Should College Football Players Be Paid? Since When Do We Pay “Real” Students?

Just when I begin to question whether fact IS stranger than fiction, something like the recent news from the University of North Carolina comes along to verify my belief that “you just cannot make this stuff up!” The New York Times reported on October 22 that an investigation has concluded that athletes at U.N.C., including football players, had been receiving course grades (A’s and B’s) and credits for classes that were non-existent – imaginary entities whose primary intent was to keep marginal students and “student”-athletes academically eligible.

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Nudging this revelation even further into the realm of “unbelievable” is the allegation that this has been going on at U.N.C. for years. To quote the Times article, “…between 1993 and 2011, two employees in the university’s African and Afro-American studies department presided over what was a “shadow curriculum” designed to help struggling students – many of them Tar Heels athletes – stay afloat.”

Although the existence of these “shadow” classes and their bogus course credits had been public knowledge for three years, it has only recently come to light that members of athletic teams benefitted “disproportionately.” I’ll bet!

It is always interesting – no, fascinating – to watch large organizations whose hand has been caught in the cookie-jar avow that the larger management of that entity “just did not know” what was taking place. Penn State University was yet another tower of academia that recently claimed to be largely oblivious to the sexual abuse scandal that threatened the university and…especially, its beloved football program.

Sometimes I just want to shout-out, “What kind of butterballs do you take us (the public) for?” If upper management is truly unaware of major transgressions taking place within their organization, then they are only slightly less culpable than if they knew and did nothing about it. At some level of responsibility, ignorance is equivalent to incompetence, and incompetence of that kind is grounds for dismissal.

 There Are Things Worse than Tar On the Heel!

By not watching where they stepped, it seems that the Tar Heels have put their foot into something more disgusting and smelly than mere tar. On the one hand, I feel badly for the vast majority of students, faculty, and administration at U.N.C. who will undeservedly suffer from a tarnished reputation, as a result. On the other hand, the old saying that “we have met the enemy and he is us” implies that perpetrators of unscrupulous conduct are often aided and abetted by complacent colleagues who remained too silent for too long.

Sports, and football in particular, are an effective way for a college or university to promote their public image and to encourage alumni donations…and that is a shame. It says a lot about our human frailties, particularly when we come to suspect that some student-athletes we see on Saturday afternoon are only half of what their name implies, yet we proceed to brush reality aside and continue to relish the deception.

How About a “Freedom of Information”
Mandate on Colleges and Universities?

Here is what I propose: During those slick NCAA campus promotional pieces televised for each school during college football and basketball half-times, how about making it mandatory to reveal graduation rates over the last five years for the combined team members of the sport being televised? In addition, schools should be required to list the academic majors by category of all participants over those five years (graduates and non-graduates, alike) so viewers can come to their own conclusions regarding the integrity of each school and their athletic programs.

For audiences who care, such a mandate should readily identify the hypocrites of college sports, those institutions which have no compunctions while abandoning academics for the sake of major sports glory… and revenue.

The University of California at Berkeley basks in a long-standing reputation for academic excellence, yet its football (51 per-cent) and basketball (46 per-cent) graduation rates rank last in the Pac-12 athletic conference. Even these sad graduation rates can be claimed only after climbing several points from those of the previous year. Supposedly, admission requirements to Cal are very stringent?

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I love college football when it is played with genuine student-athletes and not so much when it is not. It is reasonable to concede a slightly lower high school GPA for entering students who also offer special talents honed on the athletic field. The same is true for students who bring with them special achievements in the arts. However, graduation rates at the 50% level for athletes imply an academic “pass” in the school’s admission office. The awarding of courtesy grades and credits in phantom college courses, as appears to be the case for some athletes and non-athletes at U.N.C., falls into an even more egregious category, it seems to me.

