Sunday, January 8, 2012

Something is Rotten in the State of College Athletics

LSU and Alabama square off in the Superdome Monday night to determine the 2012 NCAA FBS Champion.  The last time they played in early November, LSU barely won in OT by a score of 9-6.  This so-called "Game of the Century" turned out to be rather dull, and ironically, is being repeated but a few months later with much more at stake.

But lets be honest.  Behind the pomp and circumstance, the commentary, the endless arguments about whether these two teams should be playing in the game, lurks one simple thing:  Embarrassingly large sums of money.  And the organization that holds a monopolistic grasp on college sports (and this pool of cash...), the NCAA.

The venerable National Collegiate Athletic Association purports to uphold the tradition of untainted amateur athletics.  In many ways, they accomplish this -- but do so speaking out both sides of their mouth.  For an organization that insists college athletes are best served by getting none of the fruits of their labor, they take an awfully lot of money directly from the talents of those they "protect."

Entertain Me, Clown
Joe Nocera of the New York Times breaks some of these numbers down:  The NCAA makes over $6 billion in annual revenue from men's college football and basketball, eclipsing that of the NBA.  CBS and Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay the NCAA $10.4 billion over 14 years for the rights to broadcast March Madness.  Individual conferences, and even teams, have gotten tens of millions of dollars from savvy sports networks trying to tap into rabid fan interest.  The SEC alone, in the midst of a recession, made over $1 billion in 2010.  The Big Ten cashed in to the tune of just over $900 million.  86 percent of NCAA revenues come from television and marketing rights fees. 

Those making the money for the bigwigs, however, see almost none of this windfall.  Coaches make millions of dollars -- Urban Meyer just signed with Ohio State for $24 million over 6 years.  As Nocera notes, though, "Any student athlete who accepts an unapproved, free hamburger from a coach, or even a fan, is in violation of N.C.A.A. rules."  A scholarship is considered an athlete's pay back.  Even a $2,000 stipend has been controversial.

This is especially egregious, as a school can sell paraphernalia with an athlete's name on it, yet the athlete himself will never see a dime.  Even after an athlete leaves university, if the NCAA uses his likeness, they don't have to pay the athlete.  You see, if they did, and the athlete were paid, it would corrupt the purity of his sport.  Nevermind that the Olympics long ago did away with the pure-amateur requirement, and it is as exciting as it has ever been.

Taylor Branch explores a lot of these disturbing trends in his marvelous Atlantic essay, The Shame of College Sports.  If you care about college athletics, I implore you to read the entire expose.  You will be heartbroken, enraged, and aghast by the behind-the-scenes rot endemic in college athletics.

To sum Branch's discoveries up, after a former Penn State President asks a shoe-marketer "Why should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?" the marketer responded:
They shouldn’t, sir. You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it. 
Take the Money and Run, Cam
(AP photo)
Where there is money, there is usually corruption and scandal.  Time after time, noteworthy (and successful) programs like USC and Ohio State have been sanctioned when athletes from their schools violate some rule regarding amateur eligibility.  They are banned from bowl games and have scholarships taken away.  Yet, the "cheating" continues.  And sometimes, public demand can force the NCAA to reconsider an infraction: read Cam Newton in 2010.

You may think it wrong for a highly successful athlete to take a car from an agent.  But how is that any worse than the organization that defined that rule making millions of dollars off the same players likeness without him seeing a dime?

So, why does this inequity continue?  Why don't athletes strike en masse? Because there is nowhere else to go.  If a kid wants to make it to the big time, the surest route is through college athletics.  Surety here is, of course, a bit of an overstatement.  Terrence Moore notes that of 120 players on the average FBS roster, about 5-6 will end up on an NFL team's training roster.  About 40 more believe they have a shot.  The numbers making to the NBA are even (proportionally) less. 

As these facts come to light, questions are being raised.  Lawsuits are quietly making their way through the courts.  Congress has even taken an interest, most famously when Senator Orrin Hatch called for a Congressional investigation of the BCS when Utah failed to make an elite bowl in 2009.   Even Mark Emmery, the NCAA President, understands the winds of change on the horizon:
The integrity of collegiate athletics is seriously challenged today by rapidly growing pressures coming from many directions.  We have reached a point where incremental change is not sufficient to meet these challenges. I want us to act more aggressively and in a more comprehensive way than we have in the past. A few new tweaks of the rules won’t get the job done.
Shut Up and Color
This acknowledgement, of course, doesn't alter the fact that things have yet to change.  Until athletes, or a big conference, make a statement and break from the status quo, the established rules will remain in effect.   To be sure, a bit of money may be lost in the short run as shuffling happens -- although I wouldn't count on it.  What the NCAA should be more concerned about is its waning legitimacy. 

Ironically, the lack of the very thing the NCAA claims to uphold for students, integrity, may be its ultimate downfall.  The rot of double-speak will slowly erode the enforcement authority of the NCAA until nothing remains but a new system built on reality. Maybe at that point we can actually start discussing what a student-athlete really is, and break down that charade as well...

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Ben. I'm enjoying the new blog. How is the barefoot/minimal running going? What shoes do you have?