Big-Time College Sports: Time to Kill or Be Killed

iovirginOSU TEXAS FOOTBALL

It was a running joke my uncle the priest came to tell his parishioners every Super Bowl Sunday, especially during those years the hometown 49ers were so often represented in the NFL’s championship game. “I will work quickly and end early today,” he’d quip, “so you can get to the worship of America’s real national religion, football.”

And, as is the case for all good humor, his foundation wasn’t that far from the truth. Professional sport has become a well-loved and financially well-supported industry in this country. But even as big money can, God knows, create good entertainment, it also has the potential to twist and corrupt. If you’ve been paying attention to either news or sports recently, that can’t be any kind of surprise at all.

Potential corruption of pros by professional-scale money is one thing – we’d almost expect there to be some toxic spillover in for-profit entertainment enterprises – but the effects of big-time sports money on amateur sport is something else again. The money that’s come to American colleges and universities from running sports entertainment businesses has had seriously pernicious effects on what are still (nominally, at least) institutions of higher learning.

Here’s a table showing the top 20 sports revenue-producing institutions of higher learning, as of 2008. [Note how many of the top 20 are public and, therefore, publicly-funded institutions.] This is serious dough. Just to get some sense of this scale, the top performers on this list make about as much in revenue as tech-sector stand-outs like Pandora and LinkedIn.

Rank Team Total Revenue
1 Alabama

123,769,841

2 Texas

120,288,370

3 Ohio State

115,737,022

4 Florida

106,607,895

5 Tennessee

101,806,196

6 Michigan

99,027,105

7 Oklahoma State

98,874,092

8 Wisconsin

95,118,124

9 Texas A&M

92,476,146

10 Penn State

91,570,233

11 Auburn

89,311,824

12 Georgia

85,554,395

13 LSU

85,018,205

14 Notre Dame

83,352,439

15 Kansas

82,976,047

16 Iowa

81,515,865

17 Michigan

81,390,686

18 Oklahoma

77,098,008

19 Stanford

76,661,466

20 USC

76,409,919

[Source: ESPN, 2008]

This kind of money drives distorting behaviors. And to protect this revenue stream, significant measures are often taken. As just one example, the University of Maryland recently paid $2 million to buy out the contract of its football coach (then carrying a losing win-loss record), then hire a new coach for an annual salary of an additional $2 million. In outlining his rationale for making these moves, the university’s president, Wallace Loh, asserted his belief that, “intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the college educational experience and not only commercialized mass entertainment.” [Source: Forbes]

Baylor Bears vs. Kansas Jayhawks - January 16, 2012

In 2010, the 44 public universities with teams in the 5 most established athletic conferences (e.g., PAC-12, Big Ten) paid their head football coaches an average salary of over $2 million, well above the average salary of anyone else on campus [Source: Wall Street Journal], much less those who actually deliver on schools’ educational mission, the faculty.

Investment in big-time athletics might pay off for their host institutions financially, but data show the academic returns are mixed. At one time, student-athletes (the very name sounds anachronistic today) participated in revenue-producing and spirit-building athletics in exchange for the promise of a college degree. As big-time sports programs rake in the cash, and many athletes have come to focus almost exclusively on athletics and bail out of college early to join their sports’ professional ranks, that notion is being re-examined.

In fact, there is a large gap between the academic achievement levels of student-athletes and their non-athletic counterparts at many schools. So, in reality, where is the benefit promised players? This calls into question whether schools running big-time sports programs are unfairly and handsomely benefitting from labor that is essentially free, and many have called for student-athletes to be paid. The schools with the largest difference in graduation rates between athletes (football players, in this case) and non-athletes, including, in the top position, to my shame, one of my beloved alma maters, are listed in the table, below.

Difference in Graduation Rates Between Football Players and All Students
Major Programs

 

Football Players

All Students

Difference

California

54%

90%

-36%

UCLA

59%

90%

-31%

USC

61%

87%

-26%

Virginia

68%

93%

-25%

Georgia Tech

55%

79%

-24%

Texas

57%

79%

-22%

Maryland

59%

81%

-22%

BYU

57%

78%

-21%

Texas A&M

59%

79%

-20%

Michigan

71%

89%

-18%

Clemson

62%

78%

-16%

Oklahoma

48%

63%

-15%

Florida St.

56%

71%

-15%

North Carolina St.

56%

71%

-15%

Wisconsin

66%

81%

-15%

Duke University economist (and a former teacher of mine) Charles Clotfelter, wrote a book about the conundrum this kind of imbalance presents to America’s colleges. Unsurprisingly, he finds deep unease. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, thinks sports an expensive side-show for schools: “Educational institutions have absolutely no business operating farm systems for the benefit of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.” James Duderstadt, the University of Michigan’s former president agrees: “Big-time college athletics has little to do with the nature or objectives of the contemporary university. Instead, it is a commercial venture, aimed primarily at providing public entertainment.”

