Late last week, Jason Whitlock, who’d already expressed anger about some aspects of the Sports Illustrated series on major violations in the Oklahoma State football program (here’s one sampling of some of the flaws in the series), penned a worthwhile column on what rankles him about these sorts of stories. There’s probably more that I disagree with than agree with in the piece. But Whitlock’s conclusions are important and powerful.
Let me skip ahead to those:
The problem is the NCAA system and its refusal to deal with today’s reality. The NCAA’s morally bankrupt amateur model, a system the NCAA’s modern architect, Walter Byers, analogized to plantation slavery in his memoir, is at the root of the corruption we sensationalize for attention.
Big-time college football and basketball have been profe$$ionalized. The NCAA, its television partners and the leagues (NFL and NBA) that benefit from this professionalization need to come together and figure out a way to develop and support our athletes starting around age 13 or 14. European countries do this in soccer. Major League Baseball spends millions of dollars developing children in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.
But we can’t do it here? Child, please. I blame us, the media, for not demanding that America serve its athletes better.
Whitlock’s beef with the Sports Illustrated series (apart from some of its apparent reporting flaws) and the Yahoo story last week on payments to SEC players and so on is that these don’t, in his view,
“promote healthy NCAA change. The stories demonize the “greedy, immature, uneducated, entitled, mostly-black” athletes and bait sports fans, the media and college administrators to view the denial of opportunity as a solution. In reaction to the SI stories, Berry Tramel, another journalist I highly respect, wrote a column on Wednesday for The Daily Oklahoman that stated “some athletes have no business being on an NCAA campus.” This is a popular sentiment among some sports writers, some sports fans, some college educators and a few coaches and administrators. Here’s what it sounds like to me: The problem with college athletics is these poor, unprepared black kids. Less of them, less problems. Headache over.
Whitlock is right that these stories may well lead people to draw what he considers to be the wrong conclusions about how to fix the problem. But I don’t think the answer is a hear-no-evil/see-no-evil approach either. Instead, we need a more sustained challenge to the contradictory logic that sustains the status quo. On the one hand, whenever the latest scandal breaks, world-weary pundits say that it’s really nothing new, because we know everyone is doing it. On other hand, defenders of the system, among coaches, the NCAA, booster and many in the media, continue to insist that these scandals represent the work of a few bad apples.
Each narrative, as much one contradicts the other, does important work in perpetuating the message that nothing fundamental can change or needs to change.
But the reality is that the chorus of voices calling for NCAA reform is growing. Prominent voices in the media, like Jay Bilas, who have huge platforms and have become relentless critics, are now very much part of the conversation. Rigorous reporting that exposes corruption in college athletics – corruption that is an inevitable result of the fundamental contradictions in the enterprise – will only amplify the message of folks like Bilas, and will make it harder for the NCAA and its big time member programs to sustain the charade.
And to be clear, as I have said before, the charade is this: that players, particularly in football and basketball, are being brought to campus for any reason other than to win games and make their schools money. One way to end the charade is by turning the big-time college football and basketball programs into explicit minor leagues and more or less de-linking those programs from the broader academic mission of the universities, with all that entails. But short of that, we still need to 1) acknowledge that we are bringing these players to campus to do a job, for which they should be appropriately compensated and 2) fulfill our obligation to provide the resources necessary to allow the athletes to succeed academically, which starts by recognizing that, in many cases, they will need far more intensive academic interventions than the programs currently admit. (of course, this doesn’t apply to every football and basketball player. Some are very good students, well equipped to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them).
The major stakeholders in big-time college athletics have powerful incentives to sweep under the rug major violations unless they can show that they are cracking down on what they insist are isolated examples of rule-breaking. The more reporting to the contrary, the harder it will be for folks to avoid drawing more systemic conclusions about what is wrong. Once a critical mass has reached that point, we can be at least a little hopeful that we are better positioned to do right by the athletes.