Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Absurd Debate Over College Athletics

I listened to part of the discussion Mike and Mike this morning about college athletics and, particularly, whether college athletes should be paid.  The reason that I call this discussion absurd is that there are so many more important things going on in the world than college athletics.  It's also absurd because the focus on college athletics is so out of proportion to what it should be.

First, it strikes me that most college athletic programs at best break even or lose money.  Some do make money, such as schools with elite football programs that are name brands around the country.  But more than 80% of Division I (FBS) teams lose money.  Which means that, correspondingly, their school's athletic programs lose money because football by far is the largest sport. 

Second, it is a bromide that alumni donations go up when a school wins a championship, but I am not sure that it is true.  It could be that applications go up, but I'm not sure that alumni donations do. 

Third, a scholarship should be enough compensation for student-athletes, with some caveats, such as -- a) they can get scholarship monies for two additional years beyond when they played owing to the large time commitments that they had to make, b) the scholarships are good regardless of whether a player gets cut from a team (that is, they should be renewable, period), c) the scholarships should be released if a coach leaves a school because the playing field should be even (that is, if the coach can leave without penalty, why shouldn't the kids be able to leave) and d) the schools should public iron-clad metrics regarding the percentage of athletes that get degrees, what they've majored in and what their jobs are after football.  And one other thing -- give them some more walking around money so that they don't have to yield to temptation, say $250 a month. 

But don't start arguing that they should be paid.  Yes, there has been a lot of attention paid to the argument that there is no such thing as an unpaid internship any more under Federal law, that either the intern gets college credit or gets paid.  There is a lot of case law on that.  But college activities should be in a different category, even if you allow for an exception for "significant revenue sports" -- football, men's basketball at many places, ice hockey at some schools and women's basketball at some schools.  Otherwise, schools would jettison their extracurricular activities because they won't have the money to pay players, they don't want to create a Hessian class of paid athletes versus unpaid band members, they cannot afford to pay the band members or they don't think they should give college credits to band members.  The costs could be astounding and bankrupting, lest anyone forget that the primary reason these institutions exist is to educate people and not to beat the arch-rival.  Failing that, eliminate intercollegiate sports altogether and run the best intramural programs in history.  And those would involve more students and keep more in better shape physically and correspondingly medically.

At some point we have to ask the fundamental question as to why these programs exist and what is the justification for them?  There really isn't any justification for them.  If the pro leagues want minor leagues, let them pay for them.  Don't require kids to go to college; the feeder system in European soccer works just fine.  The best players go into the best clubs' academies; they don't go offer to play for Oxford or Heidelberg or any such place.  And yes, look, some of these college programs are run like professional programs, I get that.  But perhaps it's time to end the pretense, let colleges educate, and let the pros run their teams.  And then the colleges don't have to go through the gymnastics that the huge NCAA rule book requires and the schools can dedicate precious funds to benefit a broader group of students.

I don't want to be a killjoy; there are parts of this country that revere their fan experience with college athletics.  I get that.  But there have to be limits as to the extent a school may go to land key players.  Paying them should just not be one of them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Before Penn State Puts Up That Statue of Joe Paterno Again. . .

If you live in or near Pennsylvania or visit there, you'll see reminders of Joe Paterno and a lot of Penn State decals and license plates.  It stands to reason, as Penn State not only is one of the main state universities for Pennsylvanians, but also because it is a very good one.  Most Penn States will tell you how much they enjoyed it in State College, a/k/a Happy Valley.  They'll talk to you about the football team and about the Creamery, the ice cream venue in State College that offers the best ice cream on the planet (except for all the other stores that can make the same claim). 

Recently, about 200 former football players sent a letter to the university's president asking that they reinstate the Paterno statue that was taken down several years ago after the Jerry Sandusky affair came to light.  There was a media frenzy, the media version of a natural disaster, that befell the Penn State community and the NCAA.  Much action was taken -- by the Penn State board, by the NCAA -- and several years later all is not back to normal.

Penn State continues to mete through the claims of many men who claim that Jerry Sandusky abused them years ago and that Joe Paterno knew of Sandusky's problem and turned the other way.  There are allegations that other coaches, some prominent names now, knew of things, too.  Now, the Paterno family disputes these claims and has hired a high-powered lawyer to defend it.  No doubt, crisis communications firms are involved, too, trying to protect the images of Penn State and of the Paterno family. 

Many tied part of their Penn State existence and good feelings about the school to Joe Paterno, turning him into a walking, living God.  The gospel was how omniscient Paterno was, hard-working, smart, humble, and how he ran a clean program where most of his players graduated.  Penn State was in the conversation for the top ten teams in the country and occasionally contended for and won a national championship.  Atop that, a kid could get a very good education at a school that graduate and professional schools liked as well as employers.  That's pretty good. 

I get all that.

My sense is that among these 200 former players are those who credit Paterno for having changed their lives, who credit Paterno for helping them win a championship, who are angry that someone that good could be questioned and who may be in denial that Paterno did anything at all wrong.  You find a group of 200, and my guess is that you have a cocktail of motivations -- it's not all the same thing. 

There can be no doubting as to the good that Paterno did.  You can read about how he urged the university to upgrade the academic programs, helped raise funds and ran a great football program.  It's hard to counter that or take it away.  It happened.  And a lot of it was good.

But then there's this other stuff, and it's not over.  There haven't been final decisions or adjudications as to what Coach Paterno knew and when he knew it and whether he could have or should have done anything about it.  The Paterno family is arguing vigorously that the claimants are wrong.  Penn State is defending itself against liability.  The plaintiffs are asserting what they have held back for years -- that Jerry Sandusky abused them.  And Sandusky is serving a long prison sentence, one that is likely to see him die in jail.  He does not deserve to get out.

The issue of the statue is more complicated.  (I have to say that I am not unbiased -- I thought it was in poor taste that a statue was put up of someone who was still alive, and it lacked the humility that Coach Paterno was heralded as possessing).  The former football players stand firmly behind the Paterno family.  My guess is that they are not related to or did not know any of the victims.  The Paterno supporters would say that is irrelevant, because there is no evidence that Coach Paterno knew about what Sandusky was doing.  If they are right, then, assuming that you like statues, well, then perhaps Penn State should restore it.  But if they are wrong, then what?

Right now, it is unclear whether they are right or wrong.  But until Penn State goes through its process and the claims are settled or adjudicated, Penn State should wait to make its decision about that statue.  Happy Valley has not healed and is clearly not happy right now.  But those who run Penn State should not yield to the loudest or most forceful of voices.  They also should consider those of now grown men who had no voice and could not speak or get a hearing for years.

Until that happens, there can be no peace in Happy Valley.  And, right now, there is not justice, at least not complete justice, and at least not yet.

There are more important things than the statue.  Let the process go on and conclude.

And then decide.