|Sports on Earth|
Rick Telander had seen enough. It was the late 1980s, and Telander, a Sports Illustrated writer, had been covering the college football beat. Which really meant covering criminal behavior. Narrow-minded coaches. Slimy boosters. Sanctimonious administrators. Brutality on the field, and the economic exploitation of players off of it. What seemed like a total lack of ethics or morality. At one point, Telander found himself on the phone with his editor, all but ready to quit, filled with loathing and disgust.
The Hundred Yard Lie was born.
Published in 1989, Telander's book is a sweeping, scathing indictment of college football -- the kind of impassioned, informed jeremiad that only could have come from a man who was an All-Big Ten cornerback at Northwestern before becoming a journalist, a man familiar with how the campus sausage gets made, a man who loves the sport enough to hate its flaws. Amazingly enough, The Hundred Yard Lie remains relevant today, a worthy read in an era of big money, big scandal and big questions. Has anything really changed? Not as much as you might expect:
Then: Telander recounts a 1989 federal court case involving Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom, a pair of sports agents who signed dozens of college football players to contracts before their eligibility had expired and subsequently were charged with racketeering, mail fraud and defrauding nine schools who had awarded scholarships to the players in question. During the agents' trial, their attorney attacked the NCAA and the nine schools who supposedly had victimized. How? By forcing college officials to take the witness stand and recite the academic records of their star players. Among the lowlights:
* An Iowa defensive back who took Karate, Billiards, Jogging, Recreational Leisure (which sounds a bit redundant), Advanced Bowling (not to be confused with Intro to Bowling), Advanced Slow-Pitch Softball (ditto) and Introduction to Military Organization (isn't that pretty much … football?);
* Another Iowa player who had only taken one course toward his major over four years, all while taking Billiards, Bowling, Soccer, History of Football and Watercolor Painting. In the latter course, he earned a D;
* A Miami of Ohio player who was unable to stay eligible despite taking courses in basketball and racquetball and wound up taking a summer make-up course called Trees and Shrubs, which definitely sounds made up;
* The American scholastic horror story of Temple All-America running back Paul Palmer, who flunked remedial reading four times, did not complete a single course in his major, flunked or withdrew from every class his senior year and passed only Bowling, Racquetball, Human Sexuality, Adjusting to a University (note: actual class) and Leisure (note: also actual class).
As Telander notes, then-Temple president Peter Liacouras "angrily stated that he was going to strike Palmer's many football records from the school record book because the young man had taken money from Norby Walters before his amateur career was over." This wanton corruption of academia will not stand! The line must be drawn here! Anything else? "The president did not mention Palmer's academic record," Telander continues, "apparently being satisfied with the young man's work in that area." Oh.
Now: According to statistics complied by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, at least half of the African-American players competing in this year's Bowl Championship Series games will not graduate within a six-year period. Meanwhile, the federal government reports that only 58 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision players who entered school between 2003-04 and 2006-07 graduated. And last year, the Raleigh News and Observer uncovered widespread academic fraud involving football players and other athletes at North Carolina that saw players taking no-show and non-existent courses.
Change: Hard to evaluate. Overall graduation numbers indicate that big-time college football is doing a somewhat better job of producing educated athletes -- but if those same athletes are taking bogus classes and essentially majoring in athletic eligibility, their diplomas are essentially worthless.
Then: Telander cites former sports super-agent Mike Trope, who in the 1987 book Necessary Roughness claimed that the vast majority of players selected in the top three rounds of the NFL draft signed with agents and received loans and other gifts before their college eligibility expired, violating NCAA amateurism rules.
Now: Despite being labeled "pimps" by the laughably non-self-aware likes of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, agents continue to funnel cash and goodies to college athletes.
Change: Pfffft. The market for football talent is bigger and more lucrative than ever. The corresponding black market has followed suit. Telander describes the players who signed with Walters and Bloom as "poor, talented kids who craved money and would earn it soon enough in the NFL but were denied it during their college careers by repressive NCAA rules." He also quotes Walters, who represented music groups like New Edition and said there was "no difference" between college athletes and entertainers, because "a sports star is a rock star. They're all the same." Two decades later, is anyone still arguing either point?
