Do Cheaters Win?

When I coached the women’s tennis team at our university back in the Dark Ages we were initially associated with the A.I.A.W., which was an athletics association organized specifically for women in the early days of Title Nine. The organization made the huge mistake of taking the N.C.A.A. to court on the grounds that they were a monopoly and were in violation of anti-trust laws. The N.C.A.A., which even at that time was very powerful, won the case easily and the A.I.A.W. faded into the night. Our conference was faced with the option of joining the N.A.I.A. or the N.C.A.A. and I was delighted when the Conference decided to join the former. It allowed a great deal of local autonomy and there was very little politicking involved. For example, when we won our district Championship we automatically went to the National Tournament. In the N.C.A.A.  a committee votes on who gets to go to their national tournaments, though they pay the expenses, whereas the N.A.I.A. does not.

The Conference was dominated in most sports by the University of Minnesota at Duluth and when their softball team won their district championship one year it cost the university a small fortune to send the team to Florida for the National Tournament. The President of the university decided that this was enough of that sort of foolishness and he threw his weight around to persuade the other presidents to leave the N.A.I.A. and join the N.C.A.A. At that point I retired from coaching women’s tennis, thankfully. I was delighted that I would not have to deal with the N.C.A.A. which had a rule-book as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory and was an organization that was run out of a central office that allowed little or no local autonomy and politics were the order of the day.

Since that time I have had an opportunity to take closer look at the N.C.A.A. and especially its control over the large semi-professional (let’s admit it) sports programs at the Division I level. I have written about it and will not repeat here what I have already said. But I noted recently that Bob Bowlsby, Commissioner of the Big 12 Conference expressed his dismay over the alleged fact that the N.C.A.A. was lax in its enforcement of its own rules. He indicated that a high percentage of the universities involved in football and basketball at the Division I level were in violation of the rules and yet the N.C.A.A. was doing nothing about it. Bowlsby also claimed that their infraction committee hadn’t even met for nearly a year — even though it is generally known that there are violators of the innumerable rules governing fair play in all sports at the collegiate level. Furthermore, many of these violators were heading up very successful and lucrative programs, prompting Bowlsby to remark that “cheating pays” at the highest levels of college sports. Needless to say, a number of football coaches expressed well-rehearsed outrage at those comments.

Sociologists love to point out that the problems at the collegiate level merely reflect the problems of society at large. If this is so (and I don’t claim to be a sociologist) then there are a lot of cheaters out there who are very successful in spite of (because of?) the fact that they are breaking the rules knowingly. As some wag once said: “it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” This is nonsense, of course, but I do believe that this attitude is widely shared and that the colleges and universities are merely in step with some of the most successful people in this society. As a culture we have lost sight of the moral high ground that Martin Luther King spoke about so eloquently and have convinced ourselves that since everyone does the wrong thing that it therefore isn’t wrong. When Nixon was caught in the Watergate scandal, for example, it was said by many outspoken commentators that this wasn’t such a bad thing because all politicians do that sort of thing. If everyone does it, it can’t be wrong. This is what logicians call the fallacy of ad populum, or the appeal to what is generally done. It saves us having to think about things and, of course, is a handy excuse if we do get caught.

But one would hope that the universities and colleges would hold themselves to a higher standard than politicians and other low-lifes, and if, in fact, cheating in college sports is widespread it should be thoroughly investigated and the culprits publicly shamed. The Commissioner I referred to above suggested that outside agencies, even the Federal Government, should get involved. I would hope the Federal Government has more important fish to fry, but the suggestion of an outside agency is not a bad one. If the N.C.A.A. cannot police its own rules, then someone else should do it. Or the N.C.A.A. should be disbanded altogether, which may not be such a bad idea. If the N.C.A.A. won’t even enforce its own rules, it seems to have outgrown its usefulness and appears to be motivated by greed, pure and simple. There is a hellova lot of money involved in collegiate sports these days — and that may be the root of the entire problem, come to think of it.

What About Lizzy?

I’m sure you have heard more than you want to about Manti Te’o and his make-believe girl friend. The story has been told again and again about the fictional girl the Notre Dame linebacker fell in love with online whose “tragic” death inspired the man to play at the highest levels — and thereby (coincidentally) improve his chances of winning the Heisman trophy and going higher in the NFL draft. In any event, the story has been beaten to death — which is not to say we have heard the last of it. But one very interesting feature of that story was brought out by Christine Brennan in USA Today on January 20th when she noted the amount of ink that has been spilled telling Manti’s story while at the same time the story about the death of Lizzy Seeberg, a former (real-life) Freshman at St. Mary’s College, is widely ignored.

