Growing up in the shadows of the ski lifts in Loveland, Colo., Jeremy Bloom dreamed of becoming an Olympic champion. A naturally gifted athlete and passionate freestyle skier, it was evident early on that he possessed many of the ingredients in the gold medal formula. He was fearless. By age 15 he had become the United States Ski Team’s youngest member ever and, after years of racing on the circuit, earned the number one national ranking in 2002. A ninth place finish at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games that same year was icing on the cake. With that success came freshly reinforced aspirations for a medal in 2006. Who could blame him?But, for reasons not easily comprehended by the conventional sports junkie, carving down snow-covered moguls at 60 miles per hour was not enough of an adrenaline rush to quench his competitive appetite. With the first cool breeze of fall, Bloom likes to trade in his stretch suit and goggles for a football helmet and shoulder pads. Offered a full athletic scholarship to play college football in his backyard, he signed on to catch passes and return kicks for the Colorado Buffaloes.It was the ideal situation for Bloom. He could stay close to home and the Olympic Training Facility in Colorado Springs and continue to dedicate time to both of his athletic disciplines. Maintaining his standing as an amateur football player after skiing professionally for years posed no conflict. NCAA bylaws specifically stated such a dual-status was acceptable for its student-athletes.In fact, playing one sport collegiately after turning pro in another is not an uncommon scenario. Chad Hutchinson of Southern California, Chris Weinke of Florida State and Josh Booty and Matt Mauck of Louisiana State all inked contracts with Major League Baseball organizations and enjoyed stints in the minors before nixing the presumed “dead-end” career and returning to campus to quarterback their respective teams. Only one hurdle remained for Bloom regarding NCAA policy. He would not be allowed to accept any endorsement contracts for skiing. Doing so mandated an automatic forfeiture of his gridiron eligibility. One of the extreme sport’s most exciting and marketable young stars, Bloom would be passing up potential millions just for the right to keep his eligibility at Colorado.Right off the bat, the ruling didn’t seem particularly fair. Any endorsement deal would be strictly connected to his freestyle skiing career and would have little bearing on life as a college football player. After all, the ex-minor leaguers had all sipped from the corporate trough. And discussing the hypocrisy of sponsorship dollars lining the pockets of athletic departments and coaches has become hackneyed.Bloom decided to take the high road. He appealed to the NCAA but was ultimately unsuccessful in getting President Myles Brand and his cabinet to budge at all. After weighing his options with coaches and family, he announced last June that he would abide by the word of the NCAA and forgo any monetary compensation in order to stay on the football squad. Going to battle with his Buffalo teammates last season was just as important to him as achieving his Olympic goals and Bloom took one for the team – literally. But as time passed, he came to the realization that without the endorsement money he would not be able to continue to fund his preparation for the 2006 Games. According to Bloom, “private coaching, athletic trainers, specialized training programs, ski techs, dietary supplements, travel expenses and general living expenses” are all costs he is forced to pay out of his own pocket, with estimates of close to $100,000 per year. Forced to choose between two loves, he announced recently that he would begin to accept endorsement deals and subsequently dare the NCAA to take away his football scholarship and eligibility. Apologetic to his fans, coaches and teammates, Bloom stated his desire to continue to fight the NCAA in court and remained confident that he will once again be allowed to run out of the tunnel at Folsom Field in Boulder with his Colorado teammates.It is no secret that money and greed are the driving forces behind many NCAA decisions. And in Bloom’s case, the organization that claims to be looking out for the well-being of the student- athlete has made a ruling that can be seen as nothing other than cruel and arbitrary.At their best, college athletics are supposed to be about young men and women proudly wearing their school colors and competing for the love of the game, just like Jeremy Bloom wants to do. Before it’s too late, the NCAA should take a page out of Bloom’s book and make its own daring move by adopting a new posture on such unique and diverse individuals. It may be a whole lot better than sliding down a slippery slope.Gerton can be reached at email@example.com.
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