Then: Telander lambastes what he sees as a moral and intellectual sham that basically exists to provide schools with cheap athletic labor while enriching the powerful adults who perpetuate the idea. Amateurism flat-out disgusts him. "If you asked a neighborhood kid to come to your house and rake your leaves, would you have the gall at the end of the day to say, 'Thanks a lot, son. Hope the raking was a good experience for you. I'd love to pay you, but you're an amateur?'" Telander writes. "Does anyone think that money corrupts a child leaf-raker? On the contrary, the boy would be praised for his drive by all decent Americans and probably overpaid for his hard work."
Now: Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch pretty much took Telander's leaf-raking analogy and turned it into a 12,000-word The Atlantic cover opus that makes it impossible for any reader in a non-vegetative cognitive state to support amateurism as either a practical or philosophical construct. Of course, college football still clings to it.
Change: In progress. The Olympics gave up the amateur ghost decades ago. The ongoing Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA threatens to dynamite the campus version. And public and media sentiment largely has turned against it.
Then: Telander paints them as fundamentally at odds with their host institutions, much like the facehugger-implanted xenomorph embryos in the Alien movies. While English and math departments exist to create "intelligent, ethical, educated, well-rounded young adults," he writes, athletic departments exist to "make a buck. Point. Period. Amen. And they do this best by winning, so naturally, they want to win. They foam at the mouth to win. (Please note here that people don't follow big-time football per se; they follow big-time winners. Whenever somebody says, 'God, I love Nebraska's football,' what they really mean is 'God, I love Nebraska's won-loss record.')" By contrast, the schools surrounding athletic departments have pesky rules and regulations about "eligibility, class attendance, progress toward a degree, ethics and the like," all of which are either irrelevant or detrimental to on-field victory.
Now: When Michigan hired former Domino's Pizza CEO David Brandon to be its athletic director, it was not because the pizza chain regularly produced Nobel Prize and PEN/Faulkner award winners.
Change: Negligible. Telander is essentially describing the fundamental contradiction of American college sports, a horse that left the barn back when public transportation consisted of, well, barns and horses.
Then: When the NCAA placed the Oklahoma football program on three years of probation in the late 1980s, it wasn't because players were involved in a shooting, an alleged rape and drug-dealing -- highlighted by quarterback Charles Thompson being videotaped selling $1,400 of cocaine to an undercover narcotics agent -- but rather because of what Telander describes as "a bidding war" for a highly-recruited high school player and the purchase of "a round-trip airline ticket at a travel agency in Norman on the same day [another] player asked for a ticket in order to travel home for his grandmother's funeral."
Now: The NCAA's 400-plus-page manual mentions the word meals more than 70 times, and the word concussions three times.
Change: Thanks to the advent of the Internet, said NCAA manual is now available online. So at least fewer trees are being harmed.
Then: Telander mocks the Cult of the Coach, particularly "the fraud of the big-time football coach as a teacher of young men." Case in point? A few months after Notre Dame won the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, then-coach Lou Holtz was featured in a five-page Volkswagen Time magazine advertorial. In a 1,000-word "Letter to the Next Generation" that dealt "not with football but the status of the American family and the proper way to raise children," Holtz wrote, "as I write this, I am thinking you will look back at our generation and refer to our times as the 'dark ages,' since the strength of a society is not found in the comforts of living but in its values, meals and concern for its fellow man." Now go beat USC!
Now: Advertorial letters are for losers. The real sports motivational money is in speeches and books. How good do you want to be?
Change: We've moved from the coach as teacher of young men to the coach as Corporate America performance whisperer. And maybe that counts as progress. Maybe?
Then: Telander describes a college football universe that largely functions as an advertising platform. "Corporate sponsorship makes the bowl games sound like objects from the mergers and acquisitions section of the business page -- the Mobil Corporation Cotton Bowl, the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, the John Hancock Sun Bowl, the Sea World Holiday Bowl, the USF&G Sugar Bowl, the Mazda Gator Bowl," he writes. "Not that there's anything wrong with corporations -- universities themselves are really nothing but corporations trying to make a go of it -- but outside funding only makes it that much ease to sell out a little more, to give up a tad more integrity the next time around. Can corporate sponsorship of athletic dorms, double sessions, ankle-taping and picture day be far behind?"
Now: The Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl is a thing. Oh, and ankle-taping in college football is, in fact, an area of significant corporate concern: according to USA TODAY Sports reporter Rachel Axon, the major school shoe suppliers -- Nike, Adidas and Under Armour -- limit or forbid players from taping their ankles and feet in a way that covers the logos on their footwear, even when medically necessary.