Educational institutions running big-time sports programs bear great risks. They reap potentially huge revenues from their programs that reward activities not part of their core educational purpose. Priorities are skewed. While academic programs starve, state-of-the-art athletic facilities are built and coaches wallow in cash. Other than coaches, the main beneficiaries of these sports programs are professional football and basketball leagues, who harvest generation after generation of athletes trained and polished at mostly public expense. Furthermore, these schools benefit from the free labor of their students, who are not allowed to accept income and, increasingly, do not even benefit academically from their work.

A well-known and successful college basketball coach talked about his program’s essential independence from his host institution (not to mention his own obvious disdain for academic authority): “We’re not even really part of the school anymore, anyway…you think the chancellor is going to tell me what to do?” [Source: New York Times]

In the long run, this is an unsustainable situation. Colleges must get out of the big-time sports entertainment business if they are to keep alive any hope of fulfilling their educational missions. In the end, these enterprises are not worthy of the institutions these programs still (nominally) represent.

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Onward State (GO!)

[Note: I’ve written about the Penn State sexual abuse case several times previously, first here, about Joe Paterno and later here, about the deeper institutional problems associated with sexual abuse.]

The report from the inquiry into the Penn State sexual abuse case has just been released. The New York Times’ coverage is here.

In my professional life as a communications consultant, I’ve dealt with numerous cases of sexual abuse; I have hard-earned insights about this heinous crime.

Here’s one: while individuals are and must be held responsible for their own actions, institutions, through selective attention (i.e., looking the other way), misplaced priorities (i.e., considering athletic success of paramount importance) and enabling (i.e., providing opportunity), create the conditions necessary for abuse to occur. Unless and until institutions are willing and able to address these conditions, abuse can continue.

This was certainly the case at Penn State (That’s what the inquiry’s report found.) and I’ve found it to be the case elsewhere.

So, Jerry Sandusky is in jail. Penn State and its football program will forever be linked with sexual abuse. Good but not enough, not nearly enough.

People like Sandusky can’t hurt kids without lots of help.

Not Off the Hook

Yesterday, a Pennsylvania jury convicted former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts.

Over the past 12 months, since the Jerry Sandusky case came to broad public awareness, I’ve written 3 pieces about him, Penn State and sexual abuse:

  1. The first discusses Joe Paterno and Penn State.
  2. The second takes a look inside the PR machines that get built around these cases.
  3. The third puts the case into the broader context of the year’s PR disasters.

While I am gratified that this particular child molester has been convicted and may never be free to molest again, I think we should all be very cautious about feelings of relief. A great many people knew about Sandusky’s behavior for a very long time before his arrest and did nothing. In my professional experience with sexual abuse, which is considerable, this is often the case, despite what would-be Rambos assert afterward.

Most people will still go into denial, look away, or become impotent bystanders when faced with evidence of sexual abuse.

We can take some measure of comfort from Sandusky’s conviction, but it’s all for naught if we remain bystanders when evidence of abuse presents itself in our own lives.

PR Disasters – How Not To

Crises happen and communicating through them successfully is hard work. Here are some examples of crisis communication done the wrong way. Read. Learn. Avoid.

Netflix

Netflix has often had troubles communicating with its customers. This year, the CEO’s announcement that he was going to split the company in two puzzled everyone – there was no clear plan or even the slightest hint at a reasonable rationale for the move. Share value plunged, and the announcement was rescinded a mere 23 days later. Analysts wonder if Netflix will regain its previous status as the dominant market player.

News International

The worldwide reputation of News International and CEO Rupert Murdoch took an enormous hit when its newspapers in England were accused of bribing police and illegally wiretapping celebrities, politicians and crime victims. Early denials had to be retracted as more and more evidence proving long-standing patterns of truly horrible behavior made its way to the public.

Lowes

If you’re a home improvement retail chain, here’s something you would pretty much likely want to avoid – having your company name invoked again and again in a political controversy  over Islam in the month before the Christmas shopping season. Lowes pulled ads from a TLC reality show called “All-American Muslim” after receiving Florida Family Association (FFA) demands that it do so.  The FFA asserted the show was really undercover “propaganda that riskily [SIC] hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Lowes denied the FFA demands had anything to do with its decision, but could not and did not offer a clear explanation as to why it stopped advertising.

Sony 
Over 77 million PlayStation Network accounts were shut down by Sony after the company learned it had been seriously hacked. After many initial refusals to be open about the breaches, Sony contacted customers with mild recommendations for improved Internet safety and a promise the problem would be corrected within 2 weeks. New security problems and breaches pushed that date back again and again. Customers were left to wonder about whether, and to what extent, their own data had been compromised. Cost to the company was estimated at $24 billion in expenses and lost revenue.

Penn State

[My personal thoughts about Penn State and Joe Paterno are here.]

Sexual abuse cases are pure poison for educational institutions. The case involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky (photo, above) not only brought down his former boss, the beloved Joe Paterno, and the university’s president, it significantly damaged the reputation of Penn State. The university tried to cover up allegations and evidence of abuse by Sandusky for years before finally admitting wrongdoing and its complicit silence.

