Tag Archives: Tony Rice

The shame that is the NCAA

Excellent article on the NCAA in The Atlantic

“I’M NOT HIDING,” Sonny Vaccaro told a closed hearing at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2001. “We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes, and the best way to do that is buy your school. Or buy your coach.”

Vaccaro’s audience, the members of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, bristled. These were eminent reformers—among them the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, two former heads of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and several university presidents and chancellors. The Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that takes an interest in college athletics as part of its concern with civic life, had tasked them with saving college sports from runaway commercialism as embodied by the likes of Vaccaro, who, since signing his pioneering shoe contract with Michael Jordan in 1984, had built sponsorship empires successively at Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. Not all the members could hide their scorn for the “sneaker pimp” of schoolyard hustle, who boasted of writing checks for millions to everybody in higher education.

“Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”

Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir,” Vaccaro added with irrepressible good cheer, “but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”

William Friday, a former president of North Carolina’s university system, still winces at the memory. “Boy, the silence that fell in that room,” he recalled recently. “I never will forget it.” Friday, who founded and co-chaired two of the three Knight Foundation sports initiatives over the past 20 years, called Vaccaro “the worst of all” the witnesses ever to come before the panel.

But what Vaccaro said in 2001 was true then, and it’s true now: corporations offer money so they can profit from the glory of college athletes, and the universities grab it. In 2010, despite the faltering economy, a single college athletic league, the football-crazed Southeastern Conference (SEC), became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million. That money comes from a combination of ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, licensing fees, and other sources—but the great bulk of it comes from television contracts.

For me, NCAA football and to a lesser extent basketball is my passion.  I started playing football the year that Notre Dame went undefeated and won the 1988 National Championship.  Tony Rice, Lou Holtz, Michael Stonebreaker, Andy Heck, Rocket Ismael all became heroes of mine as Notre Dame steamrolled over amazing opposition that year.  I still love watching an option offense being run.

It pains me to see age old rivalries destroyed, conferences falling apart, and the nature of the game being changed all for more lucrative television contracts worth billions of dollars and yet athletes aren’t paid a dime.

Don Curtis, a UNC trustee, told me that impoverished football players cannot afford movie tickets or bus fare home. Curtis is a rarity among those in higher education today, in that he dares to violate the signal taboo: “I think we should pay these guys something.”

Meanwhile football coaches average $2 million a season (plus shoe contracts that are generally paid to them), speaking gigs (which they are often allowed to use the private university jet), and endorsement fees, all because of the success of the athletes that play for them.  It’s a sick system.

I can’t help but wonder if the issue is not football but money starved universities desperate for television revenue to pay the bills, cover buildings, and keep on going through recessions.  Underfunded universities and tapped out state governments put university administrators in the tough situation if keeping tradition means the cutting of programs.

I don’t know what the solution is but it’s hard to even pretend that big time college football is anything but a professional sport when you see universities like Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M, the Pac-10, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and others all go crazy for the money and care about very little else.  As a fan of sports, it’s sickening to say the least.