More Scandal

I published a piece in 2001 about the corruption of higher education resulting from the huge amounts of money in collegiate sports, especially at the NCAA Division I level, and especially in men’s basketball and football. If I had any wild notions that my revelations would cure the problem I was wrong [!]. The problem has simply grown worse in the interim and I have blogged several times about outrageous scandals in the collegiate ranks. The latest incident involves the men’s basketball program at the University of Louisville; more importantly it involves the FBI. Now things will get serious.

The FBI has been investigating evidence of “pay-for-play” scandals in several universities for a couple of years now and the revelations regarding Louisville’s men’s basketball program are the headline-makers; but apparently there are a number of other men’s basketball programs involved and the web of intrigue will continue to grow and eventually, it is believed, will include some of the major collegiate football programs as well. We haven’t heard nothin’ yet! But what we have heard makes a person cringe, especially if that person likes to think that college is about education and not about high-power sports involving millions of dollars.

In any event, Louisville has been charged with improprieties involving Adidas which signed a contract recently with the university for $160 million over a ten-year period, reportedly including $2.1 million for Rick Pitino, the long-time Hall-of-Fame coach of the men’s basketball team (whose annual salary is $7.7 million without the additional money from Adidas). The contract pays the university for requiring the sports teams, presumably all of them, to wear uniforms and equipment, provided by Adidas, with the Adidas logo prominently on display. This is not unusual and has been going on for years, not only with Adidas but also with Nike and with Under Armour as well.  The rationale for taking money from these corporations as put forth by people like Bobby Bowden, former head coach of the Florida State football team, is that “somehow we have to pay the bills.” Indeed.

In any event, the liaison person between Adidas and the University of Louisville agreed to pay the family of a high-school basketball player $100,000 to make sure their son would play for Louisville. Apparently there is another high school player involved as well. This is the “pay-for-play” element and, of course, it also could be regarded as bribery. In any event, the FBI are now involved and they apparently don’t like what they see.

Louisville is in the process of firing Pitino and the Athletics Director as well in order to cover their butts — though it’s a bit late for that. And Adidas will fire the head of global sports marketing who made the arrangements with the university to pay for the high school basketball player’s favors. But, more to the point, the university will attempt to keep the $160 million that Adidas has agreed to pay them for the privilege of supplying free athletics equipment. And this raises an interesting moral question: is it not the case that this sort of hypocrisy on the part of the university is precisely at the core of what is wrong with collegiate sports at the highest levels?? The Louisville administration knows their relationship with this corporation has soiled the university’s reputation but they will continue to enjoy the bribe (let’s call a spade a spade) because it’s a lot of money and they want to keep it. Presumably. The university ought to be setting an example for its students and putting things right with the academic and athletics sides of things. But they are simply going through the motions by firing Patino and the athletics director and hope the financial arrangements with a corporation that makes and sells athletics equipment will continue as though nothing has occurred.

The stink from the major colleges is rank and it just seems to get worse. One would like to think that with the FBI turning over rocks the stink will get so bad that steps will finally be taken to cure the problem. The universities are about education and sports has its place, but as it is now it is the tail that wags the dog and that is not the way it should be. Not at all.

 

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Histrionics and Honesty

The tennis player breaks serve to even the match and drops to one knee, pumps his fist four times and turns to his player’s box and gives out a primal scream that makes the birds for hundreds of feet around leave their trees in a panic. The defensive end makes a routine tackle, leaps up, raises his head and points to the skies after thumping his chest like a great ape. The golfer makes a three-foot put that places him in a playoff with another golfer and he pumps his fist like he’s trying to start an imaginary lawnmower and turns to the gallery with a look of triumph as though he had just discovered penicillin.

And so it goes. In every sport and at all levels it seems the athletes act like fools every time they make a relatively routine play. One longs for the days of Johnny Unitas who  threw a touchdown pass and casually trotted off to his bench. Or one waits, in vain, for another Rod Laver who always gave credit to his opponent, even if his loss was due to an injury that he never mentioned to anyone but his closest fiends and his trainer, and who celebrated his record number of Grand Slam wins with a trot to the net and a smile and a handshake.

But those were the days before the JumboTron, the giant TV screen on nearly every playing field and court which shows the player his greatness in high-definition. No sooner is the play or the point over then all eyes go to the big screen and the player waits to see if his feats of athletic prowess have been captured in full color. Perhaps they will be played again on Sports Center’s “Top 10” tomorrow! All of this, the TV and the replays on the field and court, have contributed to the histrionics that now must be regarded as a necessary part of sports. We are told it shows us raw emotion, the athlete being totally honest. And it seems to be the thing that “sells” the sport these days. If one dares to suggest that this whole thing is a sham and even a bit sickening one is considered something of a jerk. So the TV cameras get close-in and show it to us again and again…and again. In super slow-motion. (Can we get a close-up of the tears, or the look of agony on the face of the halfback with a torn ACL?? Show that hit again and do a close-up on the celebration afterwards! Play it again!)  We love this stuff!

Raw emotion in our culture has become identified with honesty of character, the more the better. But if we stop and think for a moment, we realize that as a whole we are not all that honest, and a show of raw emotion may have nothing whatever to do with honesty. Honesty is not about what we see on TV or the JumboTron: it’s about telling the truth. It is about character which is formed in the home by parental example, for the most part. And we know that professional (and semi-professional, i.e,, collegiate) sports are just like everything else in this culture: they are a diversion that shows us what we want to see. Nothing more. Sports, at least at the highest levels, are not a breeding ground for honesty and character-building. (Think: Johnny Football.)

Just consider the cover-up culture: the college campuses across this country where it is a matter of course that coaches and administrators tell the public little or nothing about what really goes on in order to keep the big stars eligible to play the game on Saturday. We don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the institution, after all. But despite the cover-ups, the word occasionally leaks out — as it did at Penn State not long ago. But, they say, “everyone else is doing it” (which may indeed be true). In ethics this is called the “two wrongs fallacy.” It’s quite common. But the felonies that are committed are still wrong, no matter how  many people commit them. And the cover-ups can hardly be considered “honest.”

So let’s not hear all that nonsense about how honest we are as a people. We aren’t. Next to politics and the local used-car lot, sports are only the most obvious place where our dishonesty shows itself — from the big-college cover-ups to where the athlete takes out a pen from his sock and signs an imaginary autograph after a touchdown, or pounds his chest just after the routine tackle.  It’s not honesty, it’s pretense, putting on a show. The emotions may not even be honest. At times they, too, seem staged.

It might be wise to stop and think for a minute about what honesty really means. It’s not about cover-ups and keeping a lid on things. And it’s not about chest pumping and letting it all hang out on the field or the court. It’s the little boy who admits to his Mom that it was him and not his friend who threw the rock through the window; it’s the golfer who tells the umpire that he grounded his club in the sand trap even though it costs him a stroke and the match; it’s about the tennis player who tells her opponent that her shot was in, even though it costs her the game; it’s about the woman who admits to herself that the lump in her breast is something she needs to tell the doctor about; it’s about the baseball player who “goes public” and admits that he took performance enhancing drugs, even though he knows it could cost him a place in the Hall of Fame; it’s about the college sophomore who insists on writing the term paper herself rather than buying it off the internet like so many of her friends. It’s about facing up to things and telling it like it is — and accepting the consequences, which are frequently unpleasant. It is often very private and it requires courage. And, sadly, it will never be replayed on the JumboTron or on “Sports Center’s” Top Ten, even though it is well worth shouting about.