Rogers: The modern-day college athlete is a product of the fan
Posted January 24
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.