1) I am catching up on a backlog of Sports Illustrateds. The March 5 issue, mainly devoted to the behemoth that is the Ohio State Athletic department (with $100 million in gross revenues, it's the largest in the country), also has an interesting athletes' bill of rights, penned by Alexander Wolff and Dick Friedman. Given the increasingly ungodly sums of money that coaches, universities and networks are making off of college athletics, the question of the players' compensation becomes more and more of an issue.
Wolff and Friedman propose five articles:
One - Athletes have the right to transfer once after their sophomore year without having to sit out a year.
Though they don't mention it, it has always struck me as especially egregious that coaches can come and go as they please, often motivated only by the prospect of a bigger contract elsewhere, or by the desire to walk away from the burning wreckage of a program in trouble (as Eddie Sutton did when Kentucky basketball imploded in the late 1980s), while players have to sit out a year. The double standard in this case is glaring.
Article Two - Scholarships should be "iron-clad, five year deals with full medical coverage and adequate stipends."
Wolff and Friedman point out that, among other abuses, a football player might injur himself during a "voluntary" summer workout and not have his medical treatment covered. And, scholarships are only one-year, renewable agreements. Among the benefits, Wolff and Friedman say would be to "protect athletes, boost graduation rates and decrease the risk that players would seek money through boosters and other illicit means." An additional benefit the writers don't mention: if a scholarship is a five year commitment, coaches will have to be much more careful and conscientious about whom they want to make that commitment.
Article Three - Colleges should not limit the right of athletes to profit from sports in "ancillary ways" or pursue professionally a sport they're not playing in college.
Wolff and Friedman note that "college stars' cashing in would mock Etonian notions of amateurism, but where's the amateur spirit on campuses awash in naming rights deals?"
And, amateurism itself is an anachronistic notion. When it emerged as a lofty value in athletics in the 19th century, it did so among upper crust competitors for whom compensation for competition was unnecessary. Professionals back then where understood as mercenary low-lifes who disdained athletic excellence for the crass pursuit of cash. Such a notion, given the privileged station of the people making such arguments was bad enough. But, invoking notions of amateurism in the context of an era in which athletics are a multi-billion dollar endeavor is just perverse.
Article Four - protect the athletes from performance-enhancing drugs.
As I have written before, I think the subject of performance-enhancing drugs - both the health and ethical issues - is far more complicated than the simplistic moralizing that characterizes most discussions about it. But, Wolff and Friedman are right to zero in on the conflict inherent in a 'strength coach who sends a signal to a red-shirt freshman lineman to get stronger by any means necessary" and "to punish enablers as harshly as users."
Article Five - "colleges shall make every effort to ameliorate the disruptive effect that athletics have on academics."
They elaborate: "This means not steering kids into classes just to accommodate practice" and note that Big Monday can mean players missing an entire day of classes.
Among my responsibilities at UNC is as an academic advisor and I can say that among the most frustrating things I deal with during summer orientation is trying to help an athlete register for classes when they can't take anything after one or two p.m. They have fewer options as freshmen to begin with (because a lot of classes are already closed) and now we're trying to cram everything into a tight window on top of that. The result is often a very unappealing schedule, only likely to reinforce the sense that the kid is at UNC more to compete in a sport (and this is not only true of the revenue sports) than to have a meaningful educational experience.
Anyway, Wolff and Friedman have provided a great practical agenda for advocating reform in college athletics.
2) Sports Media Watch had a very interesting post a few days ago about why guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Tim Duncan fare so poorly in the endorsement game, despite their transcendent greatness on the court:
In sports, clean-cut athletes are marketed differently than edgy athletes. Athletes like Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, and Peyton Manning are usually not going to be seen in commercials with hip-hop or any type of mainstream music in the background. Their ads range from humorous (Peyton Manning's advertisements especially) to more upscale (the Movado watch ads that feature Brady and Jeter). Clean-cut ads feature clean-cut athletes in clean-cut settings (Manning's commercials take place in a supermarket and a suburban living room) and are generally tailored to more mainstream audiences. These ads don't play nearly as well with the M 18-34 demo as a fast-paced ad with bold, aggressive music and an in-your-face style.
