Friday, October 10, 2014

Todd Gurley "scandal" not likely to expose the worse "scandal"--NCAA and universities' hypocrisy

I’m not an SEC football fan so I am not particularly disturbed by the situation involving Georgia Bulldogs player and (former) Heisman hopeful Todd Gurley. However, his case once more brings up the question of hypocrisy in NCAA sports, particularly in football. During the 2010-2011 season, the University of Georgia’s football program made over $52 million in profit—the third most profitable behind the programs of the University of Texas and Penn State University (no wonder the latter didn’t fight the fine over the Sandusky case).  

Of course, some of that profit is required by Title IX to be distributed to other less profitable sporting endeavors, but there is no reason to believe that those numbers haven’t improved for Georgia since then. And the school and the NCAA are in a tizzy fit over one of their best players making a few hundred dollars over some autographs?

I must admit that hypocrisy isn’t just over huge profits and the NCAA. Take a load of the self-righteous hypocrite who “outed” Gurley: A dealer who claimed to have paid Gurley for a red item that he is seen in a very grainy video signing from inside a car. This dealer contacts someone from the rumor-mongering sports blog SB Nation in which he says he wants no “compensation” for his story; he’s just a “good” citizen who engaged in a little illegal activity on the side—except, of course, he doesn’t want to take any responsibility himself:

Just want someone to leak this story that's deserving. If you have any interest, give me a call or email. I attached a photo of him in my car signing a mini helmet that I just sold last week on my eBay store. All I ask is some privacy until we can touch base. I live on Georgia and would (be) crucified if my name was released. The video is about 5 minutes long but doesn't show the money exchange.”

“To whom it may concern” turned out to be SB Nation bloggers Spencer Hall and Steven Godfrey—assuming they are the “we” in “After verifying the tipster's identity, and  that this person has sold Gurley-autographed gear on eBay under the name provided, we let it drop, because the purpose of this website is not to enforce the NCAA's insane bylaws. On the contrary, we're all for players making money, and are thus editorially supportive of those bylaws' erosion.”

Thanks for advancing the “cause.” Think they are not doing this for money? Don’t they get paid for revealing scurrilous information to ruin people’s live? “We know that someone on the internet really, really wanted everyone to know that Todd Gurley was allegedly breaking the NCAA's rules. And now, over the gigantic princely sum of $400 in allegedly sold signatures, everyone does.” I bet they feel real good about being taking “responsibility” for that action.

The NCAA and the universities have absolutely nothing but shit-covered fingers in all of this. In 2011, The Atlantic Monthly published a piece by Taylor Branch entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” in which he detailed how universities were “selling their souls” in search of greater and greater profit at the expense of so-called “student athletes.” When confronted by this in 2001during testimony by an agent specializing in sporting apparel contracts with big-name athletes before the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, these so-called reformers became discomfited and attacked the messenger with a question accusing him of denigrating the supposed lofty morals of higher education. However, the agent shrugged off their hypocrisy, asserting that “You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.” 

Branch pointed out that is more true today than back then; “Corporations offer money so they can profit from the glory of college athletes, and the universities grab it. In 2010, despite the faltering economy, a single college athletic league, the football-crazed Southeastern Conference (SEC), became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million. That money comes from a combination of ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, licensing fees, and other sources—but the great bulk of it comes from television contracts.“ 

Educators are the first cry foul at the notion of redress. “Amateurism is the whole point, they say,” Branch writes. “Paid athletes would destroy the integrity and appeal of college sports. Many former college athletes object that money would have spoiled the sanctity of the bond they enjoyed with their teammates. I, too, once shuddered instinctively at the notion of paid college athletes.” 

Now he sees things differently, and there are a few who see the mendacity and even unfairness of this system clearly enough. “Don Curtis, a UNC trustee, told me (Branch) that impoverished football players cannot afford movie tickets or bus fare home. Curtis is a rarity among those in higher education today, in that he dares to violate the signal taboo: ‘I think we should pay these guys something.’” 

Branch noted that while “corporations and universities are enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men,” their  status as ‘student-athletes’ “deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution”—which contains the  “unmistakable whiff of the plantation”—as in slavery. Sure, many if not most are on scholarship with their tuition and board paid for, but this funding comes out of athletic department revenue, not the university’s own funds. For successful and profitable football and (men’s) basketball programs, this is just part of the usual cost of running a “business.” The problem for athletes, of course, is that it is just like being in the Army—except without pay to spend on furlough.

Branch points out that the game of football was first devised by “intellectuals” in the late 19th Century, who decided that it was in the sporting arena where young men could keep from becoming “soft” from all the amenities of technology, like the train and motor vehicle. Still, the initial violence of the sport with only a bare minimum of rules did turn many “intellectuals” against football. Harvard University president Charles Eliot intoned that “Deaths and injuries are not the strongest argument against football…cheating and brutality are profitable is the main evil.” That such twisted moral and ethical standards could prevail is interesting enough—even seemingly in play today. Yet football was so popular even at Harvard that “In 1903, fervent alumni built Harvard Stadium with zero college funds. The team’s first paid head coach, Bill Reid, started in 1905 at nearly twice the average salary for a full professor” notes Branch.

Although something akin to the NCAA rules committee had been established, it had no real authority for decades. “In 1929, the Carnegie Foundation made headlines with a report, ‘American College Athletics,’ which concluded that the scramble for players had ‘reached the proportions of nationwide commerce.’ Of the 112 schools surveyed, 81 flouted NCAA recommendations with inducements to students ranging from open payrolls and disguised booster funds to no-show jobs at movie studios. Fans ignored the uproar, and two-thirds of the colleges mentioned told The New York Times that they planned no changes. In 1939, freshman players at the University of Pittsburgh went on strike because they were getting paid less than their upperclassman teammates.” 