Today, there is discussion in some quarters about colleges and universities taking undue advantage of their athletes because of the vast sums of money flowing into the institutions. One could make a case for that claim. On the other hand, the star athletes who attract big bucks for their school are rewarded handsomely at graduation (or after athletic eligibility expires) as they are welcomed into the NFL or the NBA with multi-million dollar contracts. In addition, first-team athletes playing big-time college football and basketball inevitably receive full-ride scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars. For true student-athletes, that represents real value; for the rest, it’s merely free room and board while training for their professional sports careers. While some major league baseball teams, like the World Champion San Francisco Giants, have their own farm system in which to develop new, young players, colleges and universities unfortunately constitute the lone, de-facto farm system for professional football and basketball – a very cozy arrangement for all involved. A significant portion of today’s expensive college football tickets already goes to subsidize the training of future professional athletes. The very notion of pay-for-play in college sports as recompense for a system gone-bad is as cock-eyed as the behaviors which brought college sports to its present dilemma in the first place vis-à-vis the questionable “student”-athlete.

 Too Much Money in Sports – Professional and College

There was a time, not that long ago, when college football was fun to watch from inside the stadium. There were no television cameras present to slow the tempo of the contest with interminable commercials back then. Today, most major college football games are routinely televised…follow the money. The result: Long, drawn-out games and game-times which completely cater to the television networks. The message to loyal fans who miss the traditional, sun-drenched Saturday afternoon games: Deal with it or get lost! Back then, real student-athletes participated, parking was free, and tickets were available and affordable even for a young family. That was then, and this is now, and these things no longer hold true.

All of this makes me sad. Making me even sadder are the lengths to which some eminent colleges and universities will go to promote and profit from big-time college sports. Saddest of all are those schools which will even compromise their academic integrity in order to play the game.

Choosing the “Right” College or University for Your Student

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This morning at breakfast, my wife called my attention to a recent article in the Huffington Post about colleges and universities. I read it with particular interest for several reasons, not the least of which is that it its message touches two members of my “family circle.” The article champions the importance of small liberal arts colleges within the larger realm of higher education. The article’s theme resonates with our family experience many years ago when we helped our younger daughter, Ginny, choose a college/university to attend. The author of the Huffington Post article, whose younger daughter currently attends Pomona College, in Southern California, extols the close faculty/student ties that exist in small, liberal arts colleges by elaborating on one of his daughter’s professors and that educator’s dedication to learning. He relates meeting the professor by chance during a family stroll around the campus and being impressed by the fact that the professor actually recognized his daughter by name and clearly was “invested fully in her learning.”

That un-named professor happens to be my wife’s youngest brother, a history professor at Pomona College – Ginny’s uncle!

The first stage of our college-searching years was easy. Our older daughter, Amy, had her eyes set on my wife’s alma-mater, what is now part of the California State University system and known as “Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.” Given her fine high school record, she was accepted for admission and had a great four-year experience there. She has been an elementary schoolteacher for many years, now. Cal Poly was the perfect school for her as it was for my wife, years earlier.

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Vising Stanford University with Ginny and Amy in 1991

Ginny, a top-tier student with an affinity for and a superb ability with English and matters literary, posed a more interesting dilemma. She easily won acceptance at most of the schools to which she applied, and therein was the “problem.”

Her two finalists of choice were as distinctively different as schools could be. We were thrilled when she received her notice of acceptance to Stanford University where I earned my undergraduate degree. I have had a long relationship with Stanford over many years, and I love and deeply respect the school – so I was personally very excited about my daughter’s accomplishment. A letter of acceptance to Stanford is highly-coveted these days. Her other choice after the winnowing process was complete, was the very same Pomona College mentioned in the Huffington Post article.

Pomona College is located in Claremont, California – a beautiful haven of a “small” college town in Southern California and away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Spending time in Claremont makes one oblivious to the noise and confusion of the nearby metropolis – a very good thing! The campus is spacious and beautiful, artfully combining newer facilities with many picturesque, ivy-covered buildings. All student facilities are first-rate thanks to Pomona’s very large endowment.

