College Sports: Where Students Pay for Yahoo Play

Recently Ohio State athletics was thrust into the collegiate pay for play debate in a deliciously ironic way. Shortly after Ohio State’s Logan Stieber won his third NCAA wrestling title, sports writer Dan Wetzel gained his usual amount of national recognition by noting that Stieber’s efforts, for which he is not paid, triggered an $18,000 contractual bonus to Ohio State’s Athletic Director Gene Smith.

Dan Wetzel is at least two things: a sports journalist for Yahoo! Sports and a clear advocate for drastic change in the collegiate athletic model. Right on cue, he made his points that collegiate amateur status is a difference without distinction. The Smith payment not only dramatizes his point that college athletics is a professional enterprise (one feels he can only barely hold back from also calling it a criminal enterprise), but it shows, in Wetzel’s fantasy, a gross hypocrisy of the current state of affairs by rewarding a fat cat like Smith who, no doubt in Wetzel’s mind, sat on his couch drinking a rum and coke while the (literally) starving wrestler beat up an overmatched Devin Carter of Virginia Tech (after also demolishing wrestlers from Missouri, Oklahoma State, Harvard and Penn State).

Wetzel, presumably a nice and likable guy with some real talent, often asks for critical thought on the larger subject (a point I find ironic given that after asking him to do exactly that a year or so ago, I started receiving trolling tweets from Yahoo!’s mini-lawyer legal “specialist”—who, while representing Yahoo! has a history of trolling and badgering people on Twitter— mocking my professional credentials and hitting me with some form of humorous seventh grade political economic babble). Unfortunately Wetzel offers up little of his own critical thought though you can understand why. I applauded Wetzel for diving into the Penn State and Steubenville dramas, but you will never see a guy like Wetzel actually breaking such stories (for example, it has been my understanding the Penn State story was busted open by a female journalist who does not cover sports).

Sports journalists who need to make a living to pay for their family’s well-being have one primary need—access to athletes. Yes, coaches, administrators, referees, fans are all important. But what gives a guy like Wetzel the cache and insider importance is access to athletes. No matter where you look in sports journalism that is the one common thread. Yes, Wetzel can jump on Aaron Hernandez and Jerry Sandusky after the court system has caught them in their midst and made them dead to a sports journalist, and of course Wetzel can go after a high school football program that would otherwise be completely below the sphere of influence that puts bread on his table (or in the case of Yahoo!’s paralegal—fast cars—how is that for a cliché?).

But a guy like Wetzel would never survive with the reputation of an investigative journalist looking to expose the unknown acts of bad athletes or coaches. Athletes are mostly like any other large group of people—there are the very good and the very bad people, even if it just might be that the athlete population might have a little more than its share of bad guys. No, Wetzel’s job is to bring sports to the public but to do that he has to have the trust of athletes. Not only is he not going to be looking for dirt, one has to believe he is going to actively support their attitudes toward the sports world.

But the texture is even more delicious. Do you think Wetzel cares about a wrestler—even as great a wrestler as Logan Stieber? I saw no indication Wetzel even bothered to talk to Stieber before he wrote his piece. Wetzel writes what, 100, 200 articles a year? How many are on college wrestling? How much aligned do you suppose Wetzel is to the views of a Logan Stieber? In his original piece, did Wetzel know or even care that Stieber is thankful for the opportunity he has—to compete on a great stage for a great university and to receive a great education, and that he is thankful to Gene Smith for making that happen?

Probably not. The Logan Stieber story is an uncomfortable truth in the Wetzel narrative. Perhaps Wetzel is from the school of socio-political school of thought that there is always more money—that vast resources can be taken from one outlet and be replaced—perhaps from the StubHub money/ticket tree. If the Wetzel fantasy were to become reality, large collective sums would be taken from those who “use” and are enriched from collegiate football players and given to abused football and basketball players who in Wetzel’s world “earn” the money.
In reality, that money would be taken, not from Gene Smith or the NCAA (well money might in fact be taken, but not enough to fulfil the fantasy). No, the money would be taken from the athletic budgets of the very rich athletic programs of Ohio State. It would also be taken from the nearly poor programs like the University of Maryland—in such bad shape financially it had to abandon the ACC where it was a charter member. How do you think programs such as wrestling, baseball, soccer, etc. will fare after such a wealth transfer? But wait, it gets worse.

