In the Middle of College Football Season, Injustices of the NCAA Revealed

I’m part of a corrupt system.

  • The other week I spent a buck something on a fountain soda at a Turkey Hill Minit Market. The plastic cup I chose sported the Penn State Nittany Lion logo and the football team’s season schedule. From that purchase, a few cents went to Penn State University in the way of a licensing fee.
  • Yesterday I watched the Penn State vs. Temple football game on ESPN 3, via XBox LIVE at my house and then on cable at a friend’s house. I watched most of the commercials. ESPN paid the NCAA big money for the right to broadcast that game. Corporations, in turn, paid big money to target me with those advertisements.

In the end, none of that money went to the people who actually earned it—the athletes on the field who make the very idea of Penn State football so exciting, and the event of a Penn State football game so much fun.

There is no doubt in my mind that Lancaster County residents easily put more than $1 million in the coffers of Penn State University and the NCAA each year. Factor in Pitt, Temple, Villanova, and the other Division 1 schools in Pennsylvania, and that number climbs. Factor in schools outside of Pennsylvania (there’s more than one Notre Dame fan in Lancaster County), and the number becomes absurd.

The Shame of College SportsStop for a second and take a guess—how much profit does Penn State football generate each year? Several hundred thousand? A couple million? Try tens of millions—“in between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year,” as reported in a scathing indictment of the NCAA and participating universities in the current issue of The Atlantic.

The article is compelling reading, long and full of detail and varying perspectives. It makes one conclusion abundantly clear, though: Given where college sports are today, the ideal of the amateur student-athlete is in many cases fairy tale mumbo-jumbo used to justify universities’ practice of treating adults (college students who are mostly black and mostly poor) as free labor to generate billions of dollars of revenue annually.

Here are several highlights from the article.

Three independent commissions have been assembled to review problems within the NCAA structure and make recommendations to the organization and its member schools. At one of the hearings, there was testimony from a man who has spent the last few decades negotiating hugely profitable deals between college athletics departments and multinational corporations. Here’s how part of the exchange went down:

“Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”

[Sonny] Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir,” Vaccaro added with irrepressible good cheer, “but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”

William Friday, a former president of North Carolina’s university system, still winces at the memory. “Boy, the silence that fell in that room,” he recalled recently. “I never will forget it.”

When we think of scandal in college athletics, we think of scandals involving the players (or their parents) taking payments that are against the rules. Consider this, though:

For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.

NCAA schools refuse to recognize their athletes as employees, but why do we let them fool us? Who makes more money for the universities—student workers in the library, or athletes on the field? Are the athletes volunteers? (Not in Division 1 schools, where scholarships are an expectation.) Do the athletes get to choose where and when to work, what to wear, and how to perform their tasks, as independent contractors do? (Of course not.) And yet by refusing to recognize athletes as employees, schools and the NCAA avoid workers comp claims when one of them is permanently injured on the field. Take an example:

Using the “student-athlete” defense, colleges have compiled a string of victories in liability cases. On the afternoon of October 26, 1974, the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs were playing the Alabama Crimson Tide in Birmingham, Alabama. Kent Waldrep, a TCU running back, carried the ball on a “Red Right 28” sweep toward the Crimson Tide’s sideline, where he was met by a swarm of tacklers. When Waldrep regained consciousness, Bear Bryant, the storied Crimson Tide coach, was standing over his hospital bed. “It was like talking to God, if you’re a young football player,” Waldrep recalled.

Waldrep was paralyzed: he had lost all movement and feeling below his neck. After nine months of paying his medical bills, Texas Christian refused to pay any more, so the Waldrep family coped for years on dwindling charity.

Through the 1990s, from his wheelchair, Waldrep pressed a lawsuit for workers’ compensation. (He also, through heroic rehabilitation efforts, recovered feeling in his arms, and eventually learned to drive a specially rigged van. “I can brush my teeth,” he told me last year, “but I still need help to bathe and dress.”) His attorneys haggled with TCU and the state worker-compensation fund over what constituted employment. Clearly, TCU had provided football players with equipment for the job, as a typical employer would—but did the university pay wages, withhold income taxes on his financial aid, or control work conditions and performance? The appeals court finally rejected Waldrep’s claim in June of 2000, ruling that he was not an employee because he had not paid taxes on financial aid that he could have kept even if he quit football. (Waldrep told me school officials “said they recruited me as a student, not an athlete,” which he says was absurd.)