Change: Yes, but only in the way Telander predicted. Dorm sponsorship in particular seems like a no-brainer. Your move, Texas.
Command and Control
Then: While working on an Oklahoma football story for Sports Illustrated, Telander discovers that the school's football players had "more mandatory tutoring sessions, study halls and paid graduate assistants to walk them to class (the g.a.'s lead the players to the buildings and, according to [then head coach Barry] Switzer, 'eyeball' them into the classrooms) than any group of college students should have." As a result? "It was no longer clear," Telander writes, "whether the athletes are pampered royalty or well-attended prisoners who must perform for their keepers."
Now: According to a 2012 report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ohio State "strongly encourages" student athletes to obtain bank accounts with the help of school officials, who in turn set budgets and keep an eye on spending. In fact, football players reportedly aren't even allowed to suit up unless they agree to let assistant coaches snoop on their personal finances. Moreover, more than a dozen schools -- including North Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas Tech and Auburn -- reportedly have hired independent watchdog companies to provide and maintain software that spies on athletes' social media accounts.
Change: Getting worse. Though as far as we know, schools like Ohio State are not working with the National Security Agency. As far as we know.
Then: Telander describes athletic departments as existing "solely to promote themselves. Like flatworms, they have the genetic mandate to enlarge … the TV money rolls into the athletic departments, and the athletic departments continue to complain about how overworked and underfunded they are. In a way, that are underfunded, but that's only because they spend whatever come in and then increase their own budgets so that they can continue to, as athletic directors say, 'stay competitive with the other schools.' In other words, continue to win." He also directs his ire at self-justifying college sports administrators who insist that big-time football players cannot be paid because their sport provides funding for things like swimming and women's lacrosse.
"That in itself is crazy," Telander writes. "If sports are of value at all to the university, they should no more have to support themselves than, say, the math department should. Making the football team pay its lesser brethren's way only justifies the athletic director's bleatings about how poor he is. It also provides the school with an excuse to turn the athletic department over to corporate types."
Now: The more money in the system, the bigger the tapeworm gets. Think Dune. Football coaches make millions. Athletic directors at FBS schools are paid an average of $515,000 annually. Kentucky boasts a $7 million basketball dormitory that provides players with a private chef. BCS schools spend an average of roughly $350,000 more per team on non-revenue sports than schools without big-time football. A few years ago, Ohio State's athletic department had 458 employees -- about double the school's English department, and 10 less than the White House in 2012.
But still: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany recently claimed that if his conference had to pay football players a competitive wage, it likely would drop out of Division I altogether. O-kay!
Change: Not a whit.
Then: Do as we say. Not as we do. Such is the core principle of the amateur college sports economy. The one in which everyone involved is free to profit except the actual labor force. The one that Telander spends dozens of pages deconstructing. "Remember, too," he writes, "that the players see what is going on. They see the full stands. They see the TV cameras, the souvenirs, the rich alums, the cash registers … they sense intuitively that something unjust is going on."
What happens when they witness such injustice, year after year, gleefully practiced by adults and authority figures? Telander quotes Thomas Tulko, then a professor of sports psychology at San Jose State: "You can't blame the athlete when he sees the whole world cheating. That seems to be the ethos in our society today: 'Can I get away with it?' is the question. Athletes don't feel that they're doing anything wrong."
Now: Last month, Oregon suspended basketball players Dominic Artis and Ben Carter for selling team gear. Meanwhile, $1.35 million of Oregon basketball coach Dana Altman's $1.8 million annual salary comes not from the school but from Nike, in exchange for complying with apparel and shoe deals. I could go on, but for additional examples, you're better off just Googling "NCAA" and "hypocrisy." See you in a few weeks.
Change: Worse all the time, and threatens to achieve a singularity every time NCAA president Mark Emmert opens his mouth. And speaking of a can I get away with it? ethos: Is it any wonder that Wall Street loves to hire ex-college jocks?
Then: Telander notes that football coach Dennis Erickson took a job at the Miami two days after saying, "I'm staying at Washington State."
Now: Two weeks after publicly declaring "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach," former Miami Dolphins coach Saban stepped off an airplane and onto the tarmac of the Tuscaloosa airport to cheers of "Roll Tide!"
Change: Who knows? It all depends on the size of the buyout clause.
