The story of Todd Gurley is the story of us.
Of course, very few of us can, or ever could, play football or any other sport as brilliantly as the recently suspended University of Georgia tailback. But many can identify with the helpless feeling when injustice is meted out by distant officials whose actions have long since sapped their credibility.
Don’t take this as a defense of Gurley if he did in fact accept money for signing autographs, in violation of NCAA rules. He surely knew that was forbidden and — again, if the allegations against him are true — deserved punishment, as much as that pains this UGA season-ticket holder to say.
Rules are rules.
But rules are also supposed to be enforced uniformly. Yet Gurley has already received more punishment (and as of this writing stood to receive still more) than Johnny Manziel, the former Texas A&M quarterback who sat out only half of one game after being accused of even more brazen rule-breaking.
Rules are supposed to be enforced competently. Yet by losing a player of Gurley’s caliber, perhaps the best in college football this season, even for one game amid a promising season, UGA arguably has been punished more harshly than the University of Miami was after a booster said he gave money to its football and basketball players for years. Why? Because the NCAA botched the Miami investigation by — wait for it — breaking its own rules for investigations.
And rules are supposed to promote some recognizable principle. Yet Gurley is being punished to preserve an antiquated view of amateurism that no longer troubles the consciences of collegiate officials who sell the TV rights to their games for hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
Rules are rules, but that alone doesn’t make them right. That fans of various teams, including Georgia’s rivals, support the #FreeGurley cause is solid evidence this NCAA rule is out of step.
Despite all this, the NCAA enjoys better approval ratings — 39 percent favorable to 37 percent unfavorable, per a Rasmussen poll this spring — than the president, Congress or, lately, the Supreme Court can muster.
Think about that. An organization alternately derided and loathed by fans and players alike garners more public approval than some of our highest public officials.
Maybe it’s because even more people have been subjected to bias, incompetence and arbitrariness by the truly powerful, or just the powerful in their lives: that police officer, that prosecutor, that regulator, that tax appraiser.
Maybe it’s because, while Gurley at least knew about the rules he was supposed to follow, the modern democratic citizen faces unprecedented scrutiny for an unknowable number of rules. This is lamented by people ranging from civil-liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate (book: “Three Felonies a Day: H0w the Feds Target the Innocent”) to the Pet Shop Boys (song: “We’re All Criminals Now”).
Maybe it’s because, despite the billions of dollars and heartfelt emotions involved, for most people the NCAA is merely the guardian of a pursuit of pleasure, not the pursuit of happiness. And a lot of people want to feel more like the pursuer, and less like the pursued.