Sunday, December 2, 2012

Defending Cecil Newton


Since when did a pastor looking out for his wayward son become the biggest villain in college sports?

After admitting to soliciting money from SEC programs recruiting his son, Cecil Newton has been at the epicenter of media speculation and tabloid rumors. In an article for the AP, which usually tries to stay studiously objective, Tim Dahlberg thundered that he “peddled his son like a piece of meat.”

The coach whose program had a 0% graduation rate? The grown men who act as “father figures” to impressionable teenagers and then abandon them when they don’t realize their athletic potential? The bowl administrators who pay themselves extravagant salaries while operating under the guise of a charity? The list of morally dubious characters involved in college athletics is a mile long. And if we’re going to be honest, Cecil Newton isn’t too high up on it.

The only difference between him and hundreds of others is that he got caught. After the NCAA declared Cam Newton eligible to play in the SEC championship game on Saturday, the internet erupted in outrage.

Bryan Fischer, who has worked for Yahoo! and Rivals tweeted:
As bad a precedent as this sets in football, think about repercussions in bball. Scary w/ runners, AAU coaches, etc. doing same thing. 
Over at Barking Carnival, there were over 70 comments, many just outraged that the NCAA would let such behavior go unpunished. A frequently stated opinion was that this was a way to keep TCU out of the BCS championship game.

The most common concern was summed up by Scipio Tex, who worried that “if you don’t punish families selling players, then you’re basically declaring an open bidding war.”

I don’t know where everyone’s been the last 10 years, but that’s already happened. Cecil Newton isn’t the first, and he won’t be the last, parent to cash in on his son’s athletic talents.

The quid-pro-quo is out in the open and it has been for years. A lot of it isn’t even hidden. You just have to know where to look.

The matter of fact reaction of Sonny Vaccaro, one of the architects of the summer AAU basketball culture that has completely overwhelmed the world of college basketball recruiting, to the Cam Newton controversy was telling.
“The kids never know. In all my years, I’ve never heard of a kid being involved in the negotiation. You think they ask? Of course not. Their mom asks. Their coach asks. Their cousin asks.”
In 2000, Chris Duhon, a McDonald’s All-American point guard and a Louisiana native, moved out to Durham to play basketball for the Duke Blue Devils. But he didn’t come alone. His mom came with him, and she quickly found a job working for a prominent booster of the Duke basketball team. It was a position created specifically for her, and many of her fellow employees felt she was overpaid and under-qualified for it.

The beauty of it is that I’m sure Coach K never discussed any such possibility with her. One of his assistants probably suggested that she could follow her son across the country, that a woman with her qualifications would have no problem finding work in the Research Triangle. Someone affiliated with the program floated her resume in his social network and it was done.

And there’s nothing the NCAA, or anyone else, can do about it. That’s how the majority of people get hired anyway — from recommendations by people they know. How can you punish a kid for something his parent did? And why should having an athletic son preclude someone from getting a job in a completely unrelated field?

The only person who knows why Vivian Harper (Duhon’s mother) was hired by NCM Capital Management is Maceo Sloan, the company’s CEO. And Sloan, a Duke booster who displays a basketball signed by the 1991 championship team on his desk, has no reason to talk about it.

Then there’s Ronnie Chalmers, the father of Mario Chalmers who was hired as the University of Kansas’ Director of Basketball Operations the same year his son, who hailed from Alaska, signed with a team in the middle of the Great Plains thousands of miles away from home. Of course, once Mario took his talents to the NBA and South Beach, his father had no interest in living in Lawrence anymore.

Rumors of college players driving around in luxury cars registered to other people have probably been around as long as the game itself. The only reason that USC’s Joe McKnight got caught was that he was silly enough to drive around a car actually registered to an agent.

When people hear about these stories, their initial reaction is to blame the individual schools, the coaches or the families. But Cecil Newton and Vivian Harper and Ronnie Chalmers aren’t “pimping out” their kids, they are protecting them.

Nothing in this life is guaranteed. Just ask Tyrone Prothro, Alabama’s stand-out receiver whose career was ended in gruesome fashion during a nationally televised game against Florida in 2005. The Crimson Tide were in the running for the national title that season, but without Prothro’s game-breaking abilities, they eventually fell to LSU and Auburn. In a very real sense, Prothro was worth millions upon millions of dollars to the Alabama football program, if you consider how much money the school would have made if they made the BCS Championship Game.

And what would Prothro have gotten out of it? A twenty-five thousand dollar scholarship?

Football is a brutal game, the long-term effects of which are still being discovered. The 228 rushing attempts Cam Newton took this year? In all likelihood, those are taking years off his life. Texas fans only have to look at the ravaged body of Earl Campbell to know the toll football takes.

Sure Cam Newton will probably make millions of dollars in the NFL next year. But what if he shatters his knee next weekend? Tyrone Prothro works as a bank teller in Birmingham. Many of these kids have a chance to lift their families out of a cycle of poverty that goes back generations. It’d be crazy not to have some financial protection.
Or as John Calipari always tells his players, “If you want to do what is best for me and my family, you will stay [in school]; if you want to do what is best for you and your family, you will go pro”.
When I came to my first NFL camp, it was like I was a tall, cold can of beer. They popped the top, and all that energy and desire and ability poured out. I gave of myself with the same passion that I had in high school and college. When I was empty, when I had no more to give, they just crumpled me up and threw me on the garbage heap. Then they grabbed another new can and popped him open, and he flowed out until he was empty. –CURT MARSH, NFL lineman 1981-86, to Sports Illustrated 
Most fans, understandably, don’t have too much sympathy for college athletes, not when they are taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans while the athletes get scholarships. They’ll tell you that what these players do in the classroom is all the financial protection they need.

