Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

University of Miami’s football program lives a charmed life

The recent controversies over the University of Miami’s football program just go to show that, when it comes to sports, there are many in high authority who have a gigantic blind spot.

Revelations from an incarcerated Ponzi scammer that he pretty much had his way with the football program and the college show that, like many colleges today, UM is a football program with a college attached to it.

That’s nothing new. I recently read a book about the University of Washington’s football program in which the final paragraph refers to a scene in a 1927 silent film called “The Freshman.” The film stars Harold Lloyd as a young man who takes to the gridiron to impress a girl at Tate University, described derisively as a giant football stadium with a small college attached to it.

Nothing changes.

Probably the biggest joke out there, aside from Donna Shalala’s vapid nonsense about the whole issue (I mean, she’s in photos taking big cardboard checks from the scammer, so she must have known about it), is the NCAA. Whenever there is talk about a program that’s made a mockery of the rules, someone says it’s time for the NCAA to wheel out the “death penalty.” Killing a football program – even temporarily — is a big step, and would probably benefit the universities that lost their programs, but the NCAA’s leadership lacks the balls to do it.

After all, the Southern Methodist University “death penalty” was about a quarter-century ago, and the NCAA knows that even “dirty” sports programs can offer great benefits. Universities wallow in the illusion that the actions they take will clean up their reputations, even though everyone knows it’s bogus.

Let’s face it, the main priority of any university football program is to win, and win by any means, fair or foul. Only a few colleges actually take seriously the notion of football (and basketball) players as students as well as athletes; the rest just pay lip service to the concept and really don’t care if the players take classes beyond basket weaving or something.

That book about UW that I mentioned earlier pointed out that it was not even considered odd by many that the entire football team took and passed Swahili with high grades, yet none of them could say more than a few basic sentences in the language. It was obvious that the professor was passing the players without imparting any knowledge, but the administration didn’t care.

An integral part of the university when it comes to sports is suppressing and silencing the whistleblowers, and keeping those who’d foolishly think they ought to report violations from doing so through threats to livelihood and even physical threats. There’s a lot at stake when a university fields a football team, and when players are mostly majoring in eligibility one person can be a real problem if he or she goes to the news media with absurd complaints about “gimme” courses and free grades despite nonattendance at classes.

There’s a saying among the college presidents that “real colleges do football,” but that’s arrant nonsense, as many colleges either never had the sport or dumped it because of the cost of fielding a team, in financial resources and in credibility and reputation. Having an English major go on a rampage isn’t going to hurt a college the way having an athlete go on a rampage would.

For decades, the NCAA has vowed to make college sports departments obey the rules, and for decades, college sports departments have found ways around the rules. Eligibility is a joke today, and everyone knows it. A few “student-athletes” actually try to get an education and enjoy the benefits of higher education, but when the NFL and NBA – with their gigantic contracts – beckon, it can be hard for even the most determined student to knuckle down with the books between practices and games.

There’s an old saying about a famous football coach who declared to a group of parents that “football is war.” Then a man who was missing an arm, having lost it in World War II, informed the coach that football was not war.

I have always believed that being defeated on the playing field can impart more lessons than winning, but I have watched as even high schools engage in countless offenses to score more points. I understand that if you are a winning coach, a player on a winning team or even a student at a college that has won a game, you feel good about being associated with winning and everyone wants to talk to you and pray with you and hear about your guide for living, but defeat isn’t the end of the world.

At the end of all this, Miami’s program will continue until the next atrocity. There will be a patina of reform, but it’s the same game and the same temptations are there. You can’t stop it, and neither can I or anyone else. It is an empire unto itself, with no accountability and no restraints. The sooner we all accept that, the better.

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August 19, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time for colleges to dump football?

With the big controversy over Jim Tressel and his performance at Ohio State University, and the behavior of his football players at the college, it’s time for colleges to consider what might be seen as unthinkable: Eliminating football.

There are plenty of other sports that can bring the name of a college forward. Granted, football is a marquee sport, like basketball, but when a team becomes a liability and starts to hurt a college’s reputation, something clearly has to be done.

In recent research, I found that the biggest reason colleges gave for eliminating football from their sports program was money. For example, Hofstra University on Long Island ended its Division II-A football program in the late 2000s for that reason. I’ve read of other colleges, also mostly in the low, non-scholarship divisions, that decided football was a non-starter.

It might seem I’m picking on football because I’m not suggesting that basketball be eliminated. There are plenty of dirty basketball programs, but the staggering size of the football program at many Division I colleges makes the other programs look like rounding errors on a balance sheet. The National Football League and the National Basketball Association both use the colleges as their “minor leagues,” though there is NFL-Europe and the NBA’s development league that are kind of minor leagues. Still, the major focus is on the college teams and they are the main pathways to the pros. The development leagues seem to be for injured and washed-up players whose best days – if they ever had best days – are behind them.

In baseball, players are signed out of college but often end up in a team’s farm system, not in the major leagues – unless the player has absolutely awesome talent.

Unless the NFL is ready to pony up cash to keep the colleges’ football programs going, I am sure that in the current economic climate, a lot of colleges are going to decide to end football.

I was somewhat present at the creation of Florida Atlantic University’s football program. Near the end of my time as a student there in the mid-1990s, there was much talk about the “need” for a program, and the old saw that “real colleges do football” was thrown around by the president of the college. I could point to plenty of “real” colleges that did not have football, but the president was insistent that football could do plenty for FAU.

The cost estimates were staggering, though, and naturally the local pro football team wasn’t about to pay more to help out. When FAU finally got a college football team, it was in Division III, with dreams of moving up, and in its first game, nearly half the team was ruled academically ineligible.

Anyone who criticized the college for deciding that it needed to be a “real” college and have a football team was deemed an obstructor of the holy goal. Then-president Anthony Catanese was determined to have a team, it was said, so he could then build a stadium and strong-arm donors in the luxury box as FAU played Notre Dame.

Well, right after FAU got the team, Catanese split for the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, and his departure was marred by the infamous red Corvette controversy, in which an assistant in the college’s foundation managed to purchase a Corvette for him through donations to the foundation. It’s a long, boring story.

In any case, FAU had a football team and the head of the search committee for the head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, managed to find himself to be the coach. The leader of one of the dirtiest football programs ever, at the University of Miami, became the head of the newest program.

FAU is close to having its stadium and has had the usual array of issues with its program, though nothing on the level of Ohio State.

But as noted in a recent article in The New York Times, colleges and universities are adept at gaming the system and cheating. A piece on Title IX noted that in an effort to inflate the number of women athletes, some women are counted two or three times if they are on one team, and men who practice with the women’s teams are counted as women even though they don’t play.

The lesson for all of us is that if there is a way to cheat, American college programs and athletic staffers will find a way to cheat, even if they don’t get away with it and are severely punished for doing so.

Years ago, I read about one college whose leader finally had had enough. The teams weren’t competitive with other colleges and the pressure to win was enormous, so the president ended sports and used the money to create intramural sports at the college: men’s and women’s softball, soccer, flag football, etc. The result was that participation in sports went up, the pressure to spend more and more to win was eliminated and the college saved a lot of money – and its reputation.

This should happen at public colleges, and even in the K-12 system. It will save taxpayer money and provide sports experiences to a wider variety of students. Private leagues could be started for those who wish to play more competitively in football and basketball, and the professional sports teams could be persuaded or forced to fund them as their minor leagues.

The current system is clearly not working and easily corrupted. That Tressel continued for so long in his lying, deceitful and corrupt ways is a clear sign that college sports is irretrievably broken. If the rules cease to matter, what’s the lesson for the rest of us?

June 5, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment