Leaders in college athletics must look in mirror
Posted September 25, 2013
Late this summer, Sports Illustrated released a five-part expose' on Oklahoma State University's football program. While a bit overblown, the piece covered several areas of impermissible and unethical behavior, including allegations of grade-fixing and other academic malfeasance.
While the reporting of this story come into question and some of the "facts" were debunked – to the extent we could believe anyone connected to this story – that doesn't mean that the basic thrust of the mini-series wasn't true.
Recently, former North Carolina wide receiver Greg Little admitted to accepting $20,000 from a sports agent while still at UNC. This is new information on an old story. A few years back, we first learned that Little had accepted gifts and other impermissible benefits from an agent, and a tutor, and he was declared ineligible prior to his senior season.
Johnny Manziel, the first freshman in history to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, found himself embroiled in scandal upon scandal upon scandal this offseason. The Texas A&M star had a knack for finding the spotlight when it was least appropriate.
From being asked to leave the Manning Passing Academy – I'm sorry, for falling ill and suffering from dehydration and having to leave – to getting bounced out of a fraternity party on the campus of archrival Texas, it's been a rough summer for the kid they call "Johnny Football." But the most dangerous of his offseason stunts was pulled with the stroke of a pen.
Manziel was seen signing thousands of autographs for memorabilia dealers in three different states, autographs which would ultimately bring in tens of thousands of dollars for the companies involved. If found to have accepted money in exchange for his Johnny Hancock, that would have been a direct violation of the NCAA's rules regarding amateurism and would have likely cost Manziel his eligibility – even if only for a portion of the season – and potentially brought harm to the Aggies' program.
One thing all of these instances have in common is that each of them – if true, and I'd be stunned if they weren't – are serious violations of NCAA rules.
Tuesday night, Jeff Gravley and the WRAL-TV documentary unit took a broad look at the impact the colossal explosion of money has had on college sports. As you might have expected, the mind-boggling increase in the revenues of major college athletics has had a negative effect on the academic missions across "higher education" in virtually every aspect of what has become a multi-billion dollar industry. However, one hour of television time isn't nearly enough to drag out the cause and effects of all of these challenges. So, let's deal with the three examples I laid out at the start.
Let me gaze into my crystal ball…
In the future, in a world in which intercollegiate athletics no longer insults the intelligence of those who pay attention to reality, the governing body of college athletics will recognize how inherently unfair and archaic the amateurism rules have become. Fifteen years ago, the Atlantic Coast Conference boasted a then-unheard of distribution of $8 million in revenue to each of their nine member schools (ahhhh, remember the good old days?).
Then, the ACC led the country in conference wealth. Today, while the yearly league payouts have more than doubled, and stand to triple in the very near future, conferences like the SEC and B1G have hit the $30 million mark per school, and that number will certainly increase when the the four-team playoff kicks in following next season.
Television is the driving force behind the monetary explosion, and because nothing is as valuable to networks as live sports, the numbers are likely to continue to trend upwards for the foreseeable future.
And the world is watching.
Stadiums are growing larger even if there are places in which more seats are the last thing they need. Ultra-high-tech workout facilities are expanding and far more equipped than anything the National Football League has to offer their professionals. Alabama's brand new building, covering 30,000 square feet has a 212-seat theater, an arcade, two juice bars, a couple of 30-by-8 foot "hydrotherapy pools" and almost too many 70-inch high definition televisions to count.
Is all of this necessary? Is ANY of it necessary? That's a debate for another time. But the real issue is that something had to be done with the influx of cash because athletic programs are tax-exempt, nonprofits and the money has to go somewhere. Oh, and there's only so much you can pay Nick Saban.
A decade and a half earlier there were just a handful of coaches in the top conferences earning more than $1 million annually. Now, there's only a handful who aren't. Today, some assistant coaches are earning more than head coaches did at the turn of the millennium. College football and men's college basketball are, with very few isolated exceptions, the two sports that fund athletics all over the country. Football floats almost everything else at the schools lucky enough to be in that fraternity, and men's basketball – specifically the NCAA Tournament –funds roughly 90 percent of the entire NCAA.
Colleges aren't alone in this world. In fact, the revenue growth of professional sports is exponentially larger than the "non-profits." The NFL last checked in as a $9 billion industry – annually! Even Major League Baseball, the sport some national radio pundits refer to as "a dying industry," registered $7.5 billion in revenue during the 2012 season. We should all die so poor.
And along with the rising salaries and increased exposure – coupled with the rapidly spreading world of social media – comes heightened awareness of the next generation of would-be stars. Why shouldn't the players get something out of this system? Why should the adults – adults who just by luck of the draw happen to be in charge during this evolution – reap all the benefits? Is Saban THAT much better than Bear Bryant? Is Spurrier THAT much better than John McKay, or Bud Wilkenson, or Bo Shembechler, or any other legendary college football coach you can name?
Are today's athletic directors significantly better or more forward-thinking than those of 20 years ago? Hardly. Right place, right time. Yet, everyone connected with athletics – even those of us in the sports media – is reaping the benefits of this 10-, or soon to be 11-figure industry. Well, not everyone.
What Johnny Manziel did – let's not kid ourselves and think he didn't – should be perfectly legal. It's HIS signature and likeness that has the value. HIS No. 2 jersey that is flying off the school bookstore shelves in College Station. HIS presence that is – by Texas A&M university figures – worth roughly 3/4 of a billion dollars in donations alone during the most recent 12-month period!
