Economics Remain No. 1 in the Business of College Sports
By ROBERT LIPSYTE
The marketing director from Coca-Cola, John Egan, said, "Corporate involvement means better experiences for more athletes." The president of CBS Sports, Sean McManus, said, "Commercialism is not the opposite of integrity." I thought I was back in Nascar until Jeremy Foley, the athletic director of the University of Florida, said, "You have to look at us as a piece of the pie; we are not more important than the English department."
The audience, mostly beefy, middle-aged white men, nodded at the inside joke. The English department? How many outdoor stadium seats would those pencil-necks fill, even for the cockfights of literature, a poetry slam? For two days last week at a forum called "Balancing Academic Standards, Athletics and Economic Realities," I could imagine the future underworld of higher education where a football team recruits a university to make it proud.
The sensibility of the forum, which was hosted by the indispensible weekly trade paper SportsBusiness Journal, was best summed up by Deborah Yow, the athletic director of the University of Maryland, who said that the responsible A.D. tries to "minimize danger to the brand."
How many Division I-A English departments have to protect a brand after their scholar-scholars are involved in an eligibility scandal, booster payoffs, date rape, drunken binges, a student-betting ring or just tearing down the goal posts?
I needed the pick-me-up. My Heisman Trophy hopeful, Byron Leftwich of Marshall University, hadn't even made the cut of five finalists invited to New York for last night's announcement. Leftwich only led the nation in total offense and completed 69 percent of his passes for 4,019 yards, 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
He looked terrific doing it behind a line that couldn't always protect him long enough and a defense that didn't always get him the ball back quickly. After injuring his left leg a month ago, he kept playing even when teammates had to carry him to the line of scrimmage. But the sportswriters who vote on the Heisman (should they be voting on an award in a sport they cover?) went for better-known players whose major conference schools appear more often on national television. Marshall is in the lightweight GMAC Bowl Tuesday night. But Leftwich need not worry; he is expected to be an early and expensive pro draft choice.
I dwell on this to deflect the accusations of Thundering Herd fans that Leftwich's candidacy was damaged by recent columns here about Marshall's problems with the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Marshall's violations for "impermissible employment of academic nonqualifiers at rates four times the prevailing wage, academic fraud and a lack of institutional control" were punished last year primarily by the loss of a few football scholarships.
That's old news. What remains interesting is the business-as-usual climate in which the infractions took place. The rich booster who financed the payoffs, Marshall Reynolds, told me he has been hiring athletes for at least 10 years at the athletic department's behest. He paid them $100 a day and didn't dog them if they didn't show up. He was barred from associating with the athletic department for five years.
Reynolds and the compliance officer, David Ridpath, who apparently had no way of knowing about the violations unless the booster, a coach or an athlete snitched, were publicly embarrassed, and may sue. Meanwhile, the men in charge most notably Marshall's president, Dan Angel, and the football coach, Bob Pruett roll on.
If I had any illusions about Marshall, a lower middle-class striver in this jock-industrial complex, they were purged in the SportsBusiness Journal forum. The event was staged so the paper's publisher, Richard Weiss, and John Genzale, its editor in chief, could mingle with readers like Maryland's Yow, a believer in "reputation management," who in turn could network with the marketing guru Rick Burton, who is concerned about the "eroding brand image because of how athletes are perceived."
College football and basketball players, those "unpaid professionals," as a leading sports economist, Andrew Zimbalist, dubs them, were physically absent. But they filled the empty spaces between thoughtful and provocative discussions about Title IX, gambling, beer money, $1 million coaching salaries and the $200 million needed to bring Ohio State's facilities up to code and fat-cat comfort. If you wanted to see big men squirm, just bring up payment for the "scholar-athletes."
This is where "amateurism," the 19th-century sports sect whose outworn ideology is still used to control athletes, rubs up against the branding needs of a modern athletic department that has to pay the mortgage on a 21st-century stadium. No wonder it wants to keep its labor costs down with N.C.A.A. rules that forbid slipping the boys some pizza money.
Bill Byrne, the former athletic director at Nebraska, who moved on to the same post at Texas A&M, doesn't even like to call what he does a business. If it were truly a business, he said, he would be able to fire the kid who missed the field goal that lost the big game. Byrne, wry and righteous, was involved in one of the few touchy exchanges among men who want to do business together.
Ralph Cindrich, the former N.F.L. linebacker, was explaining how badly some athletes needed lawyer-agents like him. "Some of these guys can't read or sign a contract," he said.
Byrne of Nebraska snapped, "Speak for yourself."
Cindrich smiled as he said, "I've represented guys from Nebraska."
Now there's a brand.