Pomona College is a small, private, liberal arts school with a sterling national reputation within academic circles; that said, it is not so well known by the public-at-large as is Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, etc. Pomona annually ranks in the top-tier of national liberal arts schools and, together with a nearby group of four other diverse, small colleges, they constitute a group known collectively as the “Claremont Colleges.” While the admission percentages at Stanford are every bit as daunting as those at the vaunted “Ivy League” schools, Pomona’s admission standards are just as demanding, and the total cost of a year away at school was, and is, in the same rarified atmosphere as Stanford’s and the Ivies’ – so the looming cost to mom and dad was not a consideration in our daughter’s final decision. We had always told Ginny, “We will find a way to pay for whatever school you are able to attend.” Our daughter did her part, and we were ready to do ours.

There was that ONE other factor which influenced our decision, and that was Ginny’s uncle on the Pomona faculty. To make the story even more interesting, he received his entire university education, through a doctorate, at …Stanford University! Upon receiving his doctorate, he landed at Pomona College. It was through him and the family of a neighbor-girl who was enrolled there that we first came to know and appreciate the sterling academic reputation of Pomona College. Indeed, our neighbor took us on a family tour of the campus a year or two prior to Ginny’s senior year of high school and heavily praised the school and its academics. It is important to note that merely being a small, liberal arts college does not guarantee a fine educational experience. There are many private schools in that category that are expensive and mediocre – buyer beware! One other comment: Needless to say, Ginny’s uncle had no influence on her actual acceptance to the school! It doesn’t work that way; besides, Ginny needed no help.

We all agonized over the pending decision. It was always our daughter’s decision to make, but she was confused and wanted our advice. How could one possibly turn down Stanford? On the one hand, I was moved by my loyalty to and respect for Stanford University and the experience it provided me, the first in my entire extended family ever to attend college. On the other hand, Ginny was going to major in English with a heavy emphasis on literature and creative writing, whereas I studied electrical engineering. There is a huge difference – more significant than one might imagine. Engineering can be learned in the lecture halls and from textbooks – it is a science. Creative writing and literary appreciation, like all the arts, demands up-close-and-personal nurturing from mature minds, well-versed in the field – professors, in other words. Frequent, casual, in-depth conversations over coffee or tea with faculty members are an essential part of a strong liberal arts education, and, generally, not a reality in large universities. I could readily see that – we all could after a while.

In the final analysis, our daughter’s decision and our recommendation came down to that very issue, namely, that a small liberal arts college like Pomona offers students in the arts a first-name relationship with the faculty in addition to hands-on instruction and guidance – so important in the arts. She chose Pomona College with our full blessing and has never regretted her decision.

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Ginny and Me During Freshman Orientation, 1991

Our daughter, as usual, made the most of her opportunities during her four years at Pomona College. She became close friends with numerous senior faculty members who taught her classes, who really knew Ginny as a person, and who personally graded her papers and essays; that rarely happens in the larger universities where professors deliver the large class lectures, but graduate teaching assistants handle the smaller section-discussions (the great learning opportunity) and the arduous task of grading student essays and papers. During her four years at Pomona, Ginny had the pleasure of taking two classes from her uncle in the history department, and she took advantage of the college’s study-abroad program in her junior year to spend an academic quarter living with a French family in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne. My wife and I will never forget our invitation to dinner at her host family’s fashionable Paris apartment – a wonderful evening.

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I must relate one anecdote involving Stanford and Pomona. I have always enjoyed big-time college football…when played by true student-athletes. Stanford’s approach has always been to do it “right” in that regard – which I truly respect. Some of our favorite memories as a couple and a family involve Saturday afternoon tail-gate picnics and football games at Stanford Stadium. We have seen some very big games and many great athletes in Stanford’s 80,000 seat stadium of the past – very memorable stuff! Ginny could care less about football, so Pomona’s modest athletic stature was not a problem for her at all (they are the Pomona “Sagehens”; at Stanford, the modern mascot is now the “tree” – what can one say!). I recall the one Pomona football game we attended at the cozy, bleacher-surrounded athletic field: The extra-point kicks through the goal posts in one direction inevitably landed in the adjacent college swimming pool! I loved that particular comical contrast with the football played in the 80,000 seat Stanford Stadium.

