Is the NCAA Knocking Down the Gods of College Sports?

Jim Calhoun, AP Photo/John Gay

Liam Day hopes the NCAA’s new regulations will help prioritize students’ futures over the wealth of the universities’ sports programs. 

The 2012-2013 college basketball season has officially begun, the first games tipping off Friday. Among the marquee matchups was Michigan State vs. the University of Connecticut, played at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the first ever regular season college basketball game played on European soil.

The game’s location was, however, not the only reason for its interest. It also marked the dawn of a new era at UConn, whose longtime coach, Jim Calhoun, retired in September.

Jim Calhoun spent 26 seasons as head coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of Connecticut. During his tenure he compiled 618 wins and three national championships. Recently, though, the program he ran also earned other, more dubious distinctions. Calhoun served a three-game suspension in his final season as coach for violations of NCAA rules and the school was stripped of the victories it earned in the 1996 NCAA tournament.

More importantly, both for the young men failing to get the educations that are the ostensible reasons why they attend college and for the immediate future of the men’s basketball program, the team will be barred from competing in the NCAA tournament at the end of this season for poor academic performance.

The University of Connecticut graduates just 11% of its men’s basketball players. The math translates to 1 player in 9…only Chicago State graduates a lower percentage of its players.

You see, the University of Connecticut graduates just 11% of its men’s basketball players. The math translates to 1 player in 9. Of course, UConn being what it is, a fair percentage of the 8 who don’t graduate will go on to play professional basketball somewhere, either here in the NBA or in one of the many professional and semi-professional leagues around the world. Still, only Chicago State graduates a lower percentage of its players.

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The NCAA mandated the publication of graduation rates beginning in 1990. Apparently, public embarrassment wasn’t enough, though, because during the next decade and a half graduation rates among Division 1 football and men’s basketball programs remained abysmally low. In 2004, then, it decided to create what it calls an Academic Progress Rate. Teams failing to meet APR would be penalized, the penalties increasing in harshness the longer the program failed to meet it. The 2008-2009 season was the first in which a post-season ban was included among the possible penalties.

To date, UConn is the highest profile program to be barred from post-season competition for failing to make APR and one wonders whether this factor was among those Jim Calhoun considered when deciding to retire two months ago. Yes, he is 70 years old and has suffered from different and pretty significant health problems over the last few years, including cancer and a broken hip, but still, I imagine the competitive fires were doused somewhat when he learned there would be no championship to play for at the end of the season. All that would leave is the development—as players, people, and students—of the young men he had recruited to Storrs, Connecticut precisely so he could compete for a national championship.

I don’t mean to pick on Jim Calhoun, who began his college coaching career at Northeastern University in Boston, where I attended his basketball camp every summer. I remember him being a very nice man and what happened in the program he oversaw, or, as it turns out, failed to oversee in his last years as coach, is not unique to UConn. Yet the suspension Calhoun served last season was due to what the NCAA called a failure to create an atmosphere of compliance. In other words, he was failing to hold his assistants accountable for their actions. If the string of police reports (i.e. here and here) is any indication, he was also failing to hold his players accountable.

But it’s difficult to create accountability when, because of your coaching success, no one any longer dares hold you accountable and you yourself begin to believe you’re beyond such petty considerations. Like a lot of football and basketball coaches at public universities in other states across the country, Jim Calhoun was, before he retired, the highest paid public employee in Connecticut, and not by a small margin. When asked by a reporter in 2009 whether he would consider returning any of his $1.6 million annual salary to a state facing a budget deficit, he exploded at the reporter, asking him whether he was really that stupid and telling him to shut up. The video, which can be found here, shows a man not used to being questioned and the justification he ultimately falls back on to defend his salary, that the men’s basketball program brings $12 million into the University, is itself indicative of what happens when what should be an extracurricular pursuit becomes big business.

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The idolization of football and basketball coaches is a dangerous phenomenon, especially when millions of dollars in revenue schools and even entire states come to rely on are involved. In its most perverse form it can lead to turning a blind eye to heinous crimes, as it did at Penn State, where the university had, quite literally, by erecting a statue in Joe Paterno’s honor, made an idol out of the man. In the glow of Coach Paterno’s reflected glory and the $59 million the football program was estimated to have pumped into the Pennsylvania economy every home game, it was easy to lose sight of what mattered most, or, at least, should have mattered the most, namely protecting the children who were being sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky.

At least Penn State and UConn have excuses, though I have not fact-checked Jim Calhoun’s claim that his team generated $12 million in revenue for the University. I will take his word for it. The school he represented for 26 years and the one Joe Paterno represented for more than 40 made money. As I’ve written before on The Good Men Project, most state universities don’t get the same return on investment, