Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Moral Indifference

It’s been a tumultuous 12 months for collegiate athletics, as some of the top programs in the country have been caught with their pants down and their hands out, engulfed in controversies ranging from pay-for-play schemes to abortion payoffs. Each scandal has been worse than the one before, and while there’s hope that the embarrassment will stop with the University of Miami abomination, fans everywhere can only sit and pray that their school doesn’t end up on the wrong end of a Yahoo! Sports investigation.

Amid all of the coaching dismissals and returned Heismans, the sports world has turned introspective, as it tries to figure out how we got here, and what can be done to get things back on track. Flip on ESPN and you’ll see their panel of experts discussing the issues on their Blueprint for Change series. Talk radio airwaves are filled with host after host using terms like “Pell Grant” and “Olympic Model” in an effort to state their case. Everyone has a theory, a prescription for what’s needed to repair the apparently failing system.

The only problem is that they’re all trying to fix the wrong thing.

There are countless areas of concern the NCAA must sort out, from recruiting to compliance to enforcement, but at the root of them all is the debate of whether or not the student-athlete should be paid. This is the issue that precipitates the other issues…it’s the catalyst, and many believe that if the players were to start getting a cut of the action, everything else would fall into place. Boosters and agents would be wasting their time offering impermissible benefits, because athletes would have no reason to take them, and therefore coaches would have no indiscretions to lie about. Game…set…sweater vest.

Proponents of this change also point out that it would be the right thing to do. After all, there’s a huge pool of money, and everyone involved – the schools, the coaches, the TV networks, the guy who's getting lucky on the stadium hillside – are stacking their bank accounts off of the free labor of the players. These athletes are the main attraction, the argument goes; they’re what the people are paying to see, yet they’re not getting a dime for their efforts.

Of course, this logic completely ignores the fact that the players are getting paid already.

We can haggle all we want over the definitive value of a scholarship – some say it’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, some say it’s not enough to cover daily expenses – and I’m all for adjusting scholarship payments so they sufficiently provide the athletes with everything they need. But more than anything, these players are being paid with something that’s easy to dismiss yet impossible to put a price tag on:


They’re attending a school most of them could never get into on their own, and they’re assigned a host of tutors and advisors whose sole purpose is to ensure that they succeed academically. They are trained by world-class coaches in world-class facilities, and when they finish their workouts, they’re tended to by world-class doctors. They get to travel around the country, staying in top-notch hotels, eating spreads worthy of a Man vs. Food challenge, collecting bagfuls of gifts from bowl committees, all the while competing in a sport they excel at and turning their name into a recognizable brand.

Granted, this all requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice – like not getting to go to class for three weeks during the NCAA basketball tournament – but if they work hard and take advantage of everything that’s offered, by the time they’re handed their diploma, they’re not only going to have a degree, but they’ll be in a much stronger position for success than the overwhelming majority of their classmates.

And the ones who are good enough to play professionally will already have a jumpstart on their post-career career.

This all has to count for something, regardless of how much a school’s TV deal is worth or how outrageous a coach’s paycheck may seem. Besides, since when is everyone owed an equal piece of the revenue pie? Maybe I’m completely missing something, but at Dunder Mifflin, the warehouse guys were always slaving away, moving boxes and loading trucks, while the white collared staff upstairs was messing around and holding the Office Olympics, but Michael Scott made more than Darryl Philbin. That’s how it works everywhere – the higher you are on the hierarchy, the bigger your slice is.

Now, I realize that some will say that this is not an apt comparison, that it’s the college athlete who makes the sport(s) special. Whereas a warehouse worker possesses a somewhat common skill set that is easily replaceable, the football or basketball player is distinctively talented, and people show up and tune in to see them do things that only they can do. Without them, there are no TV deals, no 100,000 in the Big House, no nothing.

But that’s not entirely true. One of the things that make college sports unique – and what separates them from the professional level – is that they are not star-driven, they’re institutionally driven. They’re based on a foundation of tradition, fight songs, and alma mater. Florida or LSU or any other big time university isn’t dependent on having their own Peyton Manning or Lebron James to be successful. They couldn’t be even if it were necessary, because players are only on campus for a limited period of time. It’s a brand new team each season. If anything, as the one constant, it’s the coach who is the true face of the program.

Look no further than college basketball, where almost all of the top players leave after one year in school (and until 2005, the best players generally bypassed school altogether and went directly to the NBA), yet its popularity has grown so much over the years that in April of 2010, CBS and Time Warner inked a multi-billion dollar contract with the NCAA to broadcast March Madness each spring.

So while fans may grow fond of particular athletes, honoring them with hideous YouTube videos or buying their jersey (this is one area where the naysayers do have a point…if people are making money off of your likeness, there should be a way for you to get compensated), they’re ultimately packing the stadiums and arenas to cheer on whoever it is in their favorite school’s colors. They’re supporting the institution of Duke basketball or Texas football, and even if the quality of play were to decrease a little, the revenue stream wouldn’t. The Longhorns are going to run out of the tunnel to a packed house year after year, regardless of whether it’s Colt McCoy or his little brother under center.

Nobody wants to acknowledge any of this, though. They’d rather cry foul and compare Reggie Bush to Kunta Kinte, or just throw money at the problem, assuming that as long as everyone is cashing a check, all will be right with the world.

But paying players won’t reduce scandal and heartache any more than legalizing alcohol did, because it fails to address what’s really at the core of all of these controversies:

Our society’s pliable relationship with right and wrong.

Take a look around, and in every direction you’ll see honesty and truth being compromised. We do what is most convenient, we do what is most self-serving, and we do it without concern.

It’s silly to think that those who have been caught stiff-arming the rules didn’t know that they were crossing the line. They weren’t George Costanza asking, “Was that wrong?” after sleeping with the cleaning lady. Lying to an NCAA committee, covering up athletes’ transgressions, accepting bounties for injuring opposing players…these were not things they were taught by their mother, but they did them anyway because they could, and then hid behind some sort of poor-me justification to try to convince everybody – and themselves – that it was all okay.

And that’s what really needs to get fixed.

Because beyond all of the rhetoric and rationalizations, it’s this moral indifference, this insatiable greed and "If you're not cheating, you're not trying" mentality that is our biggest obstacle for progress. Maybe it’s too pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna to expect a 19-year-old kid with nothing but lint in his pocket to turn down a $1,000 handshake, or a coach to not put winning above integrity, but until that changes, no amount of reform is going to make a bit of difference. There’s still going to be someone who wants more and is willing to do that much more to get it. Enough will never be enough.

So the powers-that-be can continue to talk a good game, and the experts can spout off their opinions about what needs to be done, but ultimately, the system is not what’s broken…

We are.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?