It turns out that Lizzy was assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in 2010. She filed a formal complaint with authorities against the advice of a friend who warned her that she shouldn’t “mess with Notre Dame football.” Her complaint was ignored and the football player was never even contacted by campus police; a week later Lizzy committed suicide. Her written complaint was later regarded as inadmissible: since she was no longer alive to testify it was mere hearsay. The player has never been charged. Further, the story was completely ignored for 2 1/2 months until it came to light as a result of a Chicago Tribune story. And yet we still hear nothing from the University about Lizzy’s death and the events that might have brought it about, while we hear endlessly about the death of a fictional girl who may well be part of a hoax designed by Te’o and even condoned by the University — which has been very public in defending the football player while it kept mum about Lizzy’s death.

What we have here is a combination of two things: (1) a new double standard which demands that college athletes be treated differently from other students, and (2) the culture of secrecy that surrounds and protects major college football and which came to a head recently in the Penn State scandal. It is clear that football players and even the coaches themselves, are held to different standards of conduct from the rest of the student-body at the major colleges. Football and basketball programs prefer it if the administration doesn’t get involved in their business, and they pretty much get their way.  After all, they bring in huge amounts of money and that is rapidly becoming the name of the game — if it hasn’t been right along.

The double standard we are all too familiar with encouraged many to brag about men like Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain who had illicit love affairs with hundreds of women — or so they claimed — and those same people would tar a young woman and cover her with feathers if it was said that she had slept with half that many men. Martina Navratilova pointed that out at the time and she was spot on. But while we still seem to expect women to behave better than men, the old double standard has been largely replaced by the new one that is seen mostly on college campuses, but is also evident in the culture at large. It reflects the hero-worship talented athletes enjoy as the law seems always to allow them more leeway than the rest of us. In our colleges and universities it translates into the high comfort-level enjoyed by the athletes as they are assured the protection of their coaches and administrators no matter how outrageous their behavior.

So in the end Lizzy’s death goes unnoticed while the airwaves are filled with the gossip about Manti Te’o and his fictional girlfriend. It’s enough to make a person take up strong drink — if he hadn’t already done so long ago.

Huh?

Rumor has it that as part of the shake-up of football conferences in this country Boise State University in Idaho will leave the Mountain West Conference to join the Big East Conference. That’s right, the Big East. It may not happen because the Mountain West Conference recently worked a deal with CBS to sweeten the pot to make staying in the conference worthwhile for those teams thinking about departing. But the very idea of Boise State joining the Big East Conference makes about as much sense as big-time football does in American Universities — which is to say no sense at all.

Assuming the university will have to charter a plane — or two — to carry the entire football team, the coaches, the band, and the cheerleaders, the cost in dollars alone raises the question: what are these people thinking? The financial rewards of making the change must be considerable, since the motivation that is driving universities around the country to leave the conferences they are in to join others is clearly money. And to paraphrase Lord Acton: money corrupts and lots of money corrupts a lot.

The University of Maryland has been chastised recently for choosing to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference to join the Big Ten, which will consist of fourteen schools soon. (That makes sense, no?) Maryland will pay millions of dollars in penalties for leaving their current conference at a time when they are crying poor and cutting “non-revenue” sports, but the rewards from joining the Big Ten which has its own television network are considerable. In addition, the Big Ten frequently sends as many as six or seven teams to bowl games every year which bring in the big bucks, and those bucks are shared among the member universities. So it is all about money.

But, assuming it ever happens, the cost of a school like Boise State flying to the East Coast and back six or seven times a year to play football cannot be reduced to dollars and cents: it’s about the cost to the environment as well. On average, jet planes burn 45-50 gallons of jet fuel per minute while in flight — and we won’t talk about take-off, landing, and time on the runway. The flying time from Boise, Idaho to, say, Boston is just over 4 hours, which means one plane would burn up about 12,000 gallons of fuel in flight (one way). As a referenced article in Wikipedia tells us: “The contribution of civil aircraft-in-flight to global CO2 emissions has been estimated at around 2% However, in the case of high-altitude airliners which frequently fly near or in the stratosphere, non-CO2 altitude-sensitive effects may increase the total impact on anthropogenic (human-made) climate change significantly.”   In a word, those flights will cost us all in the end.