Congressman Anthony Weiner 

Weiner sent a college student a photo of his erect penis via Twitter. When the photos quickly circulated the Internet, as Twitter photos are known to do, and landed in the hands of mainstream news organizations, Weiner denied vehemently they were of his member.

When a second person came forward with photos Weiner had sent her, the congressman was forced to call a press conference and admit he’d engaged in the behavior. Soon after, he resigned his seat in Congress.

Durex South Africa

More Twitter stupidity.

Posted on the official DurexSA (condom maker) Twitter account: “Why did God give men penises? So they’d have at least one way to shut a woman up.”

Really funny, huh? Especially in a country that has a serious problem with sexual assault and rape. The company might have issued an apology and the story might have died there. But to lengthen the story and compound the problem the same account posted a defensive whine: “We have posted many jokes, see our timeline… And they not violent against woman! Re-read it!!!!!”

The company eventually apologized, but not before ruining its reputation.

MF Global

In October, after MF Global declared bankruptcy $1.2 billion in customers’ funds were discovered missing.

MF Global CEO Jim Corzine resigned but refused to disclose the disposition of his former customers’ accounts. In sworn congressional testimony, Corzine, the former New Jersey governor, insisted he had no idea what happened to the money and wasn’t aware of the missing funds until MF Global filed for bankruptcy.

Republican Presidential Candidates 

Politics and party aside, these public figures were in a class by themselves. One wonders about the level of campaign staff professionalism.

  • Herman Cain – Cain self-destructed with a lethal combination of ignorance and confidence. He was hit with multiple allegations of extra-marital affairs, always difficult for a “values” candidate, but it was really his poor staff work that finished him off. This interview at a major newspaper’s editorial board revealed his complete lack of preparation for both in the meeting and the job of president.
  • Michele Bachmann – Bachmann has been prone to gaffes throughout her career, so her presidential campaign proved to be an apt moment for opponents to find and disseminate her “greatest hits.” Rather than claiming many were taken out of context, or that she’d evolved her positions as she grew on the job as a member of Congress, Bachmann most frequently chose to either reiterate her indefensible positions or make even more confusing and ignorant ones.
  • Rick Perry – Perry’s entry was much anticipated; he achieved almost instantaneous front-runner status. Almost immediately, however, Perry displayed a complete lack of focus and preparation. Rumors, supported by viral videos, swirled that he’d made campaign appearances drunk or high. His inability at a nationally-televised campaign debate, to name the three federal agencies he wanted to close sealed his political fate.

Paterno, Penn State and sexual abuse

[Self-disclosure: I have worked on several sexual abuse cases as a public relations and communications professional.]

Following his death after a long battle with lung cancer, many questions have been raised about the life and lasting legacy of long-time Penn State University football coach, Joe Paterno.

My friend, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Timpane, wrote today about social media and reactions to Joe Paterno’s death. Slate’s Torrie Bosch wondered if it was even appropriate to mourn the death of Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno was a man, a human being. He had all the flaws, the mixture of positive and negative characteristics the term “human” suggests. Among coaches of big-time college football programs, he was known to care deeply about the welfare of his players, as people and students, in addition to athletes. This set him apart from the majority of his peers, who have obviously come to care more deeply about wins, losses and revenues than school, who tend to think of their programs as little more than college-sponsored pre-professional athletic camps. To many observers of college athletics, the Ivy-educated Paterno was always one of the “good guys.”

How does this image square with the coach’s indifference, or worse, about allegations of his former colleague’s sexual abuse of children?

In all my experience with sexual abuse, and it has been more than plenty, the human reaction I have seen, for the most part, is not active engagement but denial. People will tell themselves all manner of tortured narrative to avoid seeing evidence of abuse that stares them directly in the face. It’s only after the fact that people turn themselves into steel-eyed, bare-knuckled avengers – asserting their courage and forthrightness:

  • “I would have punched that guy’s lights out.”
  • “I would have taken a tire-iron to that guy.”
  • “I would have called the cops right then.”

Some form of that is what a great many people said when they heard about what Joe Paterno did (or didn’t do) when informed of allegations about his former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

These people may, indeed, have acted that way when faced with an allegation of sexual abuse aimed at an old friend and colleague, but it has not been my personal experience of people’s behavior in the actual moment. My direct experience tells me most people, if faced with the same situation, would have:

  • Told themselves they didn’t actually see or hear what they did
  • Told themselves someone had misinterpreted some innocent activity or other
  • Told themselves someone else must have told the appropriate authorities
  • Told themselves it wasn’t like their friend and former colleague to do that

Since that’s what my experience suggests to me, I’m inclined to accept as plausible both the Joe Paterno who didn’t push the allegations of his former assistant’s sexual abuse as vigorously as he should have, and the Joe Paterno who seemed to care for his charges like the benevolent grandfather his players and former players describe.

And, today, I believe it is right and proper to mourn that human being.