Behind the Mic: Dollars and Sense in the Age of Major College Athletics

Gary will be returning with a new blog on May 19.  This week, he’s asked RCN’s John Leone to guest blog.  RCN-TV viewers should recognize John from the Lafayette College basketball broadcasts on the Lafayette Sports Network.

Pay college athletes. There, I said it. Of course, it’s certainly not nearly that simple, and after a long discussion with my lawyer daughter, well, there are more than just a few minor wrinkles that would need to be ironed out, not the least of which are legal and ethical. But it can – and many believe should – be done. Time and space preclude a detailed discussion here, but I’d like to offer a starting point. After all, dealing with a few legal and ethical details should hardly distress the NCAA. Their rulebook, after all, makes the Affordable Care Act read like “The Cat in the Hat.” I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, careful to not upset them too much. My plan will require their support. And in fact, it may make life a good deal easier for them.

My high school math teacher is somewhere, cringing as I write this. But even I can calculate that the money is there to support a more palatable system. Consider that the first television contract with CBS paid the NCAA $1 billion for the rights to the national tournament. Yes, that’s with a “B.” And did I mention that was a generation ago? The latest deal (2010) was a 14-year agreement for $10.8 billion, generating $771 million per year for the NCAA. And, bear in mind that is for the tournament only. And you thought that “March Madness” referred only to the action on the court! Factor in the revenues generated throughout the regular season from concessions, parking, gate receipts, sponsorships, and yes, even more TV money, and suddenly we are talking about serious capital. That’s big business. That’s a professional system.

The true crux of the issue here lies with the NBA and the NFL and their inability, unwillingness, or more likely their lack of incentive to create a viable minor league system. But then, why should they? They have the major college programs serving the same function, and doing so free of charge. In the meantime, the impulses created by mega dollars have littered the straight and narrow pathway of college athletics with all kinds of land mines, exploding notions of academic integrity, amateurism, and in far too many instances, the broader college experience. The stories of young athletes lured to a campus where they may not belong, nor would they want to be but for the promise of an athletic proving ground, read like so many proverbs. Many colleges housing major basketball and football programs are little more than athletic incubators for youngsters whose primary – if not sole – aim is to make it to the professional level. If, as in most cases, those aims fall short of the intended target, the youngster is left with little on which to fall back. It has become a false promise, and far too many academic institutions, enticed by the exposure and tempted by the potential financial windfall for their schools, have become compliant in this charade.

The time, talent, and treasure now spent by the NCAA in its attempt to herd the cats of big- time programs into their amateur cages and preserve the slightest element of academic integrity has become the epitome of throwing good money after bad. My apologies to Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, and the scores of other major programs for whom the pun applies, but it may be time to rethink the approach, and take some creative steps to save these major sports at the college level. If not, the college game as we know it will soon cannibalize itself at the altar of its own largesse. The advent of the “made for TV” sports of college basketball and college football have given the NCAA an opportunity to take real and effective action in the best interests of the games, the interests of its own mission, and most important, in the interests of so many young men and women misplaced on campuses throughout the country.

Of course, not every college would desire – or for that matter be required – to follow the new blueprint. The NCAA already has different rules for its different divisions, so why not simply establish one more classification? Clearly, there will be some hard decisions for those major college programs that still cling to the “student athlete” ideal. But within the parameters and rules governing the new division, schools will have the flexibility to do more or less – depending on their own interests and philosophical stance. Disparities will exist, but will they be any more pronounced than those which now separate, say, Prairie View A&M and Kentucky or Cornell and Georgetown?

For whatever system to work in favor of intercollegiate athletics and in the best interests of the young people involved, there will have to be serious and honest cooperation between the institutions and the governing body. The fallacy of academic integrity has permeated too many programs. Who among us thinks first of “academic learning or achievement” when we hear the word “scholarship”? On the contrary, the word has come to preclude most notions of higher education for so many of the athletes in question. A article published in January underscored just how pervasive the problem might actually be.

Still, the college athletes will have to be tethered to their respective schools in some fashion. This is not only possible, but perhaps it tills fertile ground for real creative thinking. Would they be “employed” as independent contractors? Might they take courses for which they pay out of their own pocket, thereby having some “skin” in their own academic future? Perhaps some would benefit most by taking courses in basic life skills and money management. Possibly pursue a trade? In short, a system could be established to fit the needs and skill sets of the athlete, as opposed to the square-peg-and-round-hole paradigm now in play.

