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.

A Tour of Levi’s Stadium: The 49er’s New $1.2 Billion NFL Football Palace

My wife presented me with a most unusual birthday present this past August: A guided tour of Levi’s Stadium, the brand new football home to the fabled San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise. Linda learned of this stadium tour from a fellow volunteer at the local Sunnyvale Historical Museum who had recently taken it. My wife’s senior colleague does not invoke the image of a rabid football fan, so Linda was surprised at her friend’s rave reviews of the stadium and the tour.

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Yesterday, we saw for ourselves why this newest crown-jewel of National Football League stadiums can so excite even casual visitors. Yes, it is a beautiful stadium complex, constructed with an eye to environmental considerations and fan enjoyment. Unique to such stadiums is the fact that fully two-thirds of its 68,500 seats (all of which have been “sold”) are located in the “lower bowl,” closer to the playing field.

As the photos show, everything is spit and polish…except for the natural grass turf which posed a problem on opening day, surrendering large divots to the player’s football cleats. The grass problem is slowly yielding to the extensive efforts and expenditures being applied. Artificial turf has been ruled out as unsatisfactory. The stadium and practice facilities are located down the peninsula from San Francisco – in Santa Clara, California…in the heart of the world’s tech center, “Silicon Valley.” Nevertheless, the team is still known as the San Francisco 49ers.

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The luxury amenities in the form of “suites” which lease for hundreds of thousands of dollars and the large “club” areas meant for socializing, eating, and drinking (and occasional game-viewing) are quite spectacular and posh.

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The construction, appointments, and attention to detail of this entire facility is simply mind-boggling. This is a first-class facility, one fit for the wealthiest of Silicon Valley entrepreneur sport-fans, but, alas, not for the bulk of the valley’s residents. Going to a game, here, will cost big-bucks. I have more to say on that, later.

The most impressive aspect of the entire complex was not the stadium itself, but the 49ers football museum it contains. I was impressed by the larger facility, for sure, but I was absolutely blown-away by the beautiful tribute paid to 49er football history. The museum with its attention to detail, fabulous visual displays, and wealth of information reminded me of a gentler time back in 1957, a time when a seventeen year old high-school kid (me) and his dad could afford to attend a 49ers game at old Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

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It was my first significant sporting event…of any kind – in any venue, and it was a good one! My dad and I attended the pivotal 1957 game with the Baltimore Colts. I saw the fabled “million dollar backfield” of the 49ers: Quarterback Y.A. Tittle, halfback Hugh McElhenny, and running backs Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. Across the line of scrimmage, I saw some now-legendary players from the Colts as well: Quarterback Johnny Unitas – one of the best ever – and his great wide-receiver, Lenny Moore. What can I say? These folks are all in the NFL Hall of Fame. McElhenny, in particular, was a sight to behold carrying the football and is generally regarded as the greatest open-field runner in the history of the game. Once he got underway with a step or two and any openings ahead, good luck even laying a hand on him let alone slowing him down.

I recall playing touch football on a neighborhood street in San Mateo with some friends when I was in grade school – we did that a lot. That particular day, another boy from their neighborhood had joined our small group – he went by the name, “Whitey.” I never forgot that guy: It was impossible to “catch” that kid – he was so quick and elusive – on the run or from a dead start. Standing face-to-face, he would head-fake, juke, and take off with the ball leaving even the quickest of us in the dust! On the run, you could not anticipate what his next move would be; you merely blinked and, suddenly, he was… “gone.” Through the years, whenever I bemusedly recalled that afternoon of frustration playing against that kid, I could understand how Hugh McElhenny’s opponents at the University of Washington and, later, in the NFL must have felt.

That day of the 49ers/Colts game, October 8, 1957, John Brodie, the rookie All-American quarterback from Stanford University won the game in the last seconds after replacing veteran Y.A. Tittle who was injured late in the game. The winning touchdown pass from Brodie to Hugh McElhenny in the end-zone gave the 49ers an exciting 17 to 13 win and kept their playoff hopes alive. The thundering crowd reaction to that play was the first of many that I would hear in the years to come while following major college football at Stanford Stadium.