It’s not just physical injuries we’re talking about. The very idea that athletic scholarships are a way for young adults to pay for college has only a flimsy basis in reality.

“When you dream about playing in college,” Joseph Agnew told me not long ago, “you don’t ever think about being in a lawsuit.” Agnew, a student at Rice University in Houston, had been cut from the football team and had his scholarship revoked by Rice before his senior year, meaning that he faced at least $35,000 in tuition and other bills if he wanted to complete his degree in sociology. … Agnew was struck by … scholarship data on players from top Division I basketball teams, which showed that 22 percent were not renewed from 2008 to 2009—the same fate he had suffered. … The NCAA contended that an athletic scholarship was a “merit award” that should be reviewed annually, presumably because the degree of “merit” could change. … The one-year rule effectively allows colleges to cut underperforming “student-athletes,” just as pro sports teams cut their players. “Plenty of them don’t stay in school,” said one of Agnew’s lawyers, Stuart Paynter. “They’re just gone. You might as well shoot them in the head.” … [Agnew’s story makes] a sham of the NCAA’s claim that its highest priority is protecting education.

Thankfully, there are students and alumni beginning to seriously stand up for themselves, and the NCAA is facing large threats in the courtroom and from its member schools.

Naturally, as they have become more of a profit center for the NCAA, some of the vaunted “student-athletes” have begun to clamor that they deserve a share of those profits. You “see everybody getting richer and richer,” Desmond Howard, who won the 1991 Heisman Trophy while playing for the Michigan Wolverines, told USA Today recently. “And you walk around and you can’t put gas in your car? You can’t even fly home to see your parents?”

When you look at the rules and how they are being applied, it’s ridiculous. Two examples:

At the start of the 2010 football season, A. J. Green, a wide receiver at Georgia, confessed that he’d sold his own jersey from the Independence Bowl the year before, to raise cash for a spring-break vacation. The NCAA sentenced Green to a four-game suspension for violating his amateur status with the illicit profit generated by selling the shirt off his own back. While he served the suspension, the Georgia Bulldogs store continued legally selling replicas of Green’s No. 8 jersey for $39.95 and up.

A different NCAA committee promulgated a rule banning symbols and messages in players’ eyeblack—reportedly aimed at Pryor’s controversial gesture of support for the pro quarterback Michael Vick, and at Bible verses inscribed in the eyeblack of the former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

The moral logic is hard to fathom: the NCAA bans personal messages on the bodies of the players, and penalizes players for trading their celebrity status for discounted tattoos—but it codifies precisely how and where commercial insignia from multinational corporations can be displayed on college players, for the financial benefit of the colleges. Last season, while the NCAA investigated him and his father for the recruiting fees they’d allegedly sought, Cam Newton compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos—one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet—as part of Auburn’s $10.6 million deal with Under Armour.

Scandal, corruption, injustice… it’s all here. And warm-and-fuzzy sentiment hardens us to it.

Related reading: Your Study Guide To The Atlantic’s Massive, Withering Story About The Wretchedness Of The NCAA on Deadspin

Freedom spreading

I can’t embrace the mantra, “Think globally, act locally.” Once we start thinking globally, it’s hard to constrain ourselves to acting only locally.

Still, incredible things are happening in the Middle East, and here we are, most of us unable to leave Lancaster to hang out in Egypt for a while. It looks as if I may have to be content acting locally after all, even as my thoughts are elsewhere.

So where should our minds be at this historic moment? How should we be acting in response? Here are my initial thoughts.

This is something to get excited about, not to fear

25 BahmanThe popular uprisings in the Middle East are massively important and of lasting significance. In Egypt, the military (which is in control until elections are held, months from now) will be unable to wrest real power from the people. The people are too energized, informed, and coordinated. So far, the indications are that the military realizes this. They’ve already convened a panel to rewrite the constitution.