It is no secret – or it shouldn’t be – that the financial windfall from major college athletics largely supports all programs along the vast food chain of intercollegiate athletics everywhere. It’s an honorable end, but the means have caused significant angst and drawn more than a little well-earned cynicism from intellectually honest observers.

It may be time – especially with the kinds of dollars now pouring into the system – to take a lesson from my friends at The Rotary Club and build a system that meets their four way test. Create a system that is truthful, fair to all concerned, builds goodwill and better friendships, and is beneficial to all involved.

That’s an exam that anyone can pass.


Behind the Mic: “Accadeemics and Ashletics”

No, this is not a “typo” and yes, I do know how to spell. I can read, too. I was also a college athlete. And from what I have read of a recent analysis of college football and college basketball by CNN’s Sara Ganin, there are too many athletes with very limited ability to read and/or write representing academic institutions:

A career learning specialist, Mary Willingham, researched the reading levels of 183 University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill athletes who played football and basketball from 2004 to 2012. 60% read between 4th and 8th grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third grade level!!

How can these athletes possibly earn a college diploma? Well, that answer lies in cheating on tests, having papers written for them, getting passing grades for classes they never attend, and so on. And why do colleges turn a blind eye to many of these practices – MONEY!!

According to Ganin, the Louisville Cardinals basketball program made a profit of $26.9 million and the University of North Carolina made $16.9 million last year on their men’s basketball programs alone. This is the justification for admitting students with abysmal SAT scores and reading levels below fourth grade (estimated to be @10%). Student-athletes were admitted with SAT scores between 200 and 300 and the lowest possible score on this test is 200 (the highest is 800).

And, perhaps, the first question we should ask is, “How did they ever get a high school diploma?” The system of “rewarding” outstanding athletic talent by not requiring academic success begins here and is perpetuated at the next level.

My collegiate broadcasting experience is with the Patriot League and Lafayette College. Their goals are summed up in their Mission Statement (the underlines are mine):

The Patriot League promotes opportunities for students to compete in Division I intercollegiate athletics programs within a context that holds paramount the high academic standards and integrity of member institutions, and the academic and personal growth of student-athletes.

The Patriot League will be the exemplary intercollegiate athletics conference in the country for student-athletes who demonstrate success both in academic achievement and athletic competition.

• Offering broad-based and diverse athletic programs, the League schools are dedicated to shared values of integrity, character and the personal development of all students.
• Student-athletes are provided the opportunity to achieve their athletic potential and compete successfully at the NCAA Division I level.
• The Patriot League will be recognized nationally for the effective integration of Division I athletics into the educational mission of the institution.
• Student-athletes are prepared to become leaders and to make meaningful contributions to society.

If colleges would begin to raise the academic standards required to be admitted and public education would stress those standards at the elementary and high school levels, wouldn’t everyone benefit? If the most motivating goal for some high school athletes is to play at the next level, wouldn’t they raise their bar if the institutions raised the requirement bar? The question remains, however, who is willing to take the first step? My guess is – No One!

1. Chris Wheeler and Gary “the Sarge” Matthews were dismissed from the Phillies broadcast booth this past week by Comcast SportsNet. Comcast SportsNet signed a 25-year, $2.5-billion contract with the Phillies and, thus, now have control over the TV broadcasting team. What’s done is done. I personally enjoy the radio team of Scott Frantzke, Larry Anderson, and Jim Jackson. Frantzke has said he is not interested in doing television.

2. In other Phillies news, the games that used to be on Channel 17 will now be on Channel 10 which is owned and operated by Comcast.

3. DeSean Jackson’s home was robbed this weekend and the burglars made off with $125,000 in jewelry and $250,000 in cash. He also lost two semi-automatic handguns. I’m having a little difficulty relating to his loss!

4. Speaking of outrageous money, did you see where A-Rod paid $12,000 a month for Performance Enhancing Drugs? His ultimate goal was to hit 800 home runs. He has 654 and will miss all of next season. He will still make $3 million for the year. And, at least, he’ll save $144,000 in “medical” expenses.

5. Did you see that in the last three weeks, I was 21-3 on my picks? 4-0 this past weekend. The NFL matchups this coming weekend could not be much better. So, please don’t bother me on Sunday.

(Last week – 4-0) (172-91-1 65%)