Excerpt: The Players’ Choice
A.J. Green played wide receiver at the University of Georgia for three years, established himself as the best at his position, and wound up the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. In return for his performance with the Bulldogs, Green received the standard compensation for a college athlete, unchanged since the advent of Division I in 1973: the athletic scholarship. It includes tuition, room and board, books, and meals. It is, for those interested in their education, a nice perk. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a deal that represented Green’s fair-market value.
His foray into the netherworld of memorabilia provided a better accounting of his worth. Early in 2010, Green sold his 2009 Independence Bowl jersey to an agent for $1,000. The NCAA found this out and suspended Green for the first four games. Never mind the occupation of the person who bought it. If Green offloaded the jersey to a fan in Los Angeles or a homemaker in Athens, the penalty would have remained the same and the sanctimony ever apparent: As bowls profit by the millions and athletic-department employees cash bonus checks from the game, the players off of whom they profit are systematically shut out of sharing the wealth.
Should they dare try to partake, the NCAA sounds its amateurism alarm and sends in the cleanup crew. Its investigators poured through bank records the twenty-year-old Green provided, labeled him a cheater, and left him having to vouch for his character time and again for the crime of cashing in something he owned. Green said the NFL teams that asked him about the jersey hullabaloo laughed at college athletics’ inherent hypocrisy.
Calling it anything less would be slathering on an inch-thick layer of sugar. On the day the NCAA suspended Green, twenty-two variations of his No. 8 jersey were for sale on Georgia’s website, according to Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated, some for as much as $150 a pop. If a player selling his actual jersey makes him a lawbreaker, what does that make the school that peddles replicas?
“They are selling all their stuff and they’re making all that money and you get, like, a meal check,” Green said. “It’s unfair, but that’s their job. They don’t care. They don’t care about the players or what the players think.”
To hear BCS executive director Bill Hancock explain it, college football’s powerbrokers don’t only care about the players. They exist for them. Of all the cockamamie excuses Hancock trotted out defending the BCS throughout the 2010 season, the spin he unveiled during his January 2011 address to the Football Writers Association of America rang so disingenuous, so desperately cloying that even by NCAA standards it came off as bad. Not only would the Cartel use college athletes to get rich, but it would shove them out front as a human shield for all the arrows fired.
“As the people responsible for life on campus,” Hancock said, “it’s the job of university presidents and commissioners to look out for the best interest of the student-athletes —and that means preserving the regular season and protecting America’s bowl tradition and experience.
“At its heart,” he continued, “the BCS is a group of schools collaboratively doing what is in the best interest of their students.”
Like with the 2010–11 Ohio State Buckeyes. Five players were caught selling gifts, peddling personal memorabilia, and exchanging autographs for tattoos. Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor sold his Fiesta Bowl sportsmanship award, which brought even more humor to the most oxymoronic honor in college athletics. Like Green, Pryor wasn’t allowed to sell his own possessions. The award fetched Pryor a few hundred dollars, what amounted to a reprimand from then-coach Jim Tressel — “Very disappointing,” he said — and a five-game suspension from the NCAA.
The BCS wasn’t so disappointed in Pryor and his similarly suspended teammates to forget the business interests of its bowl cronies. When news broke that Ohio State could be without its best players for its Sugar Bowl game against Arkansas — a move that would cripple television ratings, ticket sales, and general excitement — the Cartel rallied. Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan told the Columbus Dispatch he immediately lobbied for a one-game reprieve, thus moving the mass suspensions to the 2011 regular season.
“I made the point that anything that could be done to preserve the integrity of this year’s game, we would greatly appreciate it,” Hoolahan said. “That appeal did not fall on deaf ears.”
Some of those ears belonged to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who used his stature to lobby the appropriate NCAA regulatory committee on behalf of making the Buckeyes players bowl eligible. It worked. The NCAA cited the “unique opportunity these events provide” to give Pryor and his teammates a second chance. The obscure Paragraph 16 of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Reinstatement Policies and Procedures allows suspended players to return, CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd reported, “in very limited circumstances if the next contest is the NCAA championship.”
To which anybody could reply: The NCAA doesn’t recognize a college football championship. Nowhere does the rule mention bowl games. It does say the exception is allowed if “no competitive advantage was gained,” which might be difficult to argue, considering Ohio State regained its top quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Ohio State beat Arkansas 31–26. Pryor won the game’s MVP award.
It was one thing to learn later that Tressel knew of the memorabilia sales for nine months and, in violation of NCAA rules and his own contract, failed to turn over information and tried to cover up the incident, a series of decisions that led to his resignation in May 2011. For the NCAA to so misapply a rule simply for the Sugar Bowl’s financial benefit angered even some in the Ohio State fan base uncomfortable with the “integrity” of a bowl game trumping the “integrity” of Woody Hayes’s program. Hoolahan brushed off such concerns.
“I appreciate and fully understand the Midwestern values and ethics behind that,” he said, “but I’m probably thinking of this from a selfish perspective.”
At least Hoolahan didn’t try to say he was doing it for the players.