There is a thing called Title IX. I suspect this is a complicated matter but the basic premise of Title IX is to create a certain parity in financial commitment to men’s and women’s athletic opportunities. It is kind of hard to imagine there could be a new transfer of sums to even one men’s program without a similar increase for women’s sports. So the carnage to other men’s programs practically doubles. Maybe an Ohio State could survive, maybe not. But what about poor Northwestern, Purdue, Minnesota, Cal, Bowling Green, etc? In the future could a Virginia Tech maintain a program so that a future Devin Carter could go face to face with the future Logan Stieber?
Wrestlers who follow in the footsteps of Logan Stieber may in fact be able to compete for an NCAA title in the world hoped for by Dan Wetzel, but the number of competitors might dwindle to what—5? Twelve?

Do I have concern for the victims in Dan Wetzel’s narrative? Of course I do. If one comes from a poor background—as I did—s/he may well suffer the anguish and uncertainty that I did when my father apologized that he could not give me the money I needed in addition to my summer earnings to close the gap of the cost of education as an athlete not on scholarship. Would I support compassionate need based-stipends to bridge the gap? Of course I would, but you still have the question of where does the money come from, who would get hurt and how do you avoid creating a chasm between programs that can afford and those that cannot?

Should the NCAA institute its own compassionate program funded by a tax on coaching salaries such that those who benefit the most financially from the system provide the bridge over the gap for those that struggle the most under the current system? But is that all we are really talking about? Maybe the NCAA could permit high profile athletes to sign endorsement deals that would require significant allocations to such a fund. What would the Title IX implications of any such funding efforts?

While we are talking about someone’s fantasy, how about embracing one of mine—that the pool of fatcats who make a living off the athletes—journalists from say Yahoo!—pay for their access by contributing to the fund that can be used to ease their pain. Gene Smith is hired in part because of his participation in the world of sports. But he is also asked to employ the tools of the CEO of an enterprise vastly more complex than most companies. If anyone is a professional in sports here and if anyone with little other portfolio is making money off the efforts of college football and basketball players—it is Dan Wetzel. Let’s be fair—ask him to open his accounts and what he makes off sports, and then compare it to the complexity of his duties. Strictly fantasy of course, but if he wanted to be totally pure on this issue, he should deal with the inherent conflict of the sports journalists who are so offended by the current system.

Am I blind to the fact that schools sometimes take advantage of athletes that have brought honor to their school? No—the stories, alleged or not, of Ohio State’s treatment of Jesse Owens have always deeply bothered me. A little conscience and consideration go a long way and I support any journalist who is trying to bring any amount to the world of sports. For that reason I have some sympathy for the unionization efforts at Northwestern (I would have more if I thought our nation’s labor laws actually foster a constructive environment, but too often the result seems to be more focused on the rights of labor leaders and not on the expansion of opportunity).

But my point is that of the hundreds of thousands of collegiate athletes who participate annually, as the commercial says, only a very few will go pro in their sport. The vast majority are people like me who had the opportunity to compete in collegiate athletics, who witnessed how vital all sports are to a college campus, who feel they received a lifetime of benefit from that participation and who in fact were students who depended and will to depend on their career as students to provide for them over the huge expanse of life to be traversed after hanging up the cleats—or singlets.

What people like Wetzel really are decrying is the lack of opportunity below the level of our highest sports leagues. There are very few football “minor” leagues and for those that exist, hardly anyone watches and no meaningful money can be made—let’s just guess it might be what–$200 per game? I am just going to hazard a guess that of the 10,000 or so Division I football players each year, maybe 5 or 6, or some very small number like that could go directly into the NFL from high school. Without a college campus, where would the others go? I would guess they would fight for a few spots in the minor leagues. I would guess the minor leagues would become a little more successful, but much beyond, for example, what minor league baseball players enjoy?

The vast majority of collegiate football players never make it to the NFL and those who do labor in a difficult world and often wash out after a few years. The rest would be consigned to the obscurity of the minor leagues but for college football. Collegiate football players—largely being of minor league quality for much of their collegiate career—become celebrated heroes not for their athletic prowess in isolation. Rather, their talent gets a stage provided solely by a university that alumni and the entire community embraces and supports. The entire university is connected by a long and common experience and identity that is a community asset, not a club owned by an owner. A university is a vast interconnection owned by all and embraced by many.

