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Ron Dayne lost his career rushing record because the NCAA is dumb

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Once again, bureaucratic laziness takes the fun out sports.

Ron Dayne #27

On Saturday, San Diego State blew out the Houston Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl (amiably presented by our good friends at GEICO). The game, played in front of approximately 29,000 presumably-at-least-somewhat-interested fans, was notable for few things. It was Major Applewhite’s first game as coach of the Cougars. Houston quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. threw four interceptions. And one of the greatest records in college sports was broken. Sort of.

Aztec running back Donnel Pumphrey, a senior from Las Vegas, broke Ron Dayne’s all-time FBS career rushing record in front of his home crowd. It was a nice achievement for Pumphrey, who has had an excellent career for San Diego State. In a gracious move, Dayne sent him a note of congratulations.

The second hashtag is particularly notable. In his career, Dayne rushed for 7,125 yards over 47 games, including bowl games. Pumphrey, the new record holder, has amassed 6,405 for his career. The NCAA, utilizing the logic and thoughtfulness it is known for, has decreed that 6,405 > 7,125.

Annual Animal Stocktake At London Zoo
Stock photograph: NCAA statistician.
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

How does this math work out? For years, bowl stats did not count in the official annals of the NCAA. That changed in 2002, however, when THE MEN IN CHARGE decreed that, going forward, bowl stats would count towards a player’s career totals. In their infinite wisdom, they chose not apply it retroactively.

So, even though Dayne actually ran for #7125 in his illustrious college career, the NCAA has him down for #6397. In fact, if bowl stats were applied retroactively, Pumphrey would be third on the all-time rushing list, behind both Dayne and Tony Dorsett. That means that the NCAA’s career rushing “record holder” ran for the third-most yards in history.

There are thoughtful and measured ways to look at this. There are reasoned and articulate ways to examine it. The issue has been discussed and analyzed for the past week and frankly I am not really feeling thoughtful or measured or reasoned. I’m feeling tired.

I am tired of bureaucrats taking the joy out of sports. Sports are supposed to be fun. Aren’t they? We are drawn to these silly games because they are fun to play and fun to watch when played well. It is fun watching men and women do remarkable things that we cannot dream of doing ourselves. It is fun connecting with athletes because they have put their heart and soul and hours upon hours of work into something they love. We love sports because they are fun.

A number of people and institutions, the NCAA at the fore, have done a fantastic job commoditizing our fun. Really smart people have figured out really smart ways to separate us from our money for tickets and sweatshirts and hats and all sorts of other swag. We do so, willingly, because we like fun. We like watching these games and these players and hey, these full-body-officially-licensed-footie-jammies are really goshed-darned comfortable. We’re cool with it, for the most part. Because it’s fun.

But this crap. This crap here takes the fun right out of it.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t “the moral hazard of rooting for a team or coach who has done some really shady stuff” stuff. There’s a lot of that out there and it isn’t going away any time soon. That’s a different beast, one that we as fans will all have to reckon with, some sooner than others. That’s a different column, one I’m not quite ready to write yet.

No, this kills the fun because it is so profoundly, resolutely dumb. It is arbitrary and bureaucratic and so on-its-face idiotic that OF COURSE it is the route the NCAA took. It would be one thing if the recordkeeping was shoddy or there was some question about the validity of the bowl game stats. But that’s not the case. Everyone is in agreement about the yardage that Dayne (and Dorsett) got in their bowl games. The NCAA just chooses not to recognize those yards because #reasons.

Pretty much everybody who is talking about this is quoting this ESPN article from 2002 where THE MEN IN CHARGE all got together and talked about why it made sense to include bowl stats. TMIC got the basic point right, I think. Bowl stats should count. But then TMIC proceeded to make the most bold and bizarre decision that the change would not be retroactive. Because?

Honestly, is there a reason that they could articulate that would make logical sense? If an organization chooses to keep record books, shouldn’t those record books actually reflect the performance within the organization in a consistent manner? If not, then what, exactly, is the point?

My guess? It was laziness. Pure, honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned, American laziness. Small minds love bright lines. They’re clean. Straightforward. There’s no muss, no fuss. No sifting through years of Tangerine Bowl stats and Bluebonnet Bowl box scores. No arguments with the stat geeks. It’s easy. And it is just so very lazy.

I feel for Ron Dayne. #7125 is an unimaginatively hard feat to accomplish (as demonstrated by the fact that he is the only one in history to achieve it). He deserves the top slot. I feel for Pumphrey too. He’s got a paper record that everyone knows is a paper record and he deserves better after an outstanding collegiate career. He’s got the third-most yardage in history—that ain’t nothing. But every time his “record” comes up going forward, it’s going to be tagged with a verbal asterisk. “Yeah, but...”

Fixing this would be very simple. There are plenty of sites that have already aggregated the stats—there’s no math involved for those arithmetically adverse folks in Indianapolis. But given the NCAA’s history of ignoring responding to criticism, I doubt highly that they care.

But they should. Not because it’s the right thing to do (though it most certainly is). But because every time they make a really dumb and bureaucratic decision they make a little cut in the great monolithic, money-making monstrosity that they actually care about. Every time they make all of this just a little more absurd and a little less fun, they make it a little less likely that someone will buy a t-shirt or travel to a bowl game. These giant beasts are not impervious—just look at the NFL.

If they were as smart as they claim to be, I think they would see that fun matters. And this, well, this ain’t fun.

P.S. For those so inclined, here’s some info:

Mark Emmert, c/o The National Collegiate Athletic Association, 700 W. Washington Street, P.O. Box 6222, Indianapolis, Indiana 46206-6222; Phone: 317-917-6222, Fax: 317-917-6888