And in an ideal world, more athletes would be like Texas’ Sammy Acho, graduating with a 3.6 GPA and a double major in business honors and marketing. But Acho’s background, being raised in a stable household by two professionally employed parents and attending one of the most exclusive preparatory schools in the entire country for most of his life, is hardly representative of the typical college player.

At the University of Texas, my alma-mater, many freshmen come into college woefully unprepared for the academic workload. I worked as a writing consultant for the Undergraduate Writing Center, where I helped students work on their papers and tutored them on the writing process. Their ignorance of basic grammar was stunning; I found myself explaining the difference between “subjects” and “verbs” to bewildered freshmen at least a few times a month. The explosion of similar facilities across the country shows that this is hardly an isolated trend.

And in general, most athletes are even worse-prepared than their peers. Many would not have been admitted to a selective university like UT without athletics. And while the book is slightly hysterical and filled with hyperbole and gross exaggerations, the anti-intellectual culture of big-time athletics described by Tom Wolfe in his 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons has more than a bit of truth it.

Here’s a scene where the stereotypical jock basketball player (JoJo Johanssen) tells his coach he is interested in taking a more challenging class (an upper-level philosophy course called “Age of Socrates”), and not one of the entry-level classes taught by “friends of the program” that big-time athletes are so often shuttled into.

I can easily see someone like Nick Saban giving a variation of this speech, though with far more subtlety, as Wolfe is using artistic license to make explicit one of the underlying tensions of big-time college athletics: 

“The Age of Socrates … You simpleminded s***, I got news for you … You got any f****** idea what I mean? YOU GOTTA MAKE IT RIGHT OVER THERE!” [The coach] thrust his right forefinger in the general direction of the basketball arena so hard, his whole shoulder and upper torso jerked. “AND YOU GOTTA MAKE IT THIS YEAR! — OR YOUR ASS IS F*****!  
The Age of Socrates … YOU’RE HERE TO DO THINGS WITH A ROUND ORANGE BALL!” He made a basketball shape with his hands — “THAT”S THE ONLY F****** AGE YOU GOT TO THINK ABOUT!” 
 Men’s football and basketball coaches are CEO’s of multi-million dollar operations under intense pressure to maximize revenue streams needed to fund the rest of the athletic department. I’m sure the vast majority of them would love to make an impact in their players’ lives beyond the sport, but the cruel reality, as Randy Shannon found out last week in Miami, is that only one thing matters if they want to keep their job.

Royce Waltman, after he was fired from his job as the men’s basketball coach at Indiana State University, summed up the dilemma of his profession perfectly:
“If you get fired for cheating, you can get hired right back again,” he said. “If you get fired for losing, it’s like you’ve got leprosy, so young coaches need to bear that in mind. Cheating and not graduating players will not get you in trouble, but that damn losing…” 
Waltman, who had a career record of 134-164 (.450) at Indiana State, is now an assistant high school basketball coach. It took Tim Floyd, fresh out of being run out of USC after allegedly giving a brief-case full of cash to an associate of OJ Mayo’s, less than a year to find a new job at UTEP.

So while coaches would love to have a team full of students with the intellectual curiosity and the drive of a Sam Acho, their incentives run in the opposite direction: find players totally dedicated to the sport, willing to work on their own to get around the flimsy NCAA regulations about practice time in-season.

The players know the deal too. They don’t get four-year scholarships; they get one-year offers that the coach can choose to roll-over to the next year.

Like any other business, college athletics is a ruthlessly capitalistic organization where no one is indispensable. And while the NFL at least has valid reasons (the overwhelming jump in physicality from high school to the pros) to make high school players wait three years before they can declare for the draft, the NBA has never pretended that its age limit is anything but an economic decision.

David Stern has long made it clear that he wants to expand the age limit to two years. For the player’s union, composed entirely of currrent players who would keep their jobs by artificially increasing the barriers for entry, that’s a pretty easy bargaining chip to give away in what are sure to be contentious labor negotiations.

One economist concluded that the current CBA results in young basketball players (who have set salaries for the first five years of their career) giving their older counterparts $200 million a year because their interests are not being represented in the talks.

So when faced with a system that makes them sacrifice their bodies and risk their careers to generate hundreds of millions of dollars they will never see while simultaneously preventing them from receiving the full value of their education, it shouldn’t be surprising that players, and their families, are looking for alternate streams of revenue.

If Cecil Newton did anything wrong, it was in asking too little. His son, a lock to win the 76th Heisman trophy, has had one of the greatest statistical seasons in the history of the NCAA and has brought Auburn, only two years removed from a wildly controversial coaching hire questioned by nearly everyone in the sport, to the brink of a national championship.

That, and the millions of dollars his son is risking every time he steps on the field, has got to be worth more than $200,000.

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