Then: Public pearl-clutching. During the trial of Walters and Bloom trial, former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler testified that when he found out that one of his star players had taken money from Walters, he told the player he was "a disgrace to Michigan football. His locker was close and his picture was taken off the wall."
Now: Public pearl-clutching. In a statement released last September, the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors proclaimed that "pay for play has no part in the amateur setting."
Change: None. As always, pay for play is wrong. Except when it isn't. To wit: Owen Good of Kotaku points out that the same NCAA that is vehemently opposed to college football players being paid to have their likenesses used in a video game -- estimated value: about $300 per player -- is perfectly content with bowl games giving out player gift bags containing goodies often worth more than $300, including PlayStation 4 video game consoles. Not that Telander would find this surprising. "The fact that there are no real rules for defining an amateur makes the power wielded by the universities and their mouthpiece, the NCAA, awesome," he writes. "This is a wonderful situation for the universities because they can wash their hands of any problems that arise from their inherently corrupt and immortal amateur sports system just by saying that whatever happened was against the rules. Whose rules? Their rules!"
Then: Oklahoma State team physician Don Cooper tells Telander that the football helmet is the "damnedest, meanest tool on the face of the Earth." Telander worries that helmets have become weapons, the "rock-hard spear points" at the tip of most tackles. He also cites a description of tackling given by one of former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes' assistants during a 1966 course called "The Coaching of Football":
We don't like to see a kid making a tackle like he is trying to HUG the man down. We want to give him cancer of the breast by knocking his titty off. We want to knock his anus up through his HAID.
Now: In an effort to reduce brain damage, college football is cracking down on helmet-to-helmet hits; meanwhile, football at all levels is preaching "safe," "Heads Up" tacking that basically amounts to hugging the other guy down.
Change: From a public relations standpoint? Pretty major. From an actual on-field standpoint? Pretty minor. Football is a violent game. Tackling is a violent activity. And so long as (a) the head is connected to the shoulders; (b) giving another man "cancer of the breast" involves getting lower than him to achieve superior physical leverage, "safe tackling" will remain a myth.
Then: Big-time college football's raison d'être? Simple, Telander writes. It's "entertainment for anybody who needs something to keep him amused in the fall." And that's it.
Now: All of the above, plus acting as reliable, malleable programming inventory for ESPN and other sports networks to sell advertising against while collecting lucrative pay television channel subscriber fees from scads of people who couldn't care less about Auburn-Alabama.
Change: Pretty substantial. Major college football is now something almost every American household pays for, whether they're entertained or not.
Then: Near the end of his book, Telander proposes a Great Schism, a way to solve college football's ills by cleaving the sport into two separate entitles:
1. The "Age Group Professional Football League," a continuation of big-time football in which teams are partially subsidized by the NFL and use school mascots, colors and facilities. Players are 18-22 years old and paid a reasonable wage. They need not be college students, but will receive one free year of tuition for every year of playing in the league -- redeemable at any time, provided said players can pass university entrance exams and requirements.
2. "College Football," a devolution into something that looks much more like Division III sports, or maybe glorified intramurals. Teams cannot charge admission or make money. Coaching staffs are limited to four people, all coaches must be tenure-eligible university professors, and none can sign endorsement deals. No spring practice. No freshman eligibility. No athletic dorms. No scholarships. Seasons no longer than eight games. Teams remain under regular university control, as opposed to quasi-independent corporations.
Now: Big time football conferences and athletic administrators recently have grumbled about forming their own NCAA division -- but mostly to make their own rules (and keep all of the money they make) without small school interference, and not because they want to pay players or encourage academic honesty.
Change: The sport is moving toward an explicitly bifurcated model, but not quite the one Telander had in mind.
Then: While former Tennessee football star Reggie White predicts that players will eventually go on strike in order to be paid, Telander isn't so sure, writing that "college players are just kids who have been taught to respect adults, and nobody wants to jeopardize a budding career by making himself a martyr."
Now: No strikes so far, despite the agitating of yours truly. However, a group of college football players dubbing themselves "All Players United" did stage a small-scale, highly-visible, first-of-its-kind on-field protest this season, perhaps foreshadowing something bigger.
Change: Glacially slow. But not frozen.
Then: Telander quotes Trope, who says that college athletes ought to be able to sign with agents and financial advisors while still in school because the assumption that schools are looking out for their best interests is "a false theory." How so? Schools don't provide worker's compensation insurance, nor any kind of insurance against a loss of future earnings due to injury.