Throughout the 2010 season, whenever he was starving for a lifeline, Bill Hancock would claim BCS critics were “too focused on money” while the Cartel was all about “the interests of the student-athlete.” Never mind the fact that it’s been rather well-established to this point that money guides conference commissioners’ and bowl directors’ every decision. The bowls, Hancock insisted, are for the players. With more than ten thousand in Division I-A football, anyone can find one or two or ten to say pretty much anything. Even the most forward-thinking, playoff-oriented twenty-year-old loves a road trip, a bag of swag, and a game on national television.
Hancock took it to another level, though, by applying unscientific analysis to an unscientific poll as the scientific basis for the BCS. In August 2010, ESPN the Magazine’s college football preview issue included a survey — dubbed College Football Confidential — of 135 players. It was meant to be entertaining copy in the middle of a magazine. It wasn’t conducted by a reputable polling service. It didn’t properly word questions. It failed to educate the players on the myriad of background information needed. It allowed only black-and-white answers. It sampled a very small number of a very large group. Most important: It didn’t portend to be a definitive piece of work. The survey included questions about the use of hostesses in the recruiting process, which team has the most annoying mascot, and an inquiry into undergarments. (Only one respondent said he wore a cup.) No editor could have predicted the BCS would twist such a poll into the backbone of its existence.
The Cartel jumped at the chance to misrepresent a poll — it sounded plenty legitimate with ESPN’s name attached — in unchallenged interviews. It turned a survey that concluded “players want a playoff” into a press release and repeated talking points that players don’t want a playoff. Somehow, it caught traction.
Nate Silver interprets polls for a living as the heralded statistician and psephologist whose FiveThirtyEight polling aggregation website has proven amazingly accurate at predicting political elections. In 2008, he nailed forty-nine of fifty states in the presidential race and all thirty-five Senate seats. In 2009, Time declared Silver one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2010, the New York Times started to license FiveThirtyEight on its website.
And in 2011, shown the ESPN the Magazine survey, Silver first laughed at the narrative woven by the BCS, and then declared, “The whole poll is suspect.”
A breakdown of the three questions that pertained to the postseason shows just how Cartel propaganda works.
Question No. 1: Do you want a playoff?
Yes: 62.2 percent
No: 37.8 percent
Seems pretty straightforward: Players favored a playoff by nearly a two-to-one margin. This was the only question in the survey with which Silver had no issues.
“Once you ask, ‘Do you want a playoff or not?,’” he said, “that seems like the necessary and sufficient question to address the issue.”
Question No. 2: Would you rather have a [I-AA]-style, 16-team playoff [no bowls] or the current system?
[I-AA]: 29.6 percent
Current system: 70.4 percent
Polling 101: Never build a question around a false premise. “You have to ask questions that are thought of carefully,” Silver said. And considering that a playoff of any size and the bowl system easily can co-exist, it’s at best a loaded question, at worst a misleading and misrepresenting one.
Seventy teams get to play in a bowl and only sixteen in the ESPN-proposed scenario, and if a player doubts his team’s ability to crack the playoff bracket, the bowl wins out. Since selection criteria was never mentioned (is there automatic qualifying?), thousands of players might figure they’d never stand a chance at any postseason.
“I don’t think guys would say they dislike a bowl game,” said David Paulson, an All-Pac-12 tight end at Oregon. “But it’s hard to compare it to a playoff system. Players don’t really have experience with both. [The BCS] could say [bowl games exist] because we like it. But of course players are going to say they like it. They don’t know what the alternative is.”
The survey suggested as much. It cited “one SEC voter” who voted against the sixteen-team playoff, in part because he preferred a thirty-two-team event. “I’d like to see a playoff, but we’re not going to get that without answering a lot of tough questions,” the unnamed voter said. The BCS never seems to cite his answer in its press releases.
Hancock does enjoy comparing Division I-A and I-AA, a specious argument heavy with connotation. No bowl games exist at the I-AA level — which actually features a twenty-team playoff — because it lacks the requisite fans, television ratings, and loss-absorbing budgets to mimic the sort of business expected by bowls. If I-AA schools could, or were willing to, lose millions playing bowl games, you can bet someone would create such bowls and take their money.
“The logical thing to do if you want to have balance,” Silver said, “is ask, ‘What would you think about a sixteen-team playoff if we did have the bowl games?’ You need to give an Option A, Option B, or Option C.”
When offered a vision of what a playoff might look like — say, with games on campus — players’ eyes light up. “That would be crazy, a great scene,” said DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma’s star running back in 2010–11. “We had the best fans, and to have that kind of excitement on campus, in Norman? It would be incredible, a lot of fun.”
Alongside those games, the bowls could operate per usual as long as conferences subsidize them. The non-BCS bowls would continue as is, enjoyable made-for-TV events with no bearing on who’s No. 1.
“Having a national championship is not going to make the GoDaddy.com Bowl any better or any worse,” Oregon defensive end Nick Musgrove, a staunch playoff supporter even though he played in a BCS title game, told Fanhouse.com. “How relevant are the [minor] bowls now?”
