In recent decades, “scandal” has been a term as commonly associated with college athletics as “tailgate” or “Brent Musburger.” The trend is well-known and well-publicized: as NCAA television, merchandise and ticket revenues have increased over time, the allure of financial and material incentives have become harder and harder to ignore for America’s college athletes. The trend is most noted in the nation’s most popular and profitable college sports — football and basketball — whose athletes come disproportionally from low-income backgrounds.
The demonization of college athletes caught in the crosshairs of pay-to-play, gambling, or any other form of sports scandal has been the cultural norm. Depicted in the media as greedy, immature, or corrupt, these athletes are perhaps under more scrutiny today than at any time in the past. Last December, NCAA investigators became aware of a series of transactions between several Ohio State football players and Edward Rife, a tattoo parlor owner and suspected drug trafficker. “Tattoogate” — as it has been labeled by some in the media — involved the exchange of jerseys, championship rings and other items for tattoos for the players. Within three months, the players involved and head coach Jim Tressel were sentenced to a five game suspension for next season.
Earlier this week, as HBO prepared for a “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” special, four former Auburn University football players made public that they had received thousands of dollars from athletic boosters while being recruited to play for the Tigers. The former athletes involved claim that they received cash, cars and other gifts from boosters they often did not even know, and as a result, felt pressured to matriculate to Auburn. Some of the men also allege that the payments continued once they joined the Tigers football program.
Amidst this continued trend in high-profile NCAA scandals, two recent sports documentaries have presented a viewpoint contrasting the one that is common in today’s media. As part of its ongoing 30 for 30 series, ESPN aired earlier this month “The Fab Five,” a film chronicling the rise and subsequent “fall” of the five University of Michigan basketball players who brought the Wolverines to the NCAA championship game in 1992 and 1993. After becoming a sports and pop culture phenomenon in the early ‘90s, the media narrative of the Fab Five changed drastically when evidence emerged that Chris Webber received cash payments from Michigan booster Ed Martin.
Also released this month was “The Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV,” an HBO Sports documentary about Jerry Tarkanian’s “Runnin’ Rebs.” Emerging out of the desert in the late ‘1970s, UNLV became a national basketball powerhouse, ultimately winning the NCAA championship in 1990. As the film relays, Tarkanian’s tenure in Vegas was as noted by controversy as it was by success. His team is accused of countless violations spanning three different decades — everything from free hotel stays, holding illegal practices, receiving prohibited financial gifts and associating with sports gambling. Tarkanian left UNLV as his feuds with the NCAA and university president Robert Maxson came to a breaking point.
Both films present a distinct and arguably underrepresented perspective on money in college sports. While neither film attempts to deny those charges that have since been proved, they do deny that the young men of Michigan and UNLV were “thugs,” or “cheaters.” Despite the media frenzy and massive profits that resulted from their success, the Runnin’ Rebs and Fab Five lived mostly like every other college student: eating hot dogs and spaghetti for dinner, driving around in a beat-up car their parents gave them and just looking to put enough money in their pockets to get by. Neither film condones rule-breaking, but neither film claims that these athletes were greedy criminals.
As American sports fans enjoy another spell of March Madness, the NCAA and participating institutions will earn nearly $800 million from this year’s tournament — in television rights alone. Not only will the Jared Sullingers, Brandon Knights and Matt Howards of college basketball not see one dime of that money, but also they will not see one dime from the “Sullinger,” “Knight,” and “Howard” jerseys their universities sell to fans.
The debate over money in college sports was stoked yet again after NCAA executive director Mark Emmert made a public statement this week advocating that college athletics consider spreading some of its immense and burgeoning wealth to those who earned it — the players. Director Emmert is certainly not alone in his opinion; those both inside and outside athletics have made such propositions as the NCAA paying for students’ travel, food and other expenses.
Few have argued for the full-on employment of college athletes, and Director Emmert made clear in his statements he has no such intentions. Yet, despite what “slippery slope” arguments some might make against paying college athletes, one clear conclusion can be drawn: not compensating players for their efforts is just wrong. Opponents will say that compensating players won’t solve problems with gamblers or enterprising agents or corruption — those arguments are quite possibly (if not definitely) correct. Yet, the logistics don’t change the logic and the morality: not compensating players while the NCAA, universities and merchandisers reap massive profits is just wrong. Opponents will say that it undermines the traditions of college athletics and goes against the core values of what being an American student athlete has always been about –— those arguments are quite possible (if not definitely) correct. Yet still, not compensating players is just wrong. It is wrong as long as America is a capitalist democracy, and it is wrong as long as our education system strives to teach students that hard work and God-given ability will carry you far in life. It is wrong. The highest official in college sports knows it is wrong and, hopefully, he’ll able to convince highly-paid athletic directors and university officials across the country.