It wasn’t until 1951 that NCAA began to “gain control” of college sports. This was done by new executive director Walter Byers, who took advantage of some particularly outrageous scandals of the time. Although the NCAA did not have the legal power force universities to obey it, once Byers persuaded the University of Kentucky dean to accept a penalty against the school’s (all-white) basketball team to “restore public support,” the NCAA became the arbiter of morality in college athletics virtually by default. 

Nevertheless, there was frequent clashes between the NCAA and schools with major athletic departments, and in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 decision NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, it struck down the NCAA’s ability to “spread” the wealth from television contracts evenly to all schools, regardless if they had a football program or not. Any pain the NCAA might have suffered, however, was mitigated by the huge financial windfall generated by the expanded “March Madness” format of the NCAA basketball tournament.

Byers never ceased battling the “majors” for control of athletics, and by the time he stepped down in 1987 he proclaimed that amateur athletics was a fraud.  Despite commissions to reduce financial corruption and banning educationally “incompetent” athletes, things only seemed to get worse, rather than better. Big time college sports was a cash cow that had broken out into the range with only s few cowboys to round up the most vulnerable. Eventually the bad publicity of media reports prompted university presidents to take control of sports governance away from athletic departments. But this did not stop the flow of cash; all it did was allow “academic” types to wax self-righteous about athletics. 

And yet the whole basis of the NCAA’s power is based on a fraud—the concept of the “student athlete”—while schools continue to enrich themselves at their expense. Even the academic types knew the value of free advertising that a top sports program brought a school; very often a student would attend a particular school because it had a well-known football program. Donna Shalala was a fan of sports, and when she became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, one of her first moves was to push to improve the moribund football program—the result of which was the hiring of Barry Alvarez as coach; almost overnight, the Badgers went from Big Ten doormat to Big Ten powerhouse, winning three Rose Bowls. It suddenly became a “major” school for something other than mere academics.  

But the hypocrisy continues. Even when the likenesses of “student-athletes” are used to make the universities money, the athletes don’t see a dime of it. There is even a clause in the NCAA’s Student Athlete Statement, that forces the athlete to allow his “name or picture to promote” NCAA games and events. Even their parents can’t buy them a meal, because it breaks NCAA “rules.” 

Branch also assailed the NCAA’s  “moral logic” that is “hard to fathom” in the matter that the NCAA can  “ban personal messages on the bodies of the players (such as Tim Tebow’s Bible verses), and penalizes players for trading their celebrity status for discounted tattoos—but it codifies precisely how and where commercial insignia from multinational corporations can be displayed on college players, for the financial benefit of the colleges.” During the Cam Newton controversy, in which he (or his father) was accused of accepting money to come to Auburn,  he wore “at least 15 corporate logos—one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet—as part of Auburn’s $10.6 million deal with Under Armour.” 

Worse, “student athletes” essentially have no due process rights when it comes to the NCAA and its witch-hunting antics. Bylaw 19.7 was passed to “intimidate college athletes in disputes with the NCAA” and serve as an “obstacle to due process.” One NCAA lawyer opposed to this rule called it a way “to crush these kids.” In a 2004 congressional hearing, men’s athletics-hating infractions-committee vice chair Josephine Potuto claimed that the NCAA is “not bound by any judicial due process standards,” and baldly defended its irrational unfairness by asserting its enforcement procedures “very likely exceed” that of other public entities.  Potuto went further, claiming that “athletes have no standing for due process because they have no substantive property or liberty interest. The opportunity to play intercollegiate athletics does not rise to that level.” 

Branch dryly noted “To translate this from the legal jargon, Potuto used a circular argument to confine college athletes beneath any right to freedom or property in their own athletic effort. They have no stake to seek their rights, she claimed, because they have no rights at stake. Potuto’s assertion might be judged preposterous, an heir of the Dred Scott dictum that slaves possessed no rights a white person was bound to respect. But she was merely being honest, articulating assumptions almost everyone shares without question. Whether motivated by hostility for students (as critics allege), or by noble and paternalistic tough love (as the NCAA professes), the denial of fundamental due process for college athletes has stood unchallenged in public discourse.”

Earlier this year, University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici, wrote that universities “monopolize” the services of players, deny them “fair compensation,” and basically control their lives. Nevertheless, he argued against a wholesale system of paying players, since “The top 30 or 40 programs in each college sport will be able to pay top salaries to attract the best athletes, and the other universities will not be able to effectively compete. Title IX would compel universities to pay women athletes what they pay men in football, basketball and other sports, and this would bankrupt virtually all Division I athletic programs.”

According to Morici, the “solution” would be to “permit the top 30 or 40 major universities to form football and basketball teams ‘affiliated’ but legally separate from their institutions. Those private corporations could partner with a major pro franchise, be financed by game day revenues, TV rights and contributions from their pro team, and pay universities rent and royalties. Pay those athletes, offer the opportunity to earn a degree, but don’t require them to enroll if they are not capable or disinclined. By disengaging those elite college football and basketball players from university activities, the potential to corrupt admissions and faculty would be greatly reduced, and a broader range of gifted young athletes would have the opportunity to develop their talents.”

In other words, set-up a system where low-performing “students” who are not in college to earn a degree, but because they are forced by the rules to spend a year or two in college before going “pro,” can play on a college team that has the same relationship to the school as a professional team has for a city. 

The bottom line is that college athletics is rife with hypocrisy. Everyone is using or being used. Perhaps the NCAA should be taken out of the “judging” business altogether, since the whole basis of its authority is an outrageous sham—and it is the athlete who is being used and abused. It is only the fortunate few who eventually make a professional living out of it who survive.

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