Yet he's barred from signing his name for a fee because the NCAA hasn't kept up with the times and the reality of the sports world. Heck, in almost every circle, Manziel would be entitled to a commission on that $740 million, but in college sports he gets a scholarship, the value of which fluctuates from school to school and player to player. If ESPN can use Manziel's image to promote Saturday night's big game against whomever, why can't Johnny use his right hand to make a few thousand bucks signing mini helmets?
What Greg Little received from that sports agent should be legal. In fact, it's fundamentally unfair that athletes who are likely headed towards a professional career can't have representation. In college baseball and hockey players are entitled to "advisors" who also happen to be agents. Why not the real profit sports?
Oh, I get it, you don't think that the best players from every significant football program in the country are getting something from somewhere? How much sand is there in your ears and nostrils from having your head buried in it up to the neck? The way I see it, we have two choices…
We can continue to try and fight city hall, fail miserably in trying to police the impermissible benefit army with the weakest investigative arm in the history of everything, or we can figure out a way to bring it under our amateurism umbrella and legalize the entire process. If Greg Little, a far-from can't-miss NFL prospect, can command $20,000 from an agent heading into his senior year, what were players like Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn, Bruce Carter and Quinton Coples worth?
My point is simple, the tide has changed in this debate because big-time college sports is awash in cash. Every single time a player enters into an arrangement with an agent – and based on the information available in the Greg Little case, there appears to have been a formal agreement in place – his school's season is jeopardized. In the case of the 2009 Tar Heels, an 8-5 season became an 0-5 season because, you guessed it, players such as Little were ruled to have been ineligible during the year.
Is it a big deal to have eight wins erased from the ledger? Hardly. In fact, the only real punishment in most of those cases is to the school's reputation. However, consider the case of former Duke forward Lance Thomas and the jeweler. A lawsuit revealed that Thomas purchased almost $100,000 worth of jewelry during the winter of the Blue Devils' last national championship season. Thomas apparently paid $30,000 in cash at the time of the transaction with the promise to pay the balance due in the coming months. When Thomas didn't comply with that agreement, it raised questions about impermissible benefits as well as how in the name of Marcus Camby did Thomas come up with $30,000 in cash in the first place!
However, since Thomas is no longer in school, having graduated and moved on to the NBA, he is under zero obligation to answer the NCAA's questions. Since the people at Rafaello & Co., the jeweler in question, also declined to speak with officials, the case went dead. In fact, Duke spokesman Jon Jackson said as much in a University statement when he used the phrase, "based on the information available."
THERE WAS NO INFORMATION AVAILABLE!
Why? Because the NCAA is toothless as an investigative branch unless you are a current student, coach or administrator. Remember the tutor in the UNC fiasco, Jennifer Wiley? She never had to speak with the NCAA or the school because she wasn't under the employ of the university at the time of the investigation.
What would have happened had Thomas been forced to tell the entire story? We don't know for sure, but it's very possible that Mike Krzyzewski's fourth national championship banner would have had to be returned to the seamstress. Much like USC's Reggie Bush-led title was wiped from the record books.
So, let's rewrite the NCAA's rules on amateurism, just like the Olympics did more than a quarter of a century ago. This allows Michael Phelps to make millions of dollars per year eating Subway sandwiches and still win gold medals for the United States. Let's allow the Manziels, Clowneys, Boyds, Bridgewaters, etc., the freedom to realize their value in the marketplace. Let's allow the future pro players, and even the pipe-dreamers, the right to have an agent, certified and registered with their institution, and accept money in the form of loans against future professional earnings.
I know what you're thinking, 'what about the inequity? What will stop this school from really getting an unfair advantage over this other school?'
Still have that sand in your ears?
The uneven playing field is as prevalent today as it will ever be. Bringing these elements above board can, and will, only help the cause. Plus, by lessening the incentive to cheat in ways that would ultimately become legal, I'm fairly certain we'll see a decrease in the kind of financial rule-breaking that bothers people (even though it shouldn't) and jeopardizes programs.
As for the academic issues….
There's no other way to say this, but there are players, at almost every single major college program – and many of the minor ones, too – that are simply not qualified to do college level work. But they can play ball, and they can help schools win. This is reality and it begs another, far more difficult question to be answered. Do you want your favorite school to only admit athletes that meet the basic university requirements for regular students? If you answer 'yes' to that question, you're lying.
Colleges need to do a much better job educating players as opposed to keeping them eligible. Every single time I hear about the "value of the scholarship" I cringe, because the value is relative to the athlete. For 80 percent of college athletes in the for-profit sports, the scholarship value is just. I'd even argue that they receive far more than they give back to the school. The other 20 percent is a completely different story. Whether through 'no-show' classes, bogus majors, grade-fixing scandals, or tutors – or even teammates – doing their coursework, it's easy to keep players eligible.
The schools OWE the players an education, and we have too much evidence to the contrary that we now understand that the institution of higher learning that we hold dear isn't doing their job either. Frankly, they've made their own decision in most of these cases. They've made a business decision, choosing high-level athletic performance over academic achievement. Is that wrong? That depends on your perspective.
The answers to what ails college sports are way too complex to fit on the back of an index card. Until the people in charge are willing to look in the mirror and be honest with themselves, we have hope of ever changing for the better.
We'll just keep taking down banners, provided someone is willing to talk.