It is rare to find any of the star 'clean-cut' athletes in edgy advertisements. One isn't likely to see Alex Rodriguez turn to the camera and say "You a fool", or see Manning and Brady in a "Second coming" type ad. Edgy advertisements aren't for mainstream audiences, instead tailored to young, generally male viewers.
Nowitzki and Nash are far from edgy, which may play a bigger role than any racial dynamic. Being clean-cut hurts them, as the NBA lacks the mainstream appeal of Major League Baseball or the NFL. The league doesn't necessarily need to appeal to mainstream audiences, and doesn't necessarily need the approval of Joe Sixtysevenyearold in Boston. Instead, the league, and its advertisers, need to look 'cool' in order to appeal to the people who are actually watching.
Nowitzki and Nash are great players, and likely Hall of Fame players. However, like Tim Duncan, they are too clean cut for an edgy sport, and thereby not attractive to advertisers.
SMW's analysis here prompts me to reproduce here something I wrote during the summer Olympics in 2004 for Mid-Atlantic Sports. It's a little lengthy, but bear with me:
Sunday night, during NBC’s Olympic coverage of the semifinals and finals of the 100 meter men’s sprints, Tom Hammond, the normally low-key play-by-play (foot-by-foot) announcer for track, had a hissy fit. As eventual gold medallist Justin Gatling and his training partner Shawn Crawford approached the tape ahead of the rest of the field during the first semifinal heat Crawford, who was slightly ahead, motioned Gatling with his hand, as if to say, “cross the line with me.” To my untrained and apparently uncivilized eye, it was a gesture of exuberance and friendship toward Gatling, mixed with the extraordinary adrenaline that flows through athletes at this level of competition. It hadn’t occurred to me that anything egregious had just taken place. But, as the runners ran through the finish line, analyst Lewis Johnson demurred that he could do without the “antics” and then Hammond had his little outburst, saying “will someone please tell them that this is the Olympics – a little dignity please!” It’s a favored lament of many who cover our sporting events these days that there’s too much showboating and not enough sportsmanship and that these dynamics fundamentally diminish the competition itself. I might agree with the former, but the latter requires a leap I am unprepared to make, implying as it does certain supposed character-based attributes of world class athletes. It’s nice to think well of our athletic heroes, but all that’s really required to be a world class athlete is world class athleticism. In any event, this is a matter of taste, and my tastes are different from those of many of our sports punditry. But, what’s more annoying is that many of our sports talking heads fail to recognize or acknowledge how the media organizations for which our decorum police work promote the very attributes that Tom Hammond and others fitfully decry.
Not ten minutes after Crawford’s and Gatling’s apparent breach of sporting etiquette, NBC ran a profile of then reining Olympic 100-meter champion Maurice Greene. Greene is a brash fellow. He has always been a talker, an in-your-face competitor who is not shy about pronouncing his greatness. Among the features on his tattoed left arm is an abbreviation, G.O.A.T., which stands for Greatest of All Time. Hardly a modest sentiment. The NBC piece, about two minutes long, was set in the now familiar montage style of contemporary sports biography/promotion, in which the editing and music is supposed to emphasize the athlete’s cool and elusiveness. Clearly, NBC (and they’re not alone) has decided that this is the form in which its athletic products (the athletes) are most marketable – in your face, a little self-absorbed, with a chip on their shoulder, and with a pro-wrestling, grudge-match angle to competition. Bombast may be annoying to many spectators and commentators, but the networks believe it sells. Marketing anti-heroes has worked well for Vince McMahon and the rest of the sports production world appears willing to follow suit, at least to some extent. And, though there are particular currents that run through media portrayals of African American male athletes, like Greene, NBC portrayed Svetlana Khorkina, the Russian gymnast, in similar terms, both in the comments of the analysts covering the gymnastics competition and in the bio-profile of Khorkina that ran during the women’s individual all-around competition.
I happen to find these promotional bios uninteresting. I think we learn a lot less about the athletes than we might from a straight narrative that had a bit more substance. But, I don’t watch sports for this stuff anyway. However, given the clear promotional strategies of the media, you’d think that those who make a living off of the athletes and the way in which they are marketed would display a bit more awareness of the implications of the form the marketing takes.
3) Finally, in a preview of coming attractions, I do plan to say something soon about some of the coerage of the passing last week of long-time baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.