I don’t know if you’ve seen this video. If you watch ESPN’s Sports Center, then you have. It’s Rutgers University head basketball coach Mike Rice abusing his players. He verbally abuses them, he throws basketballs at them (including hitting one kid in the head), he pushes, shoves and kicks the players on his basketball team. It’s contemptible, and yesterday, he got fired for it. Which is weird, frankly, because the school’s known about the behavior captured in this video for months. They did nothing, except fire the assistant coach, Eric Murdock, who released the tapes. Rutgers athletic director Mike Pernetti has now said that his initial decision, to put coach Rice on a brief ‘rehabilitative’ leave of absence was mistaken; that they should have fired him back in December, when they first saw the video. Ya think?
But, okay, one coach with anger management issues, that’s regrettable, and awful for the kids in that program and their families, but it could be seen as an aberration. Surely to say that Mike Rice abusing his players isn’t Everything That’s Wrong with College Sports. I mean, it’s just one guy.
So, let me go all nostalgic and geezer-y on you. When I was a kid, Boy Scouts got to go to Indiana university football games for free. We wore our uniforms, and we served as ‘ushers.’ I was twelve; I knew nothing about ‘ushering,’ but I did like going to see college football games for free. And that was back when Indiana had a good time. They even won the Big Ten championship, in 1967, behind (I remember so well), quarterback Harry Gonso, running back John Isenbarger, and receiver Jade Butcher. Gonzo ended up going to law school, and becoming head of the IU board of trustees. The team was fun to watch, and winning the Big Ten that year was a Very Big Deal. It meant a lot, to the community, to the university (where my father taught), to the state. It was a point of pride. We Boy Scouts were part of it. We got to run around on the field after the games, and we got to help the cheerleaders put away their megaphones and pom poms. I was a twelve year old boy. I got to help (blonde, beautiful) twenty year old cheerleaders. I have, uh, positive memories of the experience.
In those days, conferences meant something–they were important. The Big Ten schools were the finest in the Midwest. They were as outstanding academically as they were athletically. Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana; those are really really good schools. I have a PhD from Indiana–that means something. Northwestern is a tremendous school. Purdue is known for its outstanding engineering and science programs. A ‘Big Ten’ school was prestigious. And the universities were crown jewels in American higher education. And yes, they also played football, but ‘student-athlete’ wasn’t a sick joke–it was something to aspire to. Harry Gonso wasn’t just the quarterback of the football team, he was an academic All-American, a member of the National Honor Society. A guy who went straight from the gridiron to Law School.
Conferences had a history, an identity, a tradition. The Pac-8 included USC and UCLA and Stanford and Cal. Stanford and Cal Berkeley; two of the finest universities in the world, as excellent academically as athletically. Filling out the conference were two great rivalries: Oregon/Oregon State, Washington/Washington State. The Texas schools competed in the Southwest Conference, the South meant the Southeast Conference, and the Great Plains meant the Big 8, which meant perhaps the greatest rivalry of them all, Oklahoma/Nebraska. The conferences even meant different style of football–the Big Ten meant the Power-I formation, the Big 8, the Wishbone. And the WAC, where BYU competed, was about passing the football. October and November meant conference football season, and January and February, conference basketball season. You recruited locally, and state pride rose and fall with the local college’s athletic fortunes.
Was it corrupt? Was there a seedy underside to college athletics, back in the golden age of my youth? Of course there was. Boosters openly paid players. Players received all kinds of special benefits. John Wooden built the greatest dynasty in the history of college basketball at UCLA. John Wooden was a tremendous coach, and a good man. But John Wooden had to know that the fancy new cars his players were tooling around LA in had to come from somewhere. In fact, as Wooden surely knew, they came from Sam Gilbert.
But the traditions of college athletics, the rivalries and the regional conference affiliations, they did mean something. Schools played football and basketball to build school pride and state pride and local pride. Schools were part of their communities, and if civic minded business people occasionally took their support for the local school team a little, uh, generously, well that happened. And it shouldn’t have, and it was bad. The NCAA did police things, a little, arbitrarily and badly.
