Ohio University professor David Ridpath’s time at Marshall shaped his outlook on NCAA athletics

OU professor and former Marshall compliance officer David Ridpath (From ESPN)

When the Center for College Affordability and Productivity released a study in January suggesting that Ohio University students neither realized the financial drain nor appreciated the contribution of varsity athletics, it further ignited a debate around campus and throughout the nation.

Many considered the findings a swipe at the university’s athletic department – already under fire for continuing to overspend on its budget to the tune of nearly $1.2 million annually for the last five years.

Some pegged the study’s authors, Matthew Denhart and OU professors Richard Vedder and David Ridpath as disgruntled academics, unaware true impact of intercollegiate athletics.

At least in Ridpath’s case, they couldn’t be further from the truth.

The assistant professor of sports administration spent over a decade working in college athletic departments. He has coached conference champions and worked with future Hall of Famers.

He has also experienced the dark side intercollegiate athletics, and knows better than most just how tainted the institution can become.

“I really kind of saw the true face of college athletics,” Ridpath said. “It was a big eye-opener, which has kind of led me on the path I’m on now. I want to save college athletics from itself.”

A ‘convenient scapegoat’

It was Friday July 2, 1999 when Ridpath, then the assistant athletic director of compliance and student services at Marshall University, got the call.

Michelle Duncan, an academic advisor, informed him that a professor and volunteer football strength coach, Bruce McAllister, had approached her asking what grades a number of football players in his class would need in order to be eligible.

“The first time (McAllister) stopped me in the hallway and asked me in passing and I thought he was joking,” Duncan said. “It wasn’t until he asked me the second time that I realized he was serious and that’s when I contacted Dave Ridpath.”

Duncan also informed Ridpath that earlier that spring, McAllister had provided football players in one of his classes with a copy of a test ahead of time.

“[Ridpath was] probably shocked more than anything. As you can imagine a compliance officer probably hears about all kinds of details and events,” Duncan said. “But when he heard about this one, it immediately raised a red flag.”

This was the first Ridpath had ever gotten word of the issues, but he knew he had a serious problem on his hands.

Q & A with David Ridpath

Dr. B. David Ridpath is an assistant professor at the Ohio University School of Recreation and Sports Sciences where he teaches courses in sports law, marketing and issues in intercollegiate athletics. Prior to coming to Ohio, he worked as an NCAA compliance officer and spent time teaching at the Mississippi State and Marshall University sports administration programs among other institutions. Ridpath owns a wealth of knowledge with respect to collegiate athletics and the issues and regulations facing student athletes. He has been interviewed on ESPN’s SportsCenter and in The Sporting News. He is also a regular guest on ESPN’s Outside The Lines.

Bart Logan: You used to work as an NCAA compliance officer. What were your duties? Were you out of Indianapolis?

David Ridpath: Actually, I worked for an institution. I worked at Marshall University (as the) assistant athletic director for compliance and student services. Before that I had worked at Weber State University, which is a school in Utah, and also coached here, and then worked a Division II school in Georgia. So, I’ve never really worked, per se, for the national office. Compliance is essentially – assuring to the best of your ability – having systems in place to NCAA conference and institutional rules and regulations with regards to athletics. That’s essentially what it is.

While I was one person – you typically have a staff, but I didn’t really have a staff at Marshall – but compliance with rules is everyone’s responsibility. When you have a far-reaching athletic department like here where you have 300 athletes, 400 athletes, and a huge department, and other people who are very interested in athletics, it can be a very difficult job.

Logan: Were you the person who would run the athletes through during the year and outline what would be a violation?

Ridpath: Absolutely. You have several meetings with teams – sometimes with individuals athletes, obviously with coaches – just saying, “This is what can be done. This is what can’t be done. This is what you need to do.” You really tell the athletes, sadly it almost got to the point of just like “don’t do anything until you ask” almost.

Ohio University assistant professor of sports and administration David Ridpath. (Courtesy of USA Today)

You feel bad about that because you want to give them a little bit of freedom but it almost became that way. You try to have layers of protection and certainly the first-line person is the coach. But, if you have a coach who’s a little more desperate to win than to follow the rules, it can become a little more problematic. Everybody has to be pulling on the same rope and that doesn’t happen very often.

Logan: Do you think that there’s a double standard for the big sport athletes – the football players, the basketball players – than other smaller athletics in terms of revenue production?

Ridpath: Yes. And I know that for a fact. How it works: the NCAA national office exists for the membership. The membership does make the rules in that very big, thick rulebook… That national office wields a tremendous amount of authority in interpreting what those rules mean.

You and I might look at a sentence that says, “this desk is brown.” I think we can both agree with that. That might be an NCAA rule. Somebody could come and say, “it’s actually brown and light brown and there’s a trim.” There’s a lot of grey area in NCAA rules and that’s where the national office yields a lot of authority. But, I’ll tell you who wields more authority – conference commissioners, big time schools, TV networks, and bowl committees.

You just look at Ohio State situation. (Paul) Hoolahan of the New Orleans Bowl… basically admitted to everybody “Yeah, I called the NCAA. I called Ohio State. I called the Big Ten. I told them we need to protect the integrity of this game.” OK? I know that Jim Delany of the Big Ten and Mike Slive of the SEC don’t sit a twiddle their thumbs and wait for this national office to make a decision. They’re on the phone. They’re talking to people and they’re putting an immense pressure. Not so much like, “hey, I hope you can really find something that works.” It’s more like: “here’s what we need. Make it work.”

The interpretation for the Ohio State situation is in no way related. I’ve actually been working on this for the past few days and there’s going to be more to come, but let me just show you an example. This took weeks for somebody to finally say this. You figure that if it was an interpretation the NCAA would say, “Here’s why we did not suspend the Ohio State players.” … Here’s the wording of why those five athletes at Ohio State were eligible… (The NCAA interpreted that they were) ‘Innocently involved.’

Would you agree that they were innocently involved? There’s [sic] been mountains of evidence. They knew what they were doing was wrong. (For) Gene Smith, who’s a very good athletic director and a good guy, to sit there and say, “We didn’t educate them enough,” is just a load of crap to essentially throw a smokescreen up.

Then it says, “No competitive advantage was gained.” Now typically that could mean no competitive advantage was gained by selling the stuff. I would say that’s true. But the other thing is the fact that they were kept on the team. Those five had a significant effect on that game. If those five didn’t play, Ohio State loses by three touchdowns, even though Arkansas couldn’t catch a pass…

NCAA rules are made to be twisted, turned and abused. And, it’s usually the powerful that get that consideration… I used the example of this with a friend of mine that was with the NCAA. I said, “let’s face facts here… If I was still at Marshall University and Randy Moss’ dad… was shopping him around for $180,000, would Randy Moss have been able to stay eligible?” Their answer was probably not. “If Randy Moss was selling his stuff when I was at Marshall – Byron Leftwich, Chad Pennington – would they have been eligible for a bowl game?” Highly doubtful.

In this case a lot of people got involved who are very, very powerful and basically the bowl director – the Sugar Bowl – let the cat out of the bag. There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes. So that’s the fundamental problem. It’s arbitrary, capricious and not enforced equitably across the board. The standards are nebulous. I could look at almost any NCAA rule – and I gave you that pretty silly example – and find a way to make it work.