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.

 

Advertisements

Building Character ?

I admit it: I am a football junkie despite the fact, as many of you are all too aware, that I am a relentless critic of the way football has taken over our colleges and universities and helped turn them away from their true goals. I cannot turn away from the remarkable athleticism and beauty of sports played at the highest levels. This may be inconsistent, but I recall Emerson’s comment that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds” and I find solace in that thought. I will try to keep my mind open to the positives of college sports at the highest levels despite the fact that I know they thwart the true purpose of academia which is to help young minds grow and develop.

One of the arguments used to justify sports is that they help build character, which is true with certain qualifications. Sports are one of the few places left in this culture where young people learn how to learn from failure. They are no longer allowed to fail in school and we hope to protect them from failure in their daily lives as well. In sports, on the other hand, failure is inevitable and people do learn and grow from it. But this is true of sports even at the lowest intra-mural levels: it does not justify the millions of dollars and countless student hours wasted in training and watching sporting events at the highest levels from which very little is learned except by a handful of participants. Any doubts about the inversion of priorities on our NCAA Division I campuses was dispelled in my mind recently when the TV cameras at a major university trolled through a library during “the big game” where we found only three students pouring over their books. Thousands were outside in the stadium with painted faces shouting like escapees from the local insane asylum while three lonely students settled down to their studies.

But I could add the obscene salaries the coaches make which dwarf the salaries of any Nobel prize winners on campus. The most recent example is, of course, Jim Harbaugh at The University of Michigan, which is supposed to be a reputable institution of higher learning. But even his $5 million annual salary does not make him the highest paid college football coach in America. And we can add to those obscene salaries the thousands, and even millions of dollars college coaches make endorsing products from corporations like Nike and Under Armour. It boggles the mind.

But the fiction that football at the highest levels builds character, the one thin thread folks rely on to make the case for athletics at that level, can be doubted because of a brief incident during a recent Bowl game (there are now nearly 40 such games during the holidays) between Baylor University and the University of Michigan. (Yes, I was watching.) It is standard strategy in the closing minutes of close games that the winning team wants to “run the clock” while the losing team wants to stop it any way they can to regroup and come up with the “big play.” In this game Baylor was winning with less than two minutes to play. They had the ball and after a play one of their players remained on the ground in obvious pain. This is a tactic some coaches will use to stop the clock if they are losing, since the clock stops automatically for injured players, but in this case Baylor wanted the clock to keep running. The TV camera went close in on the frantic Baylor coach and his lips were easy to read as he shouted, the veins standing out on his neck, “GET UP GODDAMMIT!” His player was down and in pain, but the delay might cost them the game, and that was clearly the only thing the coach cared about. The coach who sets an example for his players. So much for building character. Remind me not to send my grandchildren to Baylor to play football. Oh yes, they are girls and one seldom, if ever, sees such things in women’s sports. Yet.

Sweat Shops

I must confess I thought the whole sweat shop thing had been long since eradicated. But not so — not in Jakarta any way. A recent story  gives us some of the disquieting details of the treatment workers receive on a daily basis while making 50 cents an hour for a shoe company that is reportedly worth $49 billion and spends $3.2 billion in sports endorsements alone:

They’re one of the world’s top sports clothing brands, but for years Nike have been dogged by allegations of sweatshops and child labor.

Now workers making Nike’s Converse shoes at a factory in Indonesia say they are being physically and mentally abused.

Workers at the Sukabumi plant, about 60 miles from Jakarta, say supervisors frequently throw shoes at them, slap them in the face, kick them and call them dogs and pigs. . . .

At the PT Amara Footwear factory located just outside Jakarta, where another Taiwanese contractor makes Converse shoes, a supervisor ordered six female workers to stand in the blazing sun after they failed to meet their target of completing 60 dozen pairs of shoes on time. “They were crying and allowed to continue their job only after two hours under the sun,” said Ujang Suhendi, 47, a worker at a warehouse in the factory.

The deeply unsettling thing about the story is not so much the description of the treatment of those workers — though that is certainly enough to disturb the sleep of any sensitive person. But what about the fact that none of the athletes who endorse Nike shoes for millions of dollars has spoken out about the abuses? One might argue that they don’t know, but ignorance is not an excuse when you are getting the kind of money these people are getting to endorse a pair of shoes that Moms in the ghetto have to shell out $200.00 for so their sons or daughters can keep up with the neighbor kids.

I note such names as Hope Solo, goal keeper for the American soccer team, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Michael Jordan, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Michelle Wee — you know, the big names in sports. None of these people has said a word and Jordan, for one, has been with Nike since before Noah filled his ark with all those noisy, smelly animals. It does make one wonder why we adulate these people — because they excel at a sport, I suppose; certainly not because they have exemplary character. In fact, as I have noted in previous blogs, we don’t admire people for the “content of their character,” as Martin Luther King put it, we admire them because they can shoot a basketball, hit a golf ball, kick a soccer ball, or win a tennis tournament. Hardly reason to admire anyone. It suggests that we are indeed a shallow people.

One might argue that we cannot expect athletes to have a social conscience, that their job is to perform at a high level in their sport: they have no responsibility to their fans to set an example. Indeed, this is a hot topic among the talking heads on such TV networks as ESPN. But it does seem that when a person agrees to take millions of dollars — and we are talking about millions of dollars — for endorsing a product these people would first make sure the company is one they would want their names associated with. And Nike does not pass muster on that score. They have been running sweat shops for decades to make the outlandishly expensive shoes that kids simply must have. And they treat their workers like dirt. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t wear a pair of Nikes if you paid me.