Across the entire region, the zeitgeist has changed radically. Tunisia inspired Egypt, which is inspiring Yemen and Bahrain. Iranian supporters of the popular opposition in Tunsia and Egypt gathered yesterday to celebrate those countries’ victories, but when as many as 350,000 people turned out, they couldn’t help but revive their aspirations for a free Iran.

We need to get on “the right side of history,” as many are saying. Here’s what we mean by that: People are meant to be free. Each of us is born with inherent worth and rights. Totalitarian rule, communism, and fascism ignore that worth and deny those rights. Self-governance is the only viable option for guarding those rights and making room for all individuals, families, and communities to reach their full potential. When the natural order of things is constantly steering history toward freedom and democracy, oppression is an uphill battle, always doomed to eventually fail.

Whatever Glenn Beck might say, the new societies we’re watching emerge aren’t some kind of Islamist caliphate. Instead, they’re secular democracies. As reported in the New York Times:

The Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist movement that until 18 days ago was considered Egypt’s only viable opposition, said it was merely a supporting player in the revolt.

“We participated with everyone else and did not lead this or raise Islamic slogans so that it can be the revolution of everyone,” said Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, a spokesman for the Brotherhood. “This is a revolution for all Egyptians; there is no room for a single group’s slogans, not the Brotherhood’s or anybody else.”

The Brotherhood, which was slow to follow the lead of its own youth wing into the streets, has said it will not field a candidate for president or seek a parliamentary majority in the expected elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood will be a political party, not a ruling oligarchy.

I’m with Tom Friedman (who has been in Cairo throughout the events) in being convinced that Islamism is not the future, but rather something that has now been toppled in Egypt:

The message coming out of Cairo will be: We tried Nasserism; we tried Islamism; and now we’re trying democracy. But not democracy imported from Britain or delivered by America — democracy conceived, gestated and born in Tahrir Square.

Even the very conservative Weekly Standard declares, “Fears of a Muslim Brotherhood Takeover are Overblown”:

The chance that Islamists will capture the Arab uprisings is slim unless anti-democratic, oil rich Arab dynasties like the Saudi and other Gulf monarchs, or their Iranian rivals, are allowed to pour billions of dollars into the coffers of their respective proxies, as they did in Gaza, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The West can prevent this from happening, but even if it does happen, whoever seizes power in the countries in revolt will be forced to remember the fate of the ousted rulers they replaced.

On the question of whether we’re looking at lasting change, my favorite insight so far comes in the form of a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

To the Editor:

Judging by the images of Egyptians cleaning up after their uprising, I think it’s fair to conclude that they are ready for democracy.

Glenn Alan Cheney
Hanover, Conn., Feb. 13, 2011

Technology is a huge piece of what’s going on

My belief that we’re looking at permanent change in the Middle East is due in large part to my understanding of technology.

To understand modern life, it’s requisite to grasp the concept that technology is not morally neutral. Different technologies are predisposed to certain uses. Broadcast television is predisposed to addressing the least common denominator—on TV, success is easier and greater if you’re dumbing things down than if you’re trying to raise the level of intelligent discourse. Automobiles are predisposed to increasing individualism and isolation—with a car, you’re far more independent and can live further from the people who know you.

In this way, technology in the form of television and automobiles is not neutral. It’s not just “what we make of it,” because different technologies lend themselves to certain uses.

In the same way, the Internet and mobile networks, along with the social technologies that are built on them, are not simply “whatever people make of them.” Saying that it’s up to people to decide whether or not they’ll use Facebook and Twitter to  organize revolutions is like saying it’s up to people to decide whether or not they’ll use a hammer to drive in nails. Facilitating discourse is what social techologies want to do, in the same way that driving nails is what hammers want to do.

Facebook, Twitter, e-mail groups, and text messaging systems want to be used to facilitate discourse among empowered citizens. The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Iran have a lot to talk about—specifically, decades of frustrations and aspirations they’ve been unable to express or pursue.

I dare you: arm an entire nation with hammers and try to keep them from hammering stuff. Arm an entire nation with social technologies and try to keep them from talking about freedom, organizing protests, and establishing self-governance. Just try.

The imperiled despots in the Middle East are rushing to block these networks and communication platforms. That tactic won’t work—people will be infuriated, and a complete shutoff is impossible.

