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Sunday, September 15, 2013

If What Sports Illustrated Says About Oklahoma State is True. . .

I have great respect for Sports Illustrated and its senior writer, George Dohrmann, who helped lead the detailed reporting about the football program at Oklahoma State.  Here are some observations after having read the first installment (of five):

1.  Let's not react or rush to judgment.  What SI reports is disturbing, but I learned a long time ago that reports and stories need some ample time for reflection before we all decide culpability and punishment.  Examples such as the Duke lacrosse affair and, more recently, the scandal at Penn State, compel a good measurement of detached reflection, especially where the harm has been done and encapsulated and does not continue.  That said, with respect to Oklahoma State's football program, I do not believe that anyone has any way of knowing whether the behavior that has been alleged has ceased.

Still, it's easy to gasp in horror at the allegations.  The current athletic director at Oklahoma State did go so far as to apologize to his fellow Big 12 schools, but let's wait to read all installments and hear what else comes out after the installments in order to have a full picture as to what might have happened at Oklahoma State.  Remember, there are sufficient instances in history where the facts look bad but what happened did not turn out as it initially seemed.  That said, this series of allegations might not fall into that category, but trial by newspaper and public opinion is a bad thing.  Just ask the average Penn State alum, who will believe to her or his dying day that NCAA President Mark Emmert goofed royally, punished the wrong people at Penn State, and conveniently overlooked a whole host of transgressions at other schools that more directly fell within the NCAA's purview (see, for example, the North Carolina football program under John Blake).

2.  That said, what if SI's story checks out and Oklahoma State is culpable?    The statute of limitations within the NCAA rule book has run.  At least it has run for transgressions that happened more than four years ago.  But the stain remains, and it probably becomes more indelible and deepens if the NCAA does not do anything about it (presumably, Oklahoma State will not -- it will not strip itself of titles, records, resources or anything else).  And it wouldn't seem like the NCAA can do anything about it.  And it doesn't seem that any Federal or state laws were broken.  So, if no action is taken, more cynicism about "student athletes" will become reality (for example, if you read Princeton President Chris Eisgruber's remarks on the pending retirement of twenty-year athletic director Gary Walters, you'll note his thinly veiled disgust for what much of the NCAA calls a "student athlete.").  At the end of the day, the NCAA will look worse, but some of the allegations might prompt attention from governmental authorities, particularly at the Federal level.

3.  The underlying, inconvenient truths about big-time college athletics.  There are many.  First, the business that is major college football and basketball could come under serious scrutiny from the Federal government particularly, in several ways.  Taxing authorities -- who are increasingly looking for more sources of revenue -- could challenge a university's 501(c)(3) tax exempt status and attempt to tax the living daylights out of any sports-related revenue (among other money-making activities that go on under the umbrella of these "charitable" organizations).  Put simply, BCS football is a big business.  Next, the games that get played with "student athletes" might warrant some form of legislation.  The BCS schools stack the rules in their favor, and the NCAA enforces that stacking.  Here are a few examples -- a) scholarships are one-year renewable, and b) no one says they have to prepare you for a job, c) it's hard to know who really graduates (and the argument for not paying college players is that they get a "free ride" for a "good education" which presumably "is worth a lot of money."  If you read the SI article closely, you'll get a sense that these programs for the most part don't give one royal good gosh darn about the student athletes.  Oh, they'll talk about it and the NCAA will put out press releases about the one lineman from Southeast Gutbucket State who is 4.0 in pre-med, but what about the kids who don't have good skills coming in, who get advanced for no reason, or who get dismissed or tossed out or non-renewed after buying a bill of goods from a coach who then leaves after a few years, perhaps with the program in shambles?  Coaches can leave, but kids can be held to their scholarship commitments.  This is part of the "don't get me started" conversation that feeds the cynics and skeptics and provides them with enough compelling arguments to put them into the "blunt realist" category and to put those who defend the virtues of BCS football and big-time basketball into the "pathological liar" category.  That's a hypothesis, and it's not as though the skeptics are asking the big-time programs to prove a negative.  To the contrary, show us the stats -- as to how many kids you "non-renew", what happens after a coach leaves, why does a coach leave, what do kids major in, how many graduate, what is their career path like after they leave.  If you do that, then the kids can do their due diligence and figure out which school is a good fit for them.  Absent that, you are asking impressionable young men to judge a book by its cover, or in this case, and in the cases of places like Oklahoma State and Oregon, a school by its glitzy facilities.  Let's face it, even the physics nerds in high school notice the hot girl whose skirt is too short and top is too tight.

