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College sports: Fish or cut bait with student athletes

A battle over unionization will raise important, fundamental questions about the nature of collegiate athletics.

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Scandals in recruiting and under-the-table financial payments got prime attention in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was said of Hugh McElhenny, the great University of Washington running back in the early 1950s, that he was "the first National Football League player to take a pay cut after leaving college." McElhenny, a working-class kid from southern California, drove a shiny red convertible from his first day on campus and wore a camel's-hair topcoat. There were similar stories about other big-name college players. The University of Southern California's ferocious middle linebacker at the time (from nearby New London, Connecticut) was one Pat Cannamela, in whom the USC admissions office clearly saw promise unreflected in his test scores and GPA. Gene Conley, a Washington State basketball and baseball star who later played in both major-league baseball and the National Basketball Association, gained unintentional fame before college by being kidnapped and held against his will in a hotel room by rival-college recruiters before he could escape and register at Pullman.

These and other college-sports issues caused me as a Columbia graduate student in 1956 to undertake a research project on college football in particular. As part of my project, I sent a three-page questionnaire to every major-college football coach in America. I expected to get only a handful of mostly careless responses. To my surprise, the response rate was about 90 percent.

The coaches used my survey as a place to vent. Several coaches wrote several-page letters. They pursued a common theme: They hated the system in which they worked and yearned for simpler circumstances in which they could coach kids who played for love of the game.

One such coach, Chuck Mather of Kansas University (see comment above), submitted a thoughtful magazine-length essay, which any publication would have been pleased to publish. I thought: Why would these coaches be so candid, and take such risks, in responding to a graduate student's form letter? The answer, I concluded, was that it was probably the first chance they'd had to uninhibitedly express themselves on the subject.

My research paper was never published, of course, and remains somewhere deep in Columbia archives.  I suspect, though, that the same questionnaire, sent to today's major-college coaches, might elicit the same responses.

Inside all but the most money- and fame-seeking coaches there probably still lies a wish to live in a world in which athletes play for love of their game and coaches coach accordingly. Instead they find themselves competing avidly for tweeting high-school recruits who believe themselves to be celebrities and future NFL and NBA stars. Some of those recruits will change their commitments two and three times before the official college-football or basketball signing day. They must cope with a few players on their rosters who turn out to be thugs or selfishly unmanageable. They must romance prospective big donors to their programs and give up precious time with their families — the same kind of syndrome, it occurs to me, that afflicts big-time politicians. Just as politicians, the coaches must make regular media appearances in which they answer repetitive uninformed questions with feigned earnestness.

The new Husky football coach, Chris Petersen, unlike predecessors Rick Neuheisel and Steve Sarkisian, appears to be exactly the kind of coach who would prefer to forego every role but coaching his kids on the field, He is paid well for it, as are his colleagues in his profession. His Husky spring practice resumed Tuesday with questions about the status of two suspended Husky stars who allegedly celebrated the Seahawks' Super Bowl victory by disrupting a street celebration and creating an incident in which a Seahawks fan was beaten. His basketball counterpart, Lorenzo Romar, is on the hot seat after two disappointing seasons, lost recruiting battles, and prospective transfer of current players elsewhere. Yet everyone will agree that he is honorable, a good coach, and an exemplary representative of the university.

This brings us to the quest for the Almighty Dollar and what it has done to college sports. Good recruits, it is said, will only come to campuses with first-class stadiums, arenas, and training facilities and, a recent trend, eye-pleasing uniforms. Without these recruits, teams will lose and stadiums and arenas will remain unfilled. Dollars will not flow and all athletic-department activities, including non-revenue and women's sports, will need to be curtailed.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 3, 12:21 p.m. Inappropriate

"They also get college educations at institutions to which many of them would not be admitted were it not for their athletic skills."

This is a questionable assertion at best. As I understand it, the NLRB decision was based in part on an examination of how the young men in question spent their time -- it was determined that the majority of their time in a given week was spent in football activity. Their training (including individual work as well as team practice time) took upwards of 60 hours/week during the regular season, slightly less than that in the off-season. If they were actually working in the regular world, they would be putting in overtime hours for a big chunk of the year. When are they supposed to be "students?"

sandik

Posted Thu, Apr 3, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder what kinds of criteria Ted Van Dyk has in mind if he's not yet sure whether the money sports, football in particular, have compromised the basic academic mission of the university.

As the previous commenter noted, the NLRB decision was based in good part on how much time the student athletes spent practicing and studying. Surveys of all sudents show that grades start to drop when students work more than 15 hours a week--isn't 60 hours of practice a week compromising the academic mission?

And, as the article notes, many of these students would never get into college if they weren't athletes. But we recruit them with much more money and energy than is spent on academic standouts, then give them just enough academic help to keep them eligible. Oh, yes, then we advise them on which courses to take. Compromising the mission?

And frankly it seems to me deeply corrupting when the football coach is the highest paid member of a university community. A coach's salary may well be greater than the combined salaries of some academic departments. Doesn't this compromise the academic mission of the school? Of course, it's justified because because the coaches bring in the money--on the backs of their student athletes, of course, who are paid only a deeply compromised education that they barely have time for.

And we should also ask why we sponsor a sport that can lead to long-term brain damage. Repeated blows to the head don't need to cause concussions to cause CTE, which has wrecked the lives of a number of high-profile former NFL players and many others. Why bring students to campus to educate their minds and jeopardize their brains? Frankly, I don't think we would if it didn't pay (someone)so well. (Just not the players.)

On another note, Van Dyk shouldn't worry that student athletes are developing a mercenary mindset. They follow their coaches, who aren't members of an academic community but careerists looking to jump to the next level. Besides, the mercenary mindset is pretty widespread through the whole student body--students go to school to get better jobs and make more money.

cato

Posted Fri, Apr 4, 6:13 a.m. Inappropriate

I did not see 60 hours/week mentioned in the article.
That number seems like a great exaggeration.

I knew many student varsity athletes, including football players at the mid-western university I attended with a prestigious program (they won the National Championship while I attended).
At most they spent 4-6 hours a day in 'practice', much of this time spent reviewing videotapes, etc. Even assuming a ten hour day on 'gameday' that is still only 40 hours a week.
This is still a high number, but hardly 1-1/2 full time jobs.

As someone who worked ~20 hours/week in school (I guess my grades suffered), I was excited to have the Saturday game-day experience as a student. As anyone who has watched the NCAA basketball tournament would understand, college sports have the ability to unite the fans (student body) in a way that professional sports could never achieve. The great college football games I've been to were far greater experiences than any Seahawks game.

I contend that sports can be part of a school's mission to create a well-rounded individual, including building bonds amongst students. This does not have to be football and I agree with many of cato's comments regarding the issues with that particular sport.

jeffro

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 6 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's what the NLRB ryling said as reported in (and quoted from)the New York Times:

“The players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three- or four-month football season,” the ruling said. “Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies.”

My 60 hours was the high end for training camp, not for the academic year--my bad.

But the main issue, as the decision pointed out, is that even at 40-50 hours, it's more time than the football players spend on their studies.

I like college football as well, and much more than NFL football. In a minute or two I'm going to turn on UConn v. Kentucky. But as much as I like college sports, I also find the money sports, football in particular, deeply exploitative. They need to find a way to be fair to the players. But I'm not counting on Mark Emmert to lead the way.

cato

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