For those of you who might be, let us say, hoops-challenged, I speak of the back-to-back scandals that broke last week at my alma mater, the institution of higher athletics known affectionately as Mizzou.
First, Mr. Rush, our prized freshman basketball recruit, was ruled temporarily ineligible while his teenage past in Kansas City (and that of his brother, a UCLA prize) was investigated by school officials, the NCAA, the FBI, the CIA, the KGB and, presumably, an international war-crimes tribunal to determine whether some sleazy booster or agent once inappropriately gave him shoes, meals or some other contraband that may or may not have had a street value approaching seven minutes' worth of his coach's salary.
At issue is whether Rush might have to be banned for college life by the multibillion-dollar cartel known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for violating his sacred status as an amateur by receiving these crumbs. This would be akin to Larry Flynt's busting a girl, indignantly, for losing her virginity.
Why, how dare this Rush lad show up at our pristine institution with such baggage?
Then there's Mr. Parker, suspended temporarily by the coach for an academic failing, such as not going to class or something. My response, as someone who graduated in the half of the class that made the top half possible, and who once narrowly escaped getting booted out as editor of the student newspaper for having a 1.6 GPA one semester when university regulations expressly stated that you needed a 2.0 to participate in extracurricular activities:
Who does this guy think he is, me?
Ah well, at least the Parker crisis abated quickly, and our well-heeled GQ-guy new coach, Quin Snyder, could be credited for sending a message that he intended to run a squeaky-clean program. Personally, I was delighted that we hired Snyder for the piddling sum of eight or 10 professors -- he'd have been a great coaching prospect even if he didn't have the added benefit of displacing some ivory-tower stuffed shirts -- but here's hoping the Parker thing was just for show.
The academic charade is charming and all, but it doesn't clean the glass, if you know what I mean. If you don't know what I mean, what I meant to say is that I'm really angry at Parker for not being a model student like me.
All this nonsense whipped me into a Lexis-Nexis research frenzy, whereupon I discovered that if you search for the linked terms "NCAA" and "hypocrisy" over the past two years, the computer freezes up with a message that "your search has been interrupted because it has returned more than 6,000,000 results."
I truly don't know where to start.
Perhaps a little Mathematics 101 would be the best choice. Did you know that CBS-TV recently renewed its exclusive contract to carry the NCAA, an 11-year deal beginning in 2003, for the unfathomable sum of $6 billion? Yes, "billion" with a "B."
Fathom this: The annual average of $545 million, if spread evenly over the players on scholarship at the 319 Division I schools, would come to approximately $140,000 per unpaid kid, from the top stars at Duke to the lowliest scrub at Prairie View A&M. Limit the equation to players who actually appear in the tournament and you're probably over $1 million per unpaid student-athlete.
That's just the TV proceeds from the tournament, not the millions in ticket sales, concessions, merchandising, advertising and sponsorship revenues generated by March Madness. And that doesn't begin to cover what's raked in by NCAA cartel members during the rest of the basketball season or from football and other sports.
Where does the money go? Well, the NCAA claims that more than half of its member athletic departments operate selflessly in the red. The only thing we know for certain is where it doesn't go: the players.
Yes, I know: They receive a priceless education and room and board, and the whole works for free. And for the big-time players, the time commitments for practices, weight training, team meetings, public appearances, travel, games and the rest are probably no more than 60 hours a week, meaning that they are earning as much as $5-$9 per hour, depending on the school.
With such lavish compensation coming their way, the athletes are therefore forbidden to receive any monetary compensation from anyone while under scholarship at their schools and can't even take a job at a fast-food restaurant. What if it's an inner-city kid with little or no spending money of his own, one whose family might even be counting on him to send something back home?
Sorry, but this is the only way to preserve the purity of amateur athletics. That's why it's so crucial for the NCAA to keep a diligent eye on those student-cheaters, the ones who would accept freebies from the hangers-on and groupies known as "boosters." (Besides, the schools need that booster money for tickets, advertising, sponsorships and lavish alumni parties: There's a real opportunity cost to education when these boosters deal directly with the players.)
Education -- educating "student-athletes" -- is what intercollegiate athletics is all about. This isn't about money, it's about teaching kids and school spirit and alumni pride. It's about wondrous free publicity for institutions of academic excellence like (choke) my own Mizzou.
Just ask NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey, who toils for the mere $647,332 package that he received last year (in a slithery move, fittingly, that avoided scrutiny by the NCAA's executive committee). Maybe the organization's lavish offices in Indianapolis and its dizzying array of first-class perks help ease Dempsey's pain. Or perhaps he takes solace in working with poverty-level conference commissioners, like Conference USA's Mike Silve, who watches over schools like St. Louis University for a mere $276,711.
Certainly the coaches can empathize. For every guy at the top like Florida football coach Steve Spurrier, who reportedly makes $2 million, there's a struggling soul like Mizzou's own Snyder, who has to scrape by at our state university for a lousy $540,000 or so annually (base salary plus the obligatory shoe-company and radio/TV deals). Now, Snyder reportedly can earn as much as $750,000 if all his incentives kick in, but that's little more than average for a big-time coach.
Yes, I did say incentives. In a practice unheard-of until the past decade or so -- but now accepted and commonplace -- coaches reap sizable financial rewards for winning. One of their beloved unpaid kids -- more than half of whom don't graduate, according to the NCAA -- can earn or cost his coach tens of thousands of dollars by making or missing that last free throw.
Isn't that what education is all about?
Let's face it -- nothing's more precious than a college education, which is why the student-athletes are the real winners here. And to think that a kid offered all this opportunity might let himself be compromised by some slicker with a wad of cash. Or, worse yet, that a young student-athlete wouldn't take his classes seriously enough.
I guess they just need to be educated.