Monday, August 15, 2011

ESP (no N)

I’ve never held much with what’s called extrasensory perception, the notion that some people have the ability to see, or otherwise sense, things that aren’t apparent to the rest of us. Certainly, some are better observers than others, but that stems from the application of the senses we all have, not the possession of additional ones. I regard claims to the contrary as hokum.

Nonetheless, as autumn approaches I often sniff a whiff of sulfur in the air, and I’m not sure everyone else does. It coincides with the beginning of preparations for the college football season, annually the grandest of the entertainment offerings of our institutions of higher education. It ain’t the football (or its co-“major” basketball) I’m smelling but the hypocrisy that surrounds it.

This year the odor is especially strong. In months past the list of universities that have been fingered as athletic wrongdoers is long, and includes some of the major brands on the national scene. Ohio State is on it, along with Southern California, Tennessee, Oklahoma, UConn, Auburn, North Carolina and—yes—even Duke. I could go on but I think the point has been made.

If your alma mater isn’t mentioned above, or isn’t on any similar current list, I’m sure you’re smiling, if not smirking. Unfortunately, the claim that “my school does things right” stems from ignorance, not virtue. All the college sports big-timers are in the same stew, recruiting and exploiting the same kids with about the same methods. There are no good guys or bad guys in this play, only ones that have or haven’t been caught off. Every president of an NCAA Division I school goes to bed praying that the next sports scandal won’t be his to deal with.

I wrote about this state of affairs frequently in my professional sports-writing career—proportionally more than most of my peers, I’d wager—but my experience with the subject dates back farther. As an undergrad at the U. of Illinois (1955-59) I covered football for the student newspaper The Daily Illini, and helped out around the university’s press boxes as a fledgling pro. I knew some of the players and other actors in the shows, both there and at the U. of Michigan, where I was a grad student (1961-62).

Even then, in times that now seem rosily innocent, stuff happened. I knew about the $20 handshakes between players and alums after games and could tell you which courses enlisted jocks in search of eligibility-ensuring A’s or B’s. I knew that, say, Bobby Mitchell didn’t wind up playing football at Illinois because he innocently wandered astray from his native Arkansas.

Filling in as a reporter on the police beats in both Champaign, Ill., and Ann Arbor, Mich., furthered my education. Arrests of jocks for off-campus fighting and DUI weren’t infrequent, but by gentlemen’s agreements (which I accepted) they weren’t reported. The notion of “no harm (i.e., no one killed or maimed) no foul” obtained in such matters. Boys will be boys, you know.

Now, of course, the stakes are higher, the spotlight is brighter and the phone-book-sized NCAA rule book ever fatter, the last because schools don’t trust one another to follow simple regulations. Indeed, the very number of rules, and their intricacy, has created a widespread myopia about violations, allowing many to be shrugged off as technicalities while ignoring other, more serious transgressions.

The recent Ohio State football scandal provides a perfect case in point. To the ostensible cause of it-- football players swapping their memorabilia (jackets, game jerseys, championship rings) for tattoos (?!) — one’s immediate reaction is “So what?” The gear, after all, belonged to the players, and they could have sold or traded it without penalty the day after their football service to their university had ceased. Still, cashing in the way they did violated the NCAA rule about athletes receiving benefits not available to the student body at large, so the offending Buckeyes had to pay with suspensions.

According to a piece in Sports Illustrated magazine, though, darker forces were involved. The tattoo parlor in question was owned by one Edward Rife, a drug dealer and money launderer, and the place doubled as a players’ social center, somewhere they could “order in chicken” and “play tunes” under pleasant auspices, the article noted.

Any professional athlete accepting the hospitality of a lowlife like Rife would at least have some ‘splainin’ to do, but the NCAA rulebook doesn’t prohibit this sort of thing so it wasn’t on the bill of particulars the players or university had to answer for. Meanwhile, do you think Tattoo Daddy might have placed an occasional bet on an OSU game based on the info gleaned from his guests?


