Panel on college athletics

The College Sport Research Institute (CSRI) is holding its annual conference in Columbia, South Carolina. My friend and colleague Dr. Richard Southall is its director and a leading scholar on college athletics and the NCAA (Richard and I are currently doing research together on the NCAA). On Thursday night at the conference, there was a screening of the film Schooled: The Price of College Sports, followed by a terrific panel discussion. Dwayne Ballen, a long time sportscaster and commentator was the facilitator, and the panelists including Dr. David Ridpath, a former compliance coordinator in athletics at Marshall University and now a professor of sport management at Ohio University; Gene Smith, a former assistant football coach at numerous schools, including Arkansas and Southern Miss; Mary Willingham, the whistleblower former reading specialist in athletics at UNC; Gene Robinson, who played football at UNC and graduated last year and London-born Kene Anusionwu, who played basketball at Bethune Cookman and is now studying sports law at Florida A&M.

Some highlights:

1) In some ways, Smith was the biggest surprise. He continues to believe that college football adds great value to universities and enhances the lives of the young men who play it. He also contended that most coaches are good men and that many love their players and want what’s best for them on and off the field. But he also repeatedly referred to the hypocrisy of college sports, confessing to find particularly compelling Taylor Branch’s attacks on the NCAA’s violations of players’ rights and the hypocrisy of the NCAA (Branch’s landmark essay was the basis for the film). In particular, he wanted to drop the pretense that the athletes were students first. He supported the premise behind the O’Bannon lawsuit that players should be able to profit from their likenesses and so forth. Smith said players should be allowed to leave for the draft whenever they think they are ready *and* to return to school if they don’t get drafted. The current draft rules were among the ways Smith believed the universities were needlessly and inappropriately serving the NFL.

He proposed a return to a 10-game schedule, which would begin in late September and end at Thanksgiving and allow players to still be students during the fall semester. Intriguingly, he called for something like a reverse draft, whereby the teams with the best records would get *fewer* scholarships in the following year, to level the playing field and tamp down the college sports arms race. When Ballen asked Smith whether it was realistic to ask teams to cut back their schedules, eliminate conference championships and otherwise deny themselves these major sources of revenue, Smith responded by saying that schools could just adjust their budgets accordingly. He noted that, even now, very few schools are managing their finances well. Only eight schools are sustaining athletics programs without either drawing on general funds or student fees. So, even with all the TV money flowing in, they’re still spending more money than revenues cover. As Smith put it, if that means Nick Saban might have to “scrape by” on $1.2 million a year, instead of seven million or so per, then so be it.

I didn’t agree with everything Smith said, but particularly for someone who has spent his life in college football, he spoke with remarkable forthrightness about the exploitation of players and about how to restore some semblance of integrity to big time college athletics and to give the players an opportunity to take better advantage of the educational resources on campus.

2) both athletes – Robinson and Anusionwu – clearly felt that their educational experiences in college were invaluable. In that regard, they did not necessarily think paying players ought to be the top priority of reform, though they both support pay for play. Instead, they believed that the priority needed to be ensuring that athletes have the opportunity to receive a real education. Each contended that the commitment required by athletics made it difficult to pursue the courses of study in which they were most interested and when, during Q and A, Robinson was asked whether athletes are steered to (or away from) particular majors, he said unequivocally that they were. Both also said that their own family backgrounds encouraged them to value education in a way that they didn’t believe to be true among many of their teammates, who believed that their only ticket to success would be a professional career in their respective sports.

In that connection, during a discussion thread about how race intersected with these issues, the question was posed: why do so many young black men in particular only consider careers in sports or entertainment to be viable tickets to a better life. Ballen (who is black) offered an analogy. Say we divided the room we were in in half, and the people in one half of the room were told they’ve got ten doors to walk through to leave the room, and the other half was told they had two doors, the side with ten doors would spend a lot of time contemplating their full range of possibilities; by contrast, the side that had two doors to walk through would focus all of their energy on the only options that were available to them. I found that to be an evocative image.

3) Ridpath’s personal story is interesting. He became embroiled in a legal battle with his former employer, Marshall University related to that university’s subordination of educational integrity to the needs of the football program – as the above link explains, he worked in compliance there during the Randy Moss/Chad Pennington years. Ridpath argued that the current system is irretrievably broken, so that almost anything we replace it with would be better. He described unionization as a “blunt instrument” but also contended that absent other meaningful replacements for the current “collegiate model” it was an effective way to help begin dismantling that model.

Ridpath has begun investigating the European sports development system. He believes that, whatever new system emerges, American universities should not be a minor league system for our professional leagues. Or, if they are, they need to be transparent about that mission and, among other things, pay the participants accordingly. Smith, the former coach, agreed that the colleges should reject the role of minor league system for professional sports in America.

4) Mary reiterated her long-standing call for schools to provide a far more comprehensive educational infrastructure for under-prepared athletes who are brought to the university. As it stands, she argued, we _ “all of us” – are simply shamelessly exploiting them to suit our desire for entertainment and that this is doubly problematic because it’s a mostly white audience that is countenancing if not actively cheering on the exploitation of young black men.

Overall, it was an excellent discussion – providing a range of perspectives and experiences, deeply informed, and heartfelt. At UNC and elsewhere, critics of the current model of college athletics are frequently branded as “haters” who just want to tear down whichever school is being criticized, or as somehow fundamentally “anti” sports or as elitists who just want to keep athletes off campus. The panel exposed the sheer idiocy of such characterizations. What’s under attack, and rightly so, is an unsustainable system that generates large sums of money for some, while denying the most basic rights of others, all under the guise of an allegedly noble educational mission that is, in reality, subordinated repeatedly to the demands of the revenue generating aspects of the enterprise.

Speaking of, the Northwestern players will vote today on whether to unionize. Dave Zirin has a good piece on the possibly illegal efforts of Coach Pat Fitzgerald and the university to dissuade the players from voting yes. Due to pending appeals, the vote today will be sealed, so it could be some time before we know its outcome. But whether or not the players vote to unionize, the NLRB’s ruling remains in force – henceforth, until and unless a future legal decision says otherwise, the players are, as of this moment, employees. This reality is one of many reasons why Mark Emmert’s comments last Friday were so remarkably ignorant.

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