The U.S. may the greatest threat to the success of these democratic revolutions

Again, Tom Friedman:

In some ways, President Barack Obama did the Egyptian revolution a great favor by never fully endorsing it and never even getting his act together for how to deal with it. This meant in the end that Egyptians know they did this for themselves by themselves – with nothing but their own willpower, unity and creativity.

The United States’ Middle East policy has, for generations, been preoccupied with “stability” in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, etc. In The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias writes:

The first problem with the U.S.’ foreign-policy approach with these states is that you can’t just count on unpopular regimes staying in power forever. And the second problem is that the longer the U.S. government stays in bed with kleptocrats, the more severe popular discontent against the United States becomes. It’s an untenable and counterproductive posture, and obviously so.

So what should our foreign policy be? I think there’s only one real option right now: Our role is to stay out of these countries’ business except when it comes to helping citizens establish democratic governments that we will acknowledge as legitimate and sovereign.

That’s crudely put, I know. We’ll never completely stay out of anyone’s business, because the business of all Middle East nations is intimately tied to our business. But still, it’s the essence that’s important. Egypt doesn’t need our help toppling an oppressive regime. They need our help with matters of diplomacy. We can help facilitate the process by which they will form their own government. We have the muscle to keep would-be despots at bay—telling Egypt’s military to back off, if it comes to that. We also have the expertise and third-party standpoint necessary to aid diverse groups as they create a new government, whatever help they may need. And then, at the end, we can lead the world in recognizing the new Egypt and other new democracies as sovereign nation-states.

The other thing we can do? Help to spread unhindered access to the Internet and to mobile networks in these countries. The only agenda we would be pursuing is empowering people to gather information and share it freely.

So what we can do in Lancaster?

I’m not entirely sure, but here’s what’s on my list right now:

  • Get inspired to fight for our own democracy, which is in peril (see Bob Herbert’s column on this subject)
  • Encourage elected officials to pursue a sensible policy that favors the people of the Middle East above all else
  • Follow the evolving story intelligently, and let the people of the Middle East know they have the support of the American people
  • Learn Arabic

How do you think we should be reacting to the news from the Middle East? What’s the appropriate response from our community here in the U.S.?

Out-of-Towner Intell Obit Junkies Must Pay

Another national news story is brewing in our town. This time it’s about a news agency itself—the (take a long breath) Intelligencer Journal–Lancaster New Era. Yesterday they rolled out a new online paywall they believe will net them $10,000 to $500,000 a year.

What’s this paywall, and who will it affect? It’s a $20/year charge to out-of-towners who read Lancaster obituaries like they’re going out of style.

As reported by Bill Mitchell of the Pointer Institute:

Monday morning, the website for a midsized paper in southeastern Pennsylvania became the first to go public with the paid content system of Journalism Online, the startup engineered by Steve Brill, Gordon Crovitz and others.

LancasterOnline, which serves the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, began informing people who live outside Lancaster County and read its online obituary listings that visiting the obits page will cost $1.99 a month after they’ve viewed seven pages each month. Annual subscriptions cost $19.99.

Paywall message for LancasterOnline obituaries
Screenshot of the notice all obituary readers now see when they visit

Media analysts seem to think this is one of the most ridiculous ideas they’ve heard when it comes to online revenue models. For instance, Mark Potts writes:

Are they serious? Are there really that many people people visiting the Lancaster site to read obits? Really?

The folks in Lancaster claim to have done the math that proves there’s a substantial out of town audience for obits, though it’s based on a lot of guesswork (and probably proves, once again, that journalists really aren’t that good at math). Notably, Lancaster seems to base its projections on traffic numbers from the not-so-reliable Google Analytics rather than on data from the site’s internal logs, which would be much more precise. That seems odd.

According to Mitchell’s story, LancasterOnline estimates that 100,000 out-of-market visitors to the site read obits each year. And the site reckons that more than 10 percent of them do it—yes, read obits—several times a week. Okaaaay. Taking the math further, Lancaster estimates that nearly 90,000 visitors to the site read the obits at least once a week, and 17,692 visitors read the obits four times a week.

These numbers are preposterous. Remember, this is little LancasterOnline, not or I find it hard to believe that Lancaster has that sort of constant, repeat traffic to its obits—or else it’s got an audience with a truly obsessive fascination with grazing news about local deaths.