But the real crime of big-time college sports isn’t what’s done for the so-called student athletes, but what’s done to them. Often ill-prepared for college to begin with, they’re saddled with full-time jobs and then some, then hustled through “gut” courses designed to protect their eligiblity, not prepare them for the 21st Century economy. While the handful who land pro contracts are—or ought to be—okay, many of the rest are up the creek without a paddle when their playing days are done. Keep that in mind while you’re rooting for Old Siwash in the months ahead.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Back in the 1970s the Chicago Bears were noising about the possibility that they might move to a new stadium in the suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill. That disturbed Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor at the time.

Fine, let ‘em go, Daley said, in effect. But he added that if the team moved there he’d see to it that it would have to call itself the Arlington Heights Bears.

Everyone had a good laugh at Da Mayor’s declaration, because neither he nor any other municipal authority owned a copyright on a city’s name, and it was available to any rock band, pizzeria or dry cleaner that wished to use it. Perhaps inadvertently, though, he did raise a worthwhile question: What do professional sports entities owe to the cities and fans that sustain them?

Alas, while the question is interesting the clear and self-evident answer ain’t. It’s nothing, nada, zilch. You may think that the Bears, or Cardinals (baseball or football), or Lakers are “our” teams, but they aren’t. They belong to the people who own them, and to no one else.

That is—or should have be-- the clear message of the lockouts that have dominated the sports pages these last several months. When our national professional football and basketball leagues failed to get the give-backs they demanded from their players’ unions (a broader trend, in case you haven’t noticed), they closed their doors and suspended doing business. I didn’t get to vote on it, and neither did you.

Last week the footballers bridged their differences and went back to work in time for their games to proceed, as everyone figured they would. Their enterprise, with annual revenues of about $9 billion, is just too profitable to stay closed when money is to be made. The owners started by asking for an additional $1 billion off the top of the league’s revenue pie before it’s divided. They wound up increasing their slice to 53% from 50%, a more-modest gain, while also agreeing to institute annual team-salary floors as well as ceilings.

The part of the contract that most interested fans—the owners’ bid to increase the regular season to 18 games from 16—was put off until at least 2013. Players balked, partly on ground that the move would increase injury risks, but their union historically has sacrificed health issues for more do-re-mi, so look for it to cave eventually in return for some kind of sweetener.

The lockout in the National Basketball Association is regarded as more likely to draw real blood. The NBA has about half the total revenues of the NFL (reportedly about $4.3 billion yearly) and team owners claim their combined bottom line showed a $300 million loss last season, with more than half their 30 clubs in the red individually.

The players pooh-pooh that, and we should, too. Few sports teams are publicly owned so they don’t have the auditing or reporting requirements public companies do. Further, basketball is a second (or third or fourth) business for most NBA team owners, so they can shift expenses (such as their own salaries) between or among these to suit themselves. For bargaining purposes it suits them to claim poverty, and they are demanding things like a “hard” team-salary cap and limits on contract lengths and guarantees that, theoretically, would hit players in their wallets.

But the thing to remember about today’s sports-money conflicts is that most of them aren’t owner-player but owner-owner. Team owners may be partners for some purposes, but they’re big-ego competitors for others, and bitter ones at that. The rules they seek are intended to restrain their own competitive instincts, with the players little more than interested observers. Yeah, the average NBA player salary is an eye-popping $5.15 million a year (the median is much lower), but the adage that nobody who works for somebody else is overpaid fully applies.

The NBA already has a team-salary cap, but it has so many exceptions and exemptions (all owner-approved) that it resembles a target on a police pistol range. Last season’s cap was about $58 million, and teams were taxed for exceeding $70 million, but actual payrolls ranged from the L.A. Lakers’ $95.3 million to the Minnesota T-Wolves’ $37.6 million, a Grand Canyon-like gap. Posture as the owners might, it’s unlikely that anything they’ll agree to will seriously alter the drives that account for the upper end of that imbalance.

But posture they will, and the players are taking it seriously. Several hoops stars are dickering with European teams for fallback employment and one—Kevin Love—says he might play professional beach volleyball.

You also might make plans to seek alternate entertainment come basketball time. It may be their game, but it’s your money.