseball players can rejoin their team as soon as possible. It would be a shame for them to be sitting at home microwaving a meal in celebration of National Frozen Food day instead of supporting their team.

Contact Alaina Getzenberg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @agetzenberg.

MARCH 02, 2017