Now: College football players with obvious NFL potential can sometimes obtain future earnings injury insurance. But as for athletes who are injured in school? Forget about worker's comp, or any kind of health insurance at all.
Change: Minimal. The NCAA and its member schools originally created the term "student-athlete" specifically to avoid paying costly college football worker's comp claims. Why would they suddenly have a change of heart?
Then: Football is a violent, dangerous, brutal game. Participants are maimed, paralyzed and occasionally killed. Should colleges -- which exist to nurture and protect young people -- be sanctioning and sponsoring that kind of student activity? Telander notes that in order to frame (and essentially win) any debate, college coaches and administrators rely on the same rhetorical strategy: "Just tell everyone that football builds better men, and right away you've silenced all but your most effete critics."
Now: In an ABC News report on football-induced brain damage -- including the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- Georgia coach Mark Richt said that "I think we're quite frankly getting fairly soft in this country. I think our kids are soft. I don't think they're very tough." CTE? Man up, wussies!
Change: About the same. Football still considered an incubator of hardy manliness; by contrast, repeat car crashes are simply an incubator of higher insurance premiums. Go figure.
Then: Telander hangs out with 6-foot-6, 320-pound Michigan State offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, a man-mauling future NFL draft bust who is touted on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Incredible Bulk." The author quickly realizes that Mandarich is juiced to the gills, then frets about the rapidly increasing size of football players across the board. Thanks in part to steroids, he writes, the game of football as we know it has become unplayable.
Now: In 2012, the average offensive lineman at Utah weighed 328 pounds.
Change: Has performance-enhancing drug use in any sport decreased over the last quarter-century?
Then: In 1988, 104 Division I-A football teams generated more than $500 million through gate, television and licensing revenue. The Rose Bowl paid $6 million per team. Then-Texas A&M coach Jackie Sherrill was paid $684,000, and also received the use of a car and a country club membership.
Now: In 2011-2012, the Texas football team reportedly brought in $103.8 million of revenue all by itself. Rose Bowl payouts were $18 million. This year, Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman was paid $800,000.
Change: Up, up and away! Expect more inflation next year, when the new college football playoff means the FBS conference schools will collect an average of $470 million annually over the next 12 years.
Then: Telander argues that the sport often teaches the wrong values -- ones that are good for winning football games, but not particularly useful for functioning in society at large. "Notions about trying hard and self-sacrifice and working toward a common goal with teammates are nice enough concepts," he writes. "But much of the football rhetoric doled out by coaches is nothing but third-rate psychological pap sprinkled with clichés that have only the slightest basis in everyday life. Slogans that are useful in a primitive game like football -- never surrender, the most aggressive player wins, intimidation earns respect -- can be downright harmful in normal society where restraint, compromise and cooperation are more typical ways of moving forward in the daily game."
Now: Saban recently told 60 Minutes that "mediocre people don't like high achievers and high achievers don't like mediocre people." Kumbaya, y'all.
Change: Very little. On the other hand, society has changed a great deal since 1989, becoming more individualized and insecure, competitive and cutthroat, unequal and unempathetic. Perhaps college football is teaching the right values, after all.
Then: Telander insists that the NCAA can "never bring integrity" to college football, because it was never created to do so. Instead, he writes, the NCAA exists for four contrary purposes:
1. To establish on-field rules;
2. To act as a cartel for economic bargaining purposes;
3. To deal with outside forces like the NFL;
4. To serve as a public relations outlet, devoted to noble-sounding declarations about the righteous qualities of its member institutions.
"Let me tell you how I feel on a very primitive, visceral level about the NCAA," Telander writes. "I hate it … I see the NCAA's leaders as a bunch of know-nothing, self-righteous stuffed shirts who are willing to do just enough labor to keep the organization running forever."
Now: See "Then."
Change: See "Now."
The More Things Change
Then: During a conversation with Penn State sports historian Ronald Smith, Telander asks why the hypocrisies of college football are tolerated. Smith replies that society wants football, and "maybe even needs it." Telander says he hopes his book will make the public reevaluate what it wants. Smith chuckles. "If you think you're going to change things," he says, "I doubt it."
Now: Alabama's 49-42 victory over Texas A&M earlier this season earned the highest ratings for a CBS regular season college football game in 23 years.
Change: None. The only thing more predictable than college football's litany of sins is people continuing to watch it.
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