But now? I honestly don’t know anymore what schools belong to which conferences; I really don’t. I don’t know who’s in the Big Twelve, or the SEC. The Big Ten added Penn State without becoming the Big Eleven or something–now it’s the Big Sixteen, or Big Eighteen, or Big Fourteen–I honestly don’t know how many schools are in the conference, or which ones. Pretty sure Nebraska’s now in the Big Ten–its ferocious rivalry with Oklahoma now a thing of the past. So there’s that; the University of Nebraska, a Big Ten school. Academically? Seriously? Michigan and Northwestern and Indiana and Purdue and . . . Nebraska?
And in December, the President of Rutgers, Robert Barchi was told by Rutgers Athletic director, Mike Pernetti, that a video existed showing the men’s basketball coach physically abusing the players on his team. And recommended a leave of absence. And Barchi agreed.
Why? Simple. Last November, Rutgers applied to join the Big Ten. In a late November vote, that application was accepted. Here’s what Barchi said back then:
“The Big Ten includes America’s most highly regarded academic institutions, known for both their athletic success and academic achievement. This is exactly the right conference for Rutgers. Our university is one of the nation’s leading research universities and our student-athletes excel in the classroom and on the playing field.”
Codswallop. Here was the Big Ten response, from Iowa President Sally Mason:
“When considering the full spectrum of academic, athletic and research prowess, Rutgers clearly makes for a perfect fit as one of the premier public land-grant institutions on the East Coast. We are excited to welcome them within our ranks, and look forward to collaboration and competition with yet another great Big Ten university.”
Here’s what Rutgers joining the Big Ten means, aside from the reality that the Women’s Volleyball team from Nebraska is now going to have to take a bus ride from Lincoln to Newark for their away matches. This isn’t about the students and it isn’t about education and it isn’t about academic standards and it isn’t about athletic competition and it isn’t about anything but money. The Big Ten has a cable network, the Big Ten network. It’s lucrative–it’s pouring a lot of money into Big Ten universities. The Big Ten network would very much like to expand into Eastern markets. And Rutgers is in New Jersey. Oh, the Big Ten also added Maryland. Same reason, same rationale.
So Rutgers will now get Big Ten network money, and the Big Ten network will get lucrative TV contracts in east coast markets, which means more. None of which any college students will see, of course. Football teams hemorrhage money for their universities; cable money is a band-aid. Universities are committed to spending more and more on athletics, and that money has to come from somewhere. One place to cut costs is insurance–football and basketball scholarships are not guaranteed, and injured kids who can’t play can be released from their scholarships, their families stuck with their medical bills. Did you see Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware’s horrendous broken leg? Last weekend, right? Did you know there’s a chance Kentucky could get away with not paying his medical bills?
But you can also maximize revenues, and the best new source is cable.
So in December, the ink barely dry on Rutgers’ Big Ten contract, President Barchi is told that a video exists. Terrible time for a major scandal, right? So apparently, Barchi asked not to see it. Giving himself plausible deniability. And Pernetti, the AD, the fair-haired boy who had negotiated the whole Big Ten deal (leveraging geography for cash) fires Murdock, the whistle-blower assistant coach, and tries to sweep the whole thing under the rug. The plan was always to fire Mike Rice, the coach–Pernetti apparently didn’t think he was good enough to compete in the Big Ten. But then Murdock went public with the video, and forced Rutgers’ hand.
In other words, the allure of cable money meant that a university President and Athletic Director were willing to let a coach get away with abusing his players, to sweep it under the rug for months, rather than jeopardize the dough. A coach kicked his players, punched them, threw basketballs at their heads, and called them the vilest homophobic slurs. And the university knew about it, and did nothing, because there was too much money at stake.
And these cable deals, they’re happening all over college sports. Haves and have-nots; the schools without lucrative conference cable deals are the ones left behind. Rich schools are going to get richer, and the professionalism of college athletics intensifies.
So okay. Let’s go there. Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA basketball star is heading up a class-action suit against the NCAA, in behalf of all former players. His argument is that colleges are profiting immensely from the kids who play college sports, and that the kids don’t get a dime. And should. And the case is winning; working its way through the appellate courts one victory at a time. What’s at stake? As Sports Illustrated puts it, nothing less than the entire college sports business model. Very hard for me to see how that could be a bad thing.