Fifty-seven years later, I could still play that touchdown back in my mind’s eye like a film replay; it happened in our corner of the end-zone. I was thrilled yesterday to see a film-clip of that very play featured in the museum displays – a virtual duplicate of the 57 year old “highlight film” embedded in my memory. Even the actual game ball that was presented to John Brodie that day was on display! Fabulous memories, those are. Seeing that film-clip was like meeting a very old friend, once again, whose persona and likeness one never, ever forgot.

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Entering the 49ers football museum, one is immediately greeted by the “million dollar backfield” of the nineteen-fifties era 49ers, sculpted in life-size figures and painted in silver. In fact, the dark-walled, spotlighted room is populated by a ghostly, apparition-like phalanx of players who are members of the 49er Hall of Fame. Many of these greats are also honored in the NFL Hall of Fame located in Canton, Ohio. Such a display could easily have looked cheesy; not this one! I was extremely impressed by the fine finish and detail of the many posed figures. Every aspect of the players and their uniforms was perfectly executed. After a first, cursory look, I checked the sculpted faces of these figures – the acid test! I was very impressed that I could easily recognize those players most familiar to me, a tremendous tribute to the exhibit and the folks who created it.

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Here is the fabled “million dollar backfield.” From left to right, Hugh McElhenny (halfback), Joe Perry (fullback), Y.A. Tittle (quarterback), and John Henry Johnson (halfback). These four comprise the only complete backfield ever to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

A fellow senior on our stadium tour commented that, in the off-season, Y.A. Tittle – star quarterback – was their milkman in the nearby community of Los Altos! That recollection highlights the wide gulf between salaries paid star players then and those of today. Those old-timers had all the motivation in the world to play their hearts out every single minute of every game…and they did. There were no “instant football millionaires” back then. Hugh McElhenny received $7,000 for his rookie season in 1952!

A famous 49er moment portrayed among these life-size figures is “The Catch,” capturing the instant which finally lurched the Niners past the Dallas Cowboys and propelled them to their first Super Bowl win in 1982 under legendary coach, Bill Walsh. The winning fourth-down touchdown pass at the end of the game was from Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana to receiver Dwight Clark. Given the Niners’ seemingly perpetual domination by the Dallas Cowboys, this was one of the greatest of 49er moments.

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Joe Perry, the Niner’s great Hall of Fame running back never had a contract with owner Tony Morabito back in the fifties – just a verbal agreement and a handshake. Oh, don’t get me started! What a beautiful time – when a man’s word was sealed with a handshake and so different from the big bucks, the miles of legal red-tape and the pages of fine print which dominate big-money sports and all other aspects of today’s society. I took particular note of that exhibit.

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There are more pictures to show, so I leave you with this: Levi’s is an amazing monument to the popularity of NFL football, today. The logistics and the talent required to conceive, build, manage, and operate this stadium truly boggle the mind. While the image of legions of excited, expectant fans filling the stadium seats on game day is easy to conjure-up in the mind’s eye, the behind-the-scenes requisite flow of money which changes hands with every game played at Levi’s is truly incomprehensible. It is sobering to ponder the vast army of people required to support the several dozen supremely talented athletes who display their skills weekly…and the huge sums of money involved in the enterprise. Perhaps it has now grown beyond reasonable bounds.

The first few games this year revealed severe traffic problems to and mainly from the stadium after the games. That is undoubtedly being improved via “logistics learning curves,” yet it is clear to me that because of the hassle and the expense involved in attending games, Linda and I will be watching 49er games mostly from the comfort and convenience of our family-room television set.

Finally, my hat is off to all involved for their role in presenting the history of 49er’s football in the world-class museum that Levi’s stadium offers the public. Yes, world-class I say, and I have seen more than a few of those in my lifetime. If you have the good fortune to visit Levi’s on tour or on game day and you are even vaguely interested in football, plan to spend close to two hours in the museum! I loved the sporting memories and the reminders the museum contains of a simpler society, a simpler life, and a simpler game – food for thought.

 Just A Few More Photos:

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John Brodie’s 1957 game ball: San Francisco 17, Baltimore 13

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 Twenty yards and a cloud of dust: Old Kezar Stadium

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 Linda and life-size Leo “The Lion” Nomellini on her left

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The “imposter” Joe Montana, #16: That’s Linda having
fun at one of the museum’s interactive exhibits!