It is that connection that celebrates the talents of a young man or woman who chooses to become part of the community—if he and his or her colleagues were to go compete with and against each other in a minor league system they would receive no more notice than a talented guy like Matt Barnes receives when he plays summer basketball with other NBA players in the San Francisco rec center on the Kezar Stadium football grounds.
So when you compare the value of a four year full paid scholarship (which I never got and which Logan Stieber is very grateful for—as Wetzel noted, schools are only allowed ten 9.9 equivalent wrestling scholarships for a team that has 30 or more wrestlers) to $200 per game, the financial reward to nearly all collegiate football players is not only a handsome payoff, it results in an education to carry them well past the three year NFL playing career average of those fortunate to make it to the League. And while we are at it—just what do you think the health care commitment of a minor league system would be? How do you suppose the training and safety equipment of a minor league team would be compared to a major college football program? Again, this community “abusing” athletes seems to be providing resources, assets and opportunities that far outweigh those that would be otherwise available to the vast majority of even the elite of college football.

And there is one more point. Even for the small numbers of football and basketball players who can achieve NBA or NFL status—they need a place to get ready. Just as only a few collegiate English majors can achieve a common “ultimate” goal of teaching in a university English department, those that can achieve professional sports status learn their craft in the same old university tradition—working their butts off in their chosen lab. Who has sympathy for the vast majority of English grads who labor countless hours studying only to end up working in an unrelated field having gotten nothing from their studies but broader life lessons? How is it much different from the committed football and basketball stars at both ends of the spectrum—except that English majors have no hope of the four year-long interview platform that big time collegiate sports offers to students and prospective employers.

So when you add it all up—the rewards of a scholarship, a place to live, food to eat, a facility and program to teach you what you came to learn, and the platform on which to achieve and become known for long after you are done playing—who really is taking advantage of whom?
Yes, I am sure you could legislate drastic reductions in the salaries paid to Gene Smith even though he has to oversee dozens of programs, hundreds of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars of plant and equipment. I am sure you could wipe out lavish dinners, drinks and perks leaking out of the college bowl system. You could squeeze every villainous fat cat you can get your hands on. We are in an Occupy world where there is a belief that you somehow can enrich the downtrodden by slicing up the people at the top.

The truth is, the end result would be to greatly diminish an asset we all cherish and benefit from that goes way past the few hours a year we spend in front of the TV watching our favorite college football team. We could do all that only to really punish the great number of athletes who survive on much less so that we can give it to a very few who already enjoy a pretty good deal relative to what they could accomplish by never setting foot in a classroom.

At that summer job I referred to, I cut grass and did maintenance for the Westerville Parks and Recreation Department. My boss was a middle aged guy named Dale DeBolt. In the mid-fifties, Dale had been offered a full football scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, but instead he “went pro”—i.e., joined the Navy. Forever acknowledging his mistake he longed for what would have been his had he embraced the opportunity to earn a degree and escape the drudgery of overseeing college students with futures that only added to his inner torture. Dale would have had hardly any more chance of playing at a pro sports level than the vast majority of other Division 1 football players—but he would have had a life he could have been proud of rather than the one I saw him struggle with.

I am just going to guess that Dan Wetzel has never talked with Logan Stieber, while Gene Smith has on many occasions. I am also going to state that while it is nice Dan Wetzel can notice how far at the bottom of the food chain wrestling, baseball, soccer and similar programs are compared to basketball and football, his “critical thinking” either has not extended to the ramifications to those programs, a campus or the mission of a university, or he simply does not care—and why should he—writing about wrestlers is not going to improve the quality of the car he drives. But Logan knows that Gene Smith went out of his way to ensure a new state of the art wrestling facility is put into the near term university plan, a facility that whether Dan Wetzel wants to embrace it or not, will benefit honest to God student athletes.

Dan Wetzel could embrace the power of a world where opportunity is there for the taking. Rather, he chooses to fire away with the pen of hypocrisy at the very people fighting to preserve that opportunity.

So at the end of it all, when Dan Wetzel writes a stacked piece about a program he shows little regard for without bothering to even express the views of his subject, then I ask, who really is the one taking advantage of Logan Stieber?

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