In closing, we always told our daughters that we would find a way to pay for their undergraduate educations no matter what the cost, but we made clear that they were on their own as far as graduate work was concerned. I was pleased when Ginny was admitted to Stanford’s very demanding STEP program which earns its carefully selected students a master’s degree in education after one grueling year of study and student teaching. At that point in her academic life, Stanford’s program was the perfect opportunity for her. Ginny and her husband, Scott, recently paid off her graduate student loan! Ginny has been happily teaching English for many years at a high school near Stanford which enjoys a very fine academic reputation. She has authored two books and co-authored a third.

When she is not grading high school essays or writing books, Ginny writes an outstanding and entertaining public blog which can be found at http://randomactsofmomness.com and which amply reflects her real job – partner to her husband in raising two young boys. Her blog also reflects, through her writing, the very fine education she received at Pomona College – and Stanford, too. Take a look at her blog, and you will see what I mean!

College Football Today: Running Toward the Wrong Goal

An article in this morning’s local paper has determined my blog-subject for this week. For some who are football fans, my take on the state of college football will ring true; others will disagree. For those of you who do not follow football, the issues involved and the lessons to be learned from the discussion apply to many of our social and governmental struggles.

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The problem in college athletics is MONEY. Yes, the corrosive influence of MONEY is polluting yet another aspect of our lives (see my blog of 8-11-13, The Best Government Money Can Buy? Follow the Money!).

The article which appeared on the sports pages of this morning’s paper is headlined, “FAN UPROAR KEEPS GAME IN BERKELEY.” What game? No less than one of the great rivalries in college football, the so-called “BIG GAME” which has been played virtually every year with few breaks since 1892 between Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley!

Yes, this has long been a truly BIG game. Until several years ago when Stanford replaced venerable old Stanford Stadium with a modern, downsized version, all of its 80,000 seats were occupied every other year when Cal came to town by fans who reveled in the rivalry. Perhaps you have heard of “THE PLAY” which occurred in the final seconds of the 1982 BIG GAME at Cal; it was replayed over the national networks for days because it was undoubtedly the greatest/most unbelievable/zaniest play in the history of football. I am sure you can still find it on the internet. It is worth your time and trouble. I mention it because it typifies the uniqueness of this game and this particular rivalry. Anything can – and does –happen in the BIG GAME.

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           Postcard addressed to Pennsylvania postmarked Nov.14, 1904 at Palo Alto, Ca. w/ 1904 BIG GAME score: Stanford 18, Cal 0     

 If Not At Berkeley’s New Stadium –Where?

What was the proposed alternative to playing this game next year in Cal’s just-completed, on-campus, 474 million dollar stadium/facilities renovation? How about the NFL San Francisco 49ers’ expensive, grand stadium now under construction in nearby Santa Clara? This new stadium is at least 40 miles south of San Francisco (they will still be called the “San Francisco 49ers” despite the move to Santa Clara). It so happens that the new 49ers’ stadium is also located much closer to Stanford University than to the Berkeley campus of Cal who would be “hosting” the game in 2014.

Why would the athletic department and the coaching staff at Cal consider        such a ridiculous proposal? You guessed it:

 FOLLOW THE MONEY! 

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My ticket stub from the 100th BIG GAME, Nov. 22, 1997

 According to the reporting in the article, the Cal administration and the coaching staff joined the athletic department with plans to go ahead with the proposal – that is until they received an avalanche of fan protests. Amen! Cal just spent 474 million dollars renovating their Memorial Stadium and ancillary facilities, and then they would rather not play there because they can make more money playing the BIG GAME in the new 49ers facility currently under construction – near Stanford.