He’s joined by Steve Buttry, who writes:

If I were seeking to kill off newspapers (I’m not), I would try to persuade them to charge people to read obituaries online. Apparently that’s the plan of Journalism Online, a profiteer seeking to cash in not only on newspapers’ death wish but on the deaths of their readers.

Journalism Online’s sucker in this fantasy-based paywall experiment is the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era (oh, the irony in that name; I will call it the Old Era for purposes of this blog).

David Brauer joins in:

Laugh if you want — and I’ll admit, I’m tittering — but any small-town newspaper publisher will tell you obits are a pretty big deal for readers. In this case, LancasterOnline is making money coming and going (if you’ll pardon the pun): they charge survivors to place death notices, and now they’ll charge out-of-towners to read them.

(When the younger generations start dying, we’ll just inform everyone via social networks.)

This sure sounds like a low-revenue road test to me, but Lancaster Online’s editor thinks they can squeeze $100,000 out of the oldster demographic that keeps up regularly with far-flung deaths.

All I have to say is that the people who came up with this scheme are nothing like the cultural creatives who are engineering Lancaster’s future. This is preservationist, reactionary, and, I suspect, based on data that is (excuse the pun) dead wrong.

The overturning of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ is a Brown v Board for gays

The cultural significance of Congress’ move to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is so great that I think the comparison with Brown v. Board of Education is warranted. This should be a moment of great pride for many good Americans who have worked hard to move the national attitude so far so fast.

Just seventeen years ago, in 1993, a majority of U.S. citizens opposed gays serving in the military, Mark Shields recently pointed out in his recent appearance on the PBS NewsHour. Today, there is a three-to-one margin supporting gays openly serving—75% of Americans. Among women, the support is 80%.

Certainly that kind of sea change in America and in our cultural thought is gigantic and something we don’t often see. It’s positive and profound.

Much of the credit goes to the small but very determined efforts of a lot of individuals and groups on the local and personal level. The courage of many individuals who do not stay in the closet but instead come out and say who they are and that they have just as many rights as any other person does has earned the respect of their neighbors. Also groups like Lancaster Pride and their annual festivals have made an impact by going far beyond saying, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” have instead sent a message of unity and love and acceptance. Their message has been that it’s important that we learn to live and work together and not just tolerate each other but love each other and respect each other.

I hope that some of us straights, including straight Christians like me, have had some small and humble role in this shift. I was, for instance, deeply touched by the scenes of an Evangelical Christian man confessing the sins of the church to gay men and women at a pride festival in the excellent documentary Lord, Deliver Us From Your Followers.

This kind of cultural change does not come easily and is not to be taken lightly. The cultural impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1950s to overturn the segregation of public schools was gigantic by simply allowing and in fact forcing children to interact with one another. Just as the military has been a force in a similar way, creating brothers out of blacks and whites who served together, I think we’ll see a similar impact of gays and straights who serve together, and see a breakdown of this idea that manliness and homosexuality are opposing forces.

One Lancaster resident whose efforts on this front I would like to single out and celebrate is Mark Stoner, who was recently recognized in the Central Penn Business Journal‘s twenty-fifth anniversary issue as one of the most influential minorities from the midstate from the past twenty-five years.

Mark Stoner

Spill, baby, spill

BP Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Digging for fossil fuel is never safe. It’s never safe for humans, and it’s never safe for the wild areas in which we humans allow the digging. The inconceivably massive oil spill we are witnessing on the Gulf Coast should remind us of that. BP, world champion of corporate green-washing, is responsible.

The corporations who dig up fossil fuel need to be watched closely by competent regulators. Regulation costs money. The corporations that make money by digging up fossil fuel should cover the cost of the outside regulators.

That’s why I voted a strong “yes” in the Central Penn Business Journal’s current Question of the Week, “Should Pennsylvania impose taxes on drilling in Marcellus Shale?”

It’s never clean. It’s never safe. It’s always risky.

Pennsylvania needs regulators to protect the most basic interests of society from sloppiness of the corporations that dig up the fossil fuel here in our state. We should mandate the corporations to foot the bill for those regulators themselves.

Map of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico