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Neuheisel, Nuances, and the NCAA

June 17, 2003 Columns No Comments

Of Neuheisel, Nuances and NCAA

by Dean Austin

Once again I find myself fascinated; apparently this will be a continuing theme, by a current news story. This time it is the attempt by the University of Washington to fire their football coach Rick Neuheisel. Curiously the spellchecker threw up nutshell as the correct spelling as I was trying to write Neuheisel so let me try and describe this in one. Coach of a prestigious Pac 10 school has a bit of baggage, also known as NCAA penalties, from his Rocky Mountain days. Then he dallies with an NFL franchise and lies about it. Meanwhile off with a bunch of friends Der Rickster has been taking part in a friendly high stakes NCAA College Basketball Tournament pool. Funnily enough I found this scenario in the thesaurus while looking up a synonym for “thin ice.” Sure enough someone rats on him and faster than you can say lack of institutional control; our fair haired boy is hung drawn and quartered by Washington athletic director Barbara Hedges.

Now when it comes to gambling the sanctimonious nature of sport has always struck me as more than a little hypocritical. Sure Baseball’s Black Sox scandal was a taint in its day (Memo to Mr. Selig: will you just put Joe Jackson in the Hall!) Curiously the spellchecker throws up complete blathering idiot as the correct spelling of Selig. But I digress. Certainly there have been issues in the soccer world of games being thrown for gambling interests and in our own arena the CCNY debacle of 1951. However as the rather excellent Mitch Albom said on air at ESPN, the NCAA generates billions in revenue precisely because people like to take part in an office pool. Does anyone honestly think that March Madness would be even half of its size if the office pool wasn’t given a nod and a wink by everyone involved? For crying out loud, if the NCAA was seriously against all gambling then they would require their licensees, CBS, ESPN and others, to not provide information on the brackets. No printable brackets anywhere, no full page spreads in newspapers for folks to follow along.

I recall my Grandmother who lived in the old country. Ask her if she gambled and she would immediately say she never did. However regular as clockwork once a year she’d drop a fiver on a horse picked at random for the venerable Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree. To her it wasn’t gambling; it had transcended that dirty affliction. To the vast majority of Americans, I’d care to wager (oops!), that they don’t consider an office pool to be gambling either. Possibly not the vast majority but interestingly last time I looked, an ESPN.com poll had 50.1% of 12,000 voters saying Neuheisel should not have been fired. The low voter turnout being attributed to the fact that the denizens of Bristol had forgot to add the name Kournikova to the question.

Neuheisel’s defense is that he has an internal memo from the university’s compliance director Dana Richardson saying that such tournament pools were fine if they were with friends who were outside of intercollegiate athletics. And they were. Look for Ms. Richardson’s head to roll next. That memo is going to cost the Huskies a chunk of change. You knew it the moment Neuheisel started using the words “lack of due process” in comments during the week.

It’s an office pool. It’s not flying down to Vegas and dropping 10 grand on your team to lose or conspiring in some back alley. And yes there is a difference. That’s the problem with the NCAA. Common Sense has been replaced by strict adherence to the rules. College Athletics as well as life should be the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.

There have been rumblings in the past about the lack of relevance of the NCAA in today’s revenue driven collegiate sports. Those rumblings have recently taken shape in the form of a bill introduced into the California legislate (see article) that would specifically bar in state universities from following NCAA rules when it comes to such issues as outside jobs, hiring agents, scholarships, health insurance and most interestingly transfers.

State Sen. Kevin Murray D-Culver City, who chairs the California Senate Select Committee on Entertainment has made this something of a crusade and looks to be on a collision course with the NCAA. The keepers of the collegiate flame of course poured gasoline on the situation by implying it would be a shame if California schools couldn’t take part in NCAA events. Memo to the NCAA: Need to improve the old people skills.

Murray’s bill is a continuation of an anti NCAA momentum that is building around the country. Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns recently came out in favor of a bill that would pay Nebraska football players. If memory serves me Nebraska was the site of a similar battle 15 years ago although obviously that was not successful. Now the sentiment seems to have changed. Collegiate Athletics generated billions of dollars each year, and yet the athletes themselves see virtually none of it. Sure the kids are “getting an education” but that’s like telling slaves that they are getting food and a roof over their head. At some point the fundamental injustice of the situation will be addressed.

You can see it already. Football players are leaving after their junior year, basketball players are bypassing college. These young men have the opportunity to be paid for their skill, why should they give it away for free to a university? And that’s a shame for a number of reasons. Attending a four year college is an excellent part of a young athletes maturing process. It develops both social and athletic skills. A new experience that helps shape their life. Big time collegiate athletics are a uniquely American phenomena. It’s part of who we are as a society. The NCAA and the professional leagues need to work together to maintain an appropriate balance. But to do that the hypocrisy must stop. In an industry that generates such huge amounts of income, no athlete should have to go pro to cover a family’s medical bill and other basic necessities. Players need to be paid, the NCAA needs to simplify their rules and the institutions need to stop crucifying their employees because they act like the rest of us.

The NCAA is perilously close to killing the goose that laid the golden egg.


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