One would think that this should be a consideration in the minds of university officials whose main job is presumably to educate young minds. But, of course, that isn’t their job. It’s all about money. Not climate change, Not education. Money. Athletics at the NCAA Division I level is Big Business.

I have vented before a number of times in my blogs and even written an essay or two about the “tail that wags the dog” — to wit, Division I athletics. The tail has grown longer. It is no longer possible to pretend that athletics at that level has anything whatever to do with education — or even about setting a good example. I confess I do love to watch college football just as I like to watch anyone do anything they happen to be good at. But I am not foolish enough to think that Division I football has anything to do with education about which I care deeply. So my suggestion has been to pay the athletes money to play football and let the ones who want to get an education do so. They can pay for it just as the other students do. The football teams at Division I schools would be, in effect, semi-professional sports teams wearing school colors. It would be more honest and we wouldn’t have to pretend that things are not what they are.

But it wouldn’t keep greedy idiots from planning to join a conference 3000 miles away in order to make more money. That problem may be insoluble.

Stereotyping

Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser like to shout at one another on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.” At one point in a recent show, Wilbon paused and glared at the camera and said in short, clipped tones: This is not a story and news programs should not be talking about it — or words to that effect. He was talking about the fact that L.S.U. cornerback Mo Claiborne reportedly scored 4 on the Wonderlic test (when the average football player usually gets 20). The Wonderlic is an IQ test they give to prospective NFL players to see if they are smart enough to run into one another at high speeds (I would think a low score is preferable). There is considerable discussion about whether or not prospects knowing who was buried in Grant’s tomb or whether 6 or 16 is the larger number is relevant information for someone who plans to spend his life running into another man twice his size. Probably not. There is good evidence, in fact, that the test is totally irrelevant. Yet the NFL requires it.

In any event, Claiborne apparently did not score very high and Wilbon was outraged that this should be mentioned on sports programs (like his own, I presume). He called it “stereotyping,” and wanted it to stop immediately, if not sooner! But let’s consider this a moment. How is it stereotyping to report that an athlete scored low in a test that is of doubtful relevance? To  begin with, most of the stories I read were quite sympathetic about the young man’s low scores and made excuses for his “learning disability” that has been known for some time. But even if the stories weren’t sympathetic, how does reporting this man’s score constitute “stereotyping”?

It is generally known that football players at the Division I level have a very low graduation rate and tend to take what others refer to as “cake” courses with majors in such things as “General Education.” Some of these players are black, others are white. But Wilbon’s outrage seems based on his assumption that people are stereotyping the black athlete. If anything, they are stereotyping the football player. But I would argue that it isn’t stereotyping anyway: it’s simply a generalization that happens to be based on fairly sound evidence that football players, by and large, are not stellar scholars (to put it as kindly as possible). In fact, athletes in Division I programs generally are not stellar scholars — including those in other sports such as basketball and hockey.

Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that Division I sports is a sham and should be cleaned up by simply paying the athletes in “revenue” sports a living wage — as semi-professional athletes. The athletes should not be required to attend classes. If they want to get an education they can pay for it out of their earnings. This would have the added benefit of blackening some of the college budgets that are operating in the red these days. In any event, I dare say there will be rather few athletes who choose to go this route! Most will play in the hope that they get drafted into the big leagues.

The notion that the people involved in athletics at the highest levels in Division I are student/athletes is at best dishonest and at worst a bald-faced lie — for the most part. Clearly there are exceptions. There is the occasional Rhodes Scholar or pre-med student. But these are the exceptions and they usually draw a great deal of attention precisely because they are so rare. The evidence is compelling that a great many of these athletes fail to make the pros and fall by the wayside during their four years (one year for many basketball players). Very few graduate with high academic honors.

In any event, those who point out that Mo Claiborne got low scores on a silly test are not stereotyping. They are generalizing, which is not the same. A generalization is based on factual evidence, whereas a stereotype is a manufactured image involving exaggeration, even caricature, of a type of person who is then singled out for ridicule — like the “typical” college student who spends all of his time partying or the penny-pinching Scotsman. Shylock is a stereotype, as are Ole and Lena. Such creatures may exist, but they are certainly not typical. Claiborne is not a stereotype. But he is a football player and as a rule football players (black and white) are not destined to score high on written tests that probe their general knowledge (20 is a low average when compared with other professionals who take the same test). But it matters not as the man will almost certainly be a high draft pick — even with a low Wonderlic score.