Rogers: The modern-day college athlete is a product of the fan

Posted January 24, 2014

Marvin Austin has a little fun during the Meineke Car Care Bowl (UNC vs. Pittsburgh), Saturday, December 26, 2009 at Bank of America Stadium.  (Photo by: Will Bratton)

Considering the century-long history of the NCAA, it’s incredible that the two sleeping giants that have always threatened its grip on collegiate sports (player compensation and academics) have come to an unavoidable breaking point just six months apart.

The movement behind paying players has been gaining steam for years, but it took Johnny Football’s rather public taunts to force the NCAA into finally recognizing that the status quo will no longer cut it. Manziel’s “money” hand gesture didn’t leave much to the imagination. Subsequently, it was no surprise when the NCAA came knocking over his alleged acceptance of some of that money -- during which Manziel more or less gave investigators another well-known hand gesture.

And of course, the Mary Willingham chapter of the Carolina Way-saga has finally presented the public with an almost caricature-like presentation of what was long feared, but always secretly known: Many college players weren’t even being asked to prepare for college-level work.

“Money” signs and a player who can’t read the sports page ... all one needs is an NCAA official skipping town holding a bag with a money sign and you have the made-for-Hollywood cartoon that anyone can understand and nobody can ignore.

Blame Twitter, blame the media, blame Mary Willingham, blame fans for sticking their heads in the sand for decades, but the public is finally being forced to discuss the farce of a narrative presented by the NCAA.

But, as important as addressing athlete compensation and education clearly are for college athletics, they may be masking the root of the problem, and the problem Willingham seemingly wants addressed.

Naturally, the problem’s answer lies where this all started for UNC: Marvin Austin’s Tweet Heard Around The World and the alleged activity in a Miami nightclub over Memorial Day weekend in 2010.

The most telling part of the backlash to Austin’s behavior is the overwhelming disbelief that his head coach, Butch Davis exemplified. Davis has publically commented that he is sorry he wasn’t more aware of his players’ whereabouts. Revelations that followed included a so-called “sign out” sheet that many universities employ to keep tabs on players and it was discussed ad nauseum.

Think about that for a moment. A coach was roundly criticized for not wide-eyed supervising upperclassmen football players — in May.

Now, of course enforcing such requirements on players makes perfect sense for running a tight program. But that’s the issue here: these athletes’ lives are often controlled down to the minute by those programs - even when class isn’t in session.

Two-a-day practices, 5 a.m. weight training, travel, film study, offseason workouts, camps, rehab — and that’s just the non-revenue athletes. Don’t forget press conferences and photo shoots for media day.

How regulated are these players lives? Take a step back and consider how amazing it is that with thousands of athletes in thousands of programs nationwide, we don’t more often see kids miss a flight, fill out the wrong paperwork, or simply have something more important going on than a Big 10 volleyball game. It happens so rarely that it’s almost front-page news when it does.

Now consider how this is possible: These players’ daily life revolve around their sport to a degree that’s almost disturbing.

This isn’t to lament the plight of the scholarship athlete, or to say that many players every year don’t get a great education, but when are players actually supposed to go to college in any real sense? Isn’t that what fans in the Triangle have been talking about for the last three years? The laughable irony in the discussion over admitting players with a low academic ability, is that admitting “smarter” doesn’t fix anything either. In fact, it misses the entire point. Attending school isn’t necessarily about being smart, it’s about leaving smarter, whether you came in as a remedial reader or a brilliant prodigy.

No matter what you think of her methods, this is the issue Willingham has said she wants addressed. But reading levels aside, when are these kids going to learn anything? You can hire as many teachers, assign as many tutors, or shakedown as many schools as you want, it won’t matter until the players can take a moment from their full time jobs as athletes.

The issue is not academics or teaching procedures, it’s the clock. There are only so many hours in a day, and there’s only one fix to that problem.

That’s what fans don’t want to hear. They want it to be some administrator’s fault, a curriculum flaw, a problem that can be fixed with a few tutor-hires and NCAA investigations. No one is ready to hear that their quarterback missed film sessions before a rivalry game because they had a chemistry exam that week.