4.  Atop that, you have the arguments about paying the student-athletes.  No less an authority and advocate than Jay Bilas has beaten the drum for compensation.  You have Mike Greenberg of "Mike and Mike" being sympathetic and Notre Dame alum Mike Golic being almost steadfastly against, taking the traditional argument that the scholarship and opportunity to get a good education should be enough.  In Golic's case, he came from a "traditional" family which presumably had sufficient money to be at least comfortable, and his kids probably had that benefit too.  But for the poor kid from a single-parent home that constantly worries about money, it's a tougher situation.  It's hard to reconcile his playing before a hundred thousand fans with his "only" getting $100 a month for laundry and incidentals.  Of course, if the systems were as pure as the NCAA advertises and perhaps Golic hopes, then the kids will all go to class, major in meaningful subjects (and not be subject to taking goofball courses like Jim Harrick's course on basketball when Harrick coached at Georgia) and have a path to a sustaining career (and not have his scholarship be subject to an annual renewal).   Then, the kids could be student-athletes and not worry about whether his scholarship might be revoked if he wants to take courses that could conflict with his ability to attend practice or his eligibility (presumably because the more challenging the workload, the more difficult it might be to remain eligible -- remember the nasty public fight then-Ohio State running back Robert Smith had with offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac regarding Smith's wish to be a pre-med major).  I appreciate where Golic is coming from, but it seems like the SI article suggests that the student-athlete should have difficulty trusting the system because of the pressure on coaches to win now at all costs, even if that means a) cutting kids mid-career or b) trying to get them to take the easiest majors possible to get them to focus almost solely on football.

That said, I am not fully versed in what Bilas is contending, and I don't want to speculate.   He has said that college athletes should be able to make money in ventures the same way non-athletes do.  Kids work to pay for college, kids might sell paintings, be babysitters, serve as stringers for newspapers, what have you, and they don't lose their eligibility to be students.  So, the logic goes, why can't a Johnny Manziel sell his autograph, and why should his ability to sign things for money be limited to his school's being able to do so to raise funds?  Similarly, the kids collectively help put rear ends in the seats, the TV money can be staggering, as can the revenues from appearing in and winning a bowl game.  Yet, the kids have no say in how the business is run and whether they can share in the revenue, even if the value of the scholarship can get diluted because the scholarship is non-renewable and they can be shunted into goofy majors that do nothing other than help keep them eligible.  Which then means that they aren't "scholar-athletes" to begin with, just athletes who play for well-heeled college programs.

5.  Conclusion.  Out of a theory that the biggest lies can be the ones that we tell ourselves, when will we come to grips with the notion that big-time college athletics are hypocritical, create odd choices and compel odd decisions.  In The Blind Side, Michael Lewis essentially wrote that many kids on the Ole Miss roster under then-head coach Ed Orgeron were deficient academically, sometimes significantly so.  Put differently, many of them didn't appear to belong in college.  But the SEC loves its football, and football is a big part of the culture at SEC schools.  That's not to say that it cannot be or that it should not be.  It's just that all over the BCS, colleges, especially in these times, where funds are not abundant, should re-examine their missions and determine the type of athletic programs they have and what they stand for.  Because, for right now, every time a Carolina program gets dinged or an Oklahoma State program gets exposed, the average fan does not say, "Gee, those guys are dirty, but I am glad my school doesn't play like that."  No, I doubt that's the case.  Instead, I think that the average fans sighs and says, "Well, if they caught those guys for being so bad, you can imagine how many schools out there are doing similar things but just haven't been caught yet."

And it's not that some schools do not try hard to run clean programs.  They do.  But values change and differ in different places at different times.  Some schools circumvent the limit on assistant coaches by having a million or more dollars' worth of people with fancy titles who do now what assistant coaches used to do.  They build monuments to their programs, and they spend huge sums doing so.

All at a time where paying for college has become prohibitively expensive and where the average kid has to take out a staggering amount of loans that she/he will struggle to repay and cause him or her to change his life plans -- by delaying buying a house or a car and by having kids -- all of which are having, and will continue to have, profound effects on the future of the country (which now is also the world's best democracy).  No, out-of-control spending in major college football isn't a root cause of anything other than the problems that college football and universities are having, but it is a symptom of something greater than just problems with college athletics.

And it's up to university presidents to remember their public missions and honor them.

It's up to them to have the courage to do so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the allegations prove out, the NCAA has little alternative but to punish Oklahoma State at least as aggressively as it did Penn State. The NCAA thought there was a problem with the football culture in State College? Imagine what the ruling organization of college sports will say about what allegedly has taken place in Stillwater – if it has any backbone.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

I've enjoyed major college sports for over forty years and attended a college on an athletic scholarship. However, the system has evolved to a point where something must change. Billions of dollars go to administrators, coaches, facilities construction, and TV analysts and "education" goes to the players. No wonder such an enormous black market exists for skilled players.

I don't know how to fix the system, but this old piece by Eugene Volokh offers one alternative.

11:05 AM  

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