Question No. 3: Would you rather have a college football career with three bowl trips or one playoff trip?
Three bowls: 77 percent
One playoff: 23 percent
Would you rather have three Olympics appearances or one medal? Maybe three tickets to a regular-season NFL game or one to the Super Bowl? How about three Oreos or one chocolate chip cookie? You could just as easily ask: Would you rather reach one BCS championship game or three regular bowls? It doesn’t have anything to do with anything. Which probably explains why the BCS cited its results most often in media interviews. Hancock never mentioned the first question, where the players conclude they “want a playoff.”
“One of the most basic litmus tests for whether someone is spinning or having an honest conversation is whether they cherry pick one result from a poll rather than display a larger picture,” Silver said. “When you have another question from a larger survey that is more germane and don’t report that result and report a secondary question that is somewhat misleading, you have no intentions of actually presenting something honestly.”
The National College Players Association, on the other hand, tries to advocate for the interests of players. In 1995, UCLA All-American linebacker Donnie Edwards served a one-game suspension for accepting less than $200 in groceries. It infuriated his backup, Ramogi Huma, enough that he dedicated himself to pushing the NCAA on issues such as player safety, improved health care, higher living expenses, and other problems long ignored by college sports leaders.
The NCPA ran its own poll in 2011 and found that “81 percent of respondents favor a playoff to determine the national champion. After reviewing various playoff models, the percentage of those in support of a playoff jumps to 89 percent.” The most popular playoff system among players was the sixteen-team, eleven-conference championship model.
“Football players dedicate themselves year round for a fair opportunity to compete for a national championship,” Huma said. “It is unsportsmanlike for conference and bowl commissioners to stack the odds against some schools in favor of others. We conducted this survey because the guys who actually play the sport should have some say.”
Granted, the NCPA’s poll contained some of the same flaws as ESPN the Magazine’s. While Huma sent the survey to one thousand people, he received only 185 responses, too small a sample size for any statistical significance. Selection bias existed. Even if it was better than ESPN’s, with the depth and breadth of the questions, it still wasn’t the sort of survey Gallup or Ipsos can produce. Surely the BCS could afford to commission one. A top-of-the-line poll, Silver said, would cost around $30,000.
In other words, less than a John Junker birthday party.
“I’m guessing they don’t do that,” Silver said, “because they know they won’t like what they see.”
Around two hundred years of experience and wisdom in college athletics resides inside the Cartel’s innermost core. The members sit on important committees, draw up policy, and help guide the sport. The NCAA is run by these people, not the worker bees at the central office in Indianapolis. The conference commissioners can rewrite any and all parts of the NCAA rulebook or business model. They can do it virtually overnight. So if they’re now suddenly interested in listening to the football players, well, the first thing they can do is start paying them.
Won’t find any player polls against that.
They could also guarantee scholarships for five years, not the current one year that leaves players susceptible to performance, injuries, and coaching changes. They could eliminate the one-sided — and patently unfair — National Letter of Intent, which tethers an athlete to one school without guaranteeing a scholarship. They could begin providing lifelong health care for players who suffer catastrophic injuries. They could rewrite the mountainous rulebook that players struggle to navigate. They could eliminate over-signing, the practice where schools bring in more players than the scholarship limit allows and can result in athletes being bounced from school even after spending months in class.
They could guarantee that athletes can be released from scholarships if they wish to transfer and not be restricted on where they can go. They could eliminate the one-year ban from playing at their new school. They could cut practice time and demands from coaches to help foster not just higher graduation rates but actual education. They could stop forcing players to sign away the legal rights to their likeness in perpetuity so the NCAA can continue to profit off ex-players in television commercials, video games, and memorabilia sales, the core issue of a class-action lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and Cincinnati star Oscar Robertson. “The arrogance and greed of the NCAA knows no bounds,” said the Big O, who, fifty-one years after leaving campus, still watches college sports produce trading cards of him without permission or compensation.
They could provide complimentary travel for the players’ families to the NCAA basketball tournament or major bowl games, where costs can be prohibitive. They could reform just about everything player polls would no doubt find troubling about college athletics. Yet their benevolence and bounties go instead to their golfing buddies who run the bowl system.
“Of course they use us,” said Oregon’s Paulson. “There are things we want that won’t ever get put in place.”
During his speech to the football writers, Bill Hancock couldn’t stop talking about the kids, harping on the kids, extolling the bowls’ virtues for the kids. For the first time ever, college sports was completely about the kids. He resembled a pitchman who had run out of ideas.
“I certainly understand the lure of filling out a bracket, kicking up your feet with a bag of Tostitos and a jar of queso, and enjoying the excitement of a four-week playoff from your sofa at home,” Hancock said, making sure to slip in the name of a corporate sponsor. “But is that in the best interest of the students, whose voices too frequently get lost in this debate?”
“Settle it on the field,” A. J. Green said.
“Settle it on the field,” DeMarco Murray said.
“Settle it on the field,” David Paulson said.
Those voices sound loud and clear. And they’re something the Cartel never has — and never will — care about it.