Just for kicks, try to imagine the call-ins to a Roy Williams radio show the week after a star player performed poorly because he had a paper due. Fans have certainly driven discussion in college athletics for the better in recent decades. But at the end of the day, reform is up to the fans entirely. It always has been.

No matter how you feel about Willingham or Manziel, their personification of the larger issues they represent have been wildly successful in firebombing the NCAA into addressing their respective issues. People vote with their feet, and their wallets. Money talks. And until the paying customers are willing to accept a more lax attitude to the wins they crave, and pay for, meaningful change will remain nothing but a talking point.


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  • RogersWork Jan 24, 2014


    Completely agree that paying players is the beginning of the end. I'm behind academic reforms, but it needed to be pointed out that the "time" issue has to be fixed first. Everything else is secondary.

    I can't imagine being that interested in college sports with fully paid players. But, hey, I'm not one of them either.

  • dmccall Jan 24, 2014

    We should quit giving athletic-based scholarships. The schools' charters did not intend set forth the colleges to be our area's entertainment source. As soon as alumni wake up and realize the damage underqualified students are doing to the diploma value, this mess will continue.

    Rogers, want to talk about paying athletes (which is what is driving the media's love-affair with Willingham)? Answer these questions: Of all of the money being paid to athletes, what proportion should go to women? What proportion should go to the tennis team? What proportion should go to the band and cheerleaders? (they are more involved with the revenue sports than the tennis team). Paying athletes is only a more complicated onion that wouldn't solve any of the current problems and would only introduce more.

  • Objective Scientist Jan 24, 2014

    Institutions of higher education have NO business fielding sport teams for the purpose of "entertainment". Read the mission statements of any university in the country... do you see anything - ANYTHING - in the mission that even remotely suggests that multi-million dollar athletic programs be provided for "entertainment" for anyone or any group? NO! At UNC in recent years the number of athletes have likely ranged from 600-800. However, the sports receiving - by far - most attention is are the ~80 members of the football team and the ~12 members of the basketball team... less than 100 out of 600-800.. and those teams - for all practical purpose - have no budgetary limits imposed. How many of those less than 100 athletes go on to actually play in the NFL/NBA? Probably less than 10%. Universities are doing all of what they do and spend in order to provide an opportunity for less than 10 athletes to advance to the NFL/NBA? Makes NO sense!

  • RogersWork Jan 24, 2014


    I think you make a really good point. I'm not a huge fan of the sports major but it would be light years ahead of what we have now.

  • morpaul Jan 24, 2014

    I always wondered why the sports these kids play can't be their major. That's what they are in school to learn and become better at isn't it? As pointed out in the article, the point of college is to leave smarter than you arrived. Well, isn't that exactly what these kids are doing during their practices and team meetings. Don't the athletes spend more time pursuing a better sports education than most kids do pursuing their college major? But then the athletes are forced to pursue some farcical major they have no care about.

    Think about it. If athletes could declare their sport as a major then the top tier athletes could have made available to them life skills classes such as personal finance or coaching classes, that would carry them farther than any bogus AFAM or sports and rec class ever would. That kind of curriculum might keep some future pro player from filing bankruptcy two years after their pro career is over or they may end up coaching and making a difference locally.

  • uBnice Jan 24, 2014

    View quoted thread

    College athletics at the D1 schools are an entertainment business that has vary little to do with academia. Money is a large part of the corrupting influence.

  • StunGunn Jan 24, 2014

    The situation at Carolina has been eye opening for sure. There has been a lot of collateral damage from Butch to "Dr. J", to the reputation of UNC.

    Is there an answer? Do the schools set - and enforce - higher academic standards, or do we accept that schools are basically farm systems that prepare "student"/athletes for a career in the NFL or NBA, but not a real-life profession.

  • uBnice Jan 24, 2014

    Bravo! Thank you for this very thoughtful article that helps to try to shed some light on the college athletes life.

    It is exploitation, pure and simple.

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