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October 5, 2002 Columns No Comments

Delving deep into the NCAA and Student-Athletes

by Brian Seymour

It was a busy off-season for college basketball, but one of the more tantalizing stories of the summer was pretty quickly brushed under the carpet by most of the national media.

When a federal grand jury indicted Chris Webber and several of his family members for allegedly lying about accepting money from Michigan booster Ed Martin, the response of most pundits was clucking at Webber for supposedly accepting money and not coming clean to a grand jury about it.

Quick note: As for whether or not Webber is being scapegoated because he’s a prominent sports figure in this country is another story and an interesting one at that, but one which I don’t wish to focus on today.

No, I thought Webber’s indictment would at least shine a glaring light on the continued hypocrisy of one of the most corrupt, inefficient, cronyistic and self-serving organizations in the world — the NCAA.

You’re familiar with the NCAA — these are the same folks who insist that a Division I-A college football playoff would pose too much of a hardship on the poor “student-athletes”, conveniently forgetting that a playoff is played at every other level of college football including I-AA. Division I-AA, you’ll remember, includes such academic lightweights as Harvard, Yale and the other Ivys.

So the NCAA isn’t concerned about our future presidents, congressmen and CEOs missing a few classes to play some football games, but a real academic powerhouse, like Cincinnati, for example — they can’t have those poor kids missing classes to play a couple football games. (Not that Cincinnati would ever make a I-A playoff, but you’ll see where I’m going with this later. Trust me.)

The thing about “student-athletes” and the NCAA is this — the NCAA doesn’t give a damn about the “student” part of the phrase “student-athlete”.

If it did, it would do two major things which would help head off future Chris Webber/Ed Martin fiascos.

The first is pay all scholarship athletes a monthly stipend for living expenses above and beyond their scholarships and the second is put teeth into forcing schools to make sure they graduate their scholarship athletes. The two actually have a lot to do with each other as I’ll explain a little later. For now, let’s focus on the arguments one at a time.

When I talk about paying athletes, I’m not talking about huge money here, maybe something like $300 per month per athlete. Enough to take a date out for some pizza and a movie or buy a couple of CDs every month. Spending money.

The schools and the NCAA will argue that they can’t afford to pay the athletes and that they are already compensated enough by their full-ride scholarships, but I maintain that it’s not enough. I’m familiar with the argument that the huge money produced by men’s basketball and football is used to subsidize other sports, which make no revenue, including most women’s sports.

And that’s fine. But if the schools can’t afford a monthly stipend for their scholarship athletes, maybe the NCAA should further restrict the number of scholarships a school can use. Funny that you don’t hear these schools bellyaching about how much it’s costing them to let all these students in for free, but once you start talking about actually making sure they have enough money for living expenses, the coffers are empty.

How about all those vice presidents in the athletic department of major schools. Seen a media guide lately for a Big Ten or SEC school? They have assistant vice presidents to assistant vice presidents for academic affairs. I’m sure a few of those $100,000 salaries could be cut if push came to shove.

And what about the NCAA? Take a look at the NCAA and figure out how many people are employed by the organization, both directly and indirectly. It’s a common notion that the NCAA is a benevolent organization whose intent is to protect “student-athletes” and promote “sportsmanship” and “honor”.

Blah blah blah.

The NCAA is a bureaucracy which exploits student-athletes and fills its coffers without regard for the future of most of those athletes and whose rulings on cases even unrelated to college basketball like the Jeremy Bloom/skiing endorsement fiasco show that, as an organization, the NCAA is heartless and soulless.

How many administrators do you suppose the NCAA has? How many of them are making more than or near six figures? Where does that money come from? From the student-athletes, of course.

Even more sickening is that in many cases, the coaches of the “student-athletes” are complicit in the athlete’s exploitation. Which brings us back to the University of Cincinnati and one of the most rotten, foul and disgusting athletic programs in the country, specifically the men’s basketball program run by Bob Huggins.

Huggins’ unfortunate heart attack will deflect attention away this season from the fact that Huggins makes in the ballpark of a million dollars a year and has no apparent interest in seeing that any of his players graduate. The recent graduation statistics announced by the NCAA put Cinci’s graduation percentage for the last 4 years at 17 percent, well below the national average for men’s basketball of 42 percent. (Which is itself shamefully low and well below the average for all NCAA sports and the general population of college campuses).

Many years, Cincinnati has had a 0 percent graduation rate.

The party line from the NCAA and its member schools is that players are paid by their scholarships, but what breaks the argument is programs like Cincinnati men’s basketball where academics are an afterthought. (Related to this argument, but not exactly relevant is the legal history of some of Huggins’ recruits — as a group, not the kind of guys you’d want to run into in a dark alley).

These players are used for their basketball (or football or soccer) skills, railroaded into programs of academic study that are designed to produce passing grades for the athlete and nothing more and once the eligibility is over — well, go ahead and drop out. Doesn’t really matter.

What the NCAA needs to do is wake up and realize that, duh, athletics are big business and quit pretending like it is still 1940. It’s big money to allow unscrupulous college basketball coaches to use their programs as development programs for the NBA. It’s big money for the coaches and the NCAA, but not for the kids.

Webber was widely derided for his comment that the University of Michigan made millions of dollars off his jersey while he was enrolled there and he didn’t see one dime. Well, he should be angry. Schools should have to put money generated off an athlete’s jersey or other similar “non-endorsements” into a trust payable when the student graduates. If the student doesn’t graduate, it should have to put the money into a post-graduate scholarship program for its athletes.

Anyway, that takes me back to my second argument — that schools which don’t graduate its athletes should be held accountable. In a perfect world, Huggins would have been fired from the University of Cincinnati long ago. Would the president of that university stand by and clap if the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences presided over a department that graduated 17 percent of its students?

Yeah, think again. If the NCAA decided to get serious about making sure its “student-athletes” got an education by putting programs with anemic graduation rates on probation and paying scholarship athletes a small stipend for living expenses, it would have a revolutionary effect on the world of college athletics.

Athletes not interested in an education wouldn’t be recruited by coaches and could bypass college and try to enter the NBA or NHL or NFL directly. You never hear boo about 17-year-old kids turning pro in hockey, mainly because the NHL has a real developmental system. The NBA uses college basketball as a minor league system and it has to stop.

If an athlete is found to have accepted improper benefits, even after getting $300 a month from their scholarship, they should be banned from action for one year. No warnings, no two-game suspensions. If they’re really in college to get an education and play basketball in that order, then they can take out a student loan like the rest of us had to. (That’s another thing — the NCAA should set up a program where athletes can accept student loans for additional college expenses not covered by scholarships. The system would be open to abuse, but if abuses were really enforced it wouldn’t be a major problem).

Coaches would be threatened with the loss of their job to make sure as many of their athletes graduate as possible. A program being put on probation for a low graduation rate would be a huge black mark on a coach’s resume, as it should be.

Finally, maybe some of this exploitation of 17 or 18-year-old kids would stop. Forced with ensuring that the students get degrees, even after leaving the program, a whole generation of real “student-athletes” would be realized.

And maybe, the NCAA could focus on some of its other problems — like implementing a playoff for Division I-A football.


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