Apart from bookies, no one is as glad to see the NCAA Division 1 Basketball Championship, a.k.a. “March Madness,” roll around as the NCAA itself, if for no other reason than to draw attention away from the scandals and controversies surrounding college football.
Stories such as the one about Ohio State’s Jim Tressel, the criminal records of players in big-time college football, and the perennial questions about recruiting and graduation rates make it reasonable to wonder who, if anyone, is in control of the whole shtunk.
Surveying the mess, Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel concluded that it’s up to college presidents to clean it up. Only they “can dictate what sort of culture is acceptable on their campuses. Only presidents and athletic directors have the authority to require coaches to conduct background checks on players and to decree that a player’s conduct has crossed the line of what should be considered acceptable for an individual receiving a scholarship to a university.”
Don’t take this the wrong way, but yeah, right. If presidents and athletic directors had the inclination and the anatomical wherewithal to promote an acceptable culture on college campuses, people like Mandel wouldn’t need to call on them to do it.
Why haven’t they done so? There are many reasons, but arguably the most important can be expressed mathematically: Nick Saban, Alabama’s football coach, was paid $5,166,666 in 2010 -- the University’s president, Carol Z. Garrison, $604,161. Ohio State’s president, E. Gordon Gee, by far the best-paid university president in the country, was paid a little less than $1.58 million. Football coach Jim Tressel? A little more than $3.5 million.
It isn’t only Alabama and Ohio State: Comparable disparities are the rule, rather than the exception, at most Division 1A (Football Bowl Series in NCAA Newspeak) schools. So who do you think will prevail in a culture clash between college presidents and football coaches?
Other people propose to clean up the mess by paying the players. Whatever the merits of this idea, there are at least two major problems.
The first is that for the vast majority of Division 1-A players, tuition, room, board and books is a good deal. Back in September, I watched a few minutes of the Western Kentucky-Indiana game on the Big Ten Network. As I often do while watching college sports, I wondered what the Western Kentucky players planned to do after college. (Notice that I didn’t wonder what they planned to do "after graduation.") I wondered because Western Kentucky isn’t known for producing NFL players: According to ESPN, there were no Hilltoppers on an NFL roster in 2010. So, it would behoove them to take advantage of the free college education they’re receiving in exchange for playing football.
Much the same thing could be said about Indiana: While there were nine Hoosiers on NFL rosters, they represented at least seven recruiting classes. And what is true of Indiana is true of the great majority of Division 1A schools. Even at exceptions such as Alabama and Ohio State, most of the players have no realistic chance of ever making a living at playing football, and most of those who do will only play in the NFL for a short while: three and a half years on average.
The exceptions lead me to the second reason why paying players is a bad idea. Every proposal I’ve come across suggests paying players a set amount: say, $500 a month. No one is suggesting a free market in which players auction off their skills. But everything we know about human nature tells us that people derive their sense of worth and status from comparisons to those around them: If my neighbor is paid $500 a month, I will feel better if I’m paid $550.
Throw in the sense of entitlement that is part-and-parcel of being a highly-sought-after recruit and it becomes obvious that paying players won’t clean up the mess -- it will only make it more expensive. The kind of players who sought extra benefits when no one was being paid will demand extra benefits on top of whatever they might be paid.
Even if paying players were a good idea, it would do nothing about the other problems associated with big-time college sports, such as scandalously low graduation rates and second-string quarterbacks assaulting future Nobel Prize-winning freshmen. On the contrary, it might make matters worse by reinforcing their sense of entitlement.
The problem isn’t that, as the Times laments, the “rules blur” -- it’s that the fit between big-time college sports and the academic mission of colleges and universities is, at best, problematic. The expression “student-athlete,” however apt it may when it comes to swimmers, wrestlers, and fencers, is a euphemism when it comes to Division 1A football and, to a similar extent, Division 1 basketball.
A Venn Diagram depicting young people who further the accomplishment of this goal . . .
[The] University will emphasize a broad and superior undergraduate education that imparts the knowledge, skills, and values so essential to educated and responsible citizens. At the same time, the University will provide high-quality graduate and professional programs in areas of need and importance to the state and beyond.
and those who further the accomplishment of this one . . .
We will appear in a BCS Bowl game every year.
. . . doesn’t have a very large overlap. The only way to achieve both goals is to make them independent of one another. And that’s how big-time college sports operates, except that it denies that this is happening!
The values “essential to educated and responsible citizens” not only don’t necessarily help you win championships, if applied too often they can prevent you from winning them -- especially if they cause you to turn away the kind of players who can help you win those championships.
Recruiting chicanery, players getting arrested, and other scandals are the price of not acknowledging the incompatibility. While rules can, if vigorously enforced -- a huge “if,” as the Times makes clear — prevent the most blatant abuses and even deter the unscrupulous on occasion, they do nothing to resolve the contradiction at the heart of big-time college sports: Successfully competing at the highest level requires passing people who often have no business being on a college campus off as “students” and surrendering a disproportionate amount of power, not to mention money, to men whose primary, secondary, and tertiary concerns are, at most, only remotely related to your educational mission.
Throw in the large amounts of money at stake and the accompanying job insecurity; sprinkle in a fan base that couldn’t care less what happens to the players after they leave the team, and who are oddly concerned about the choices and preferences of 18 year olds; and it would be a surprise if “winning in college sports” weren’t “intricately tied with cheating or blurring the rules.”
Sure there are exceptions: A joke used to go that Penn State was building a university that the football team could be proud of. Now, many Nittany Lion boosters, for whom “educated and responsible citizens” don’t make up for a 7-5 or even 8-4 record, can’t wait for Joe Paterno to retire.
And of course, there are alternatives: In the rest of the world, sports and higher education aren’t turned into the moral equivalent of nitroglycerine. A promising soccer player in Lagos, Madrid, or Sao Paulo is developed by clubs and teams and doesn’t have to feign being a college student.
Closer to home, schools like William & Mary, a perennial Division 1-AA football power, combine athletic excellence with respect for their academic mission. Sure, it’s “only” Division 1-AA, but that doesn’t seem to have hurt the likes of Sean McDermott, not to mention Mike Tomlin. Nor does it seem to have hurt the six former William & Mary players currently on NFL rosters.
Programs like William & Mary’s and its basketball counterparts in the Patriot League actually live up to the lofty rhetoric in the big boys’ mission statements. Then again, so do the big boys, as long as the sports in question aren't football and basketball, which tells you both where the problem lies and why it probably won't be solved.
* At least as I type this.