My goodness, how ludicrous is that?

Does it not make one ponder the likelihood that perhaps 474 million dollars was too much debt to incur in the first place by Cal in order to have a first-rate facility on-campus with which to recruit the best athletes for their program? Is that truly not “good enough” to host the BIG GAME? I have always enjoyed the high caliber of football played by Stanford and Cal within athletic programs which ostensibly had not “sold out” to the money which comes with athletic success to the detriment of fundamental academic charters. I long believed that we fans were still seeing STUDENT/athletes on the field. Now I fear that many major college and university programs are in the process of “selling-out” not only their loyal fans, but their academic missions as well.

Here Are the Indicators:

1. The aforementioned news article.

2. Huge athletic department budgets and bulging salaries for the head football coach which dwarf the academic salaries of even the most prolific faculty scholars. Although extremely well-paid, many coaches are ready to jump-ship after a brief tenure for a larger salary and a “better opportunity” at another school. This has become more than merely “professional advancement,” all at the expense of academic integrity.

3. I question the dedication of many big-time programs to the concept of true STUDENT/althetes representing their schools. I hear of too many ridiculously low graduation rates among basketball and football athletes that convey the taint of big-time, money-based college athletics. Many colleges and universities have become athletic farm systems for the NBA and the NFL. Like major league baseball, those professional sports should develop their own farm systems. I propose that college athletes be barred from the pros for four calendar years once they first take the field in college – unless they have already gotten their degree. I am tired of seeing two-year athletic wonders leave campus early for lucrative professional offers. I do not begrudge them their professional opportunity; I just do not like the pretense and the hypocrisy that would have us believe that they are in college for an education. I wonder how much studying they really did or even intended to do during those truncated college years of preparation for a pro career. How can schools run meaningful athletic programs while dealing with a revolving door which provides a quick exit to the pros?

4. The ridiculous scheduling of games, not for the convenience and enjoyment of athletes and the fans who buy expensive tickets to attend, but for the almighty TV dollar.

As an alumnus of Stanford University and a follower of Stanford football since 1960, I have witnessed the virtual extinction of the long-traditional Saturday afternoon games at Stanford Stadium. I fondly recall the sun-drenched tailgates which began in the morning under the eucalyptus trees surrounding the stadium and the building anticipation of the 2:00 kickoffs. I recall the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun over the edge of the stadium glinting off the band instruments across the way, the whole scene backed by the bright red and white sea of the Stanford student section. I fear I will not see this wonderful sight very often again because games are now often scheduled for 5:00, even 7:00 for the TV minions.

Often the ticket purchaser has to put up with TBD game times – for the scheduling benefit of the networks, of course. I am willing to bet the TBD flexibility is more than a scheduling convenience for the networks; I believe as the season unfolds, they pick and choose winning teams to televise prime-time so as to maximize their viewer-base….and their profit, of course. The implied message to the fans faced with TBD: “Just deal with it, folks!”

In the early years, the rare, nationally televised game at Stanford Stadium meant a meaningful contest was about to be played; there was an air of excitement on campus. For a long time now, that excitement has faded into the numbing realization that television means a long, drawn-out game with action on the field constantly being held during countless, long television commercials. “Just deal with it, folks!”

5. My little grandson Matthew (age 6) has been a huge Stanford fan with a fascination for Stanford’s recent, great quarterback Andrew Luck  (Grandpa has something to do with that!). I promised him I would take him to his first Stanford game this year, but I want him to experience Stanford football as it used to be, as it should be. The ticket prices today are very high, and sitting under lights at 9 pm with my grandson on a cool October evening is not what I had in mind. It is a shame that these games are not even conducive to a youngster’s proper bedtime!

Is Anyone in Charge Listening to Us, the Fans?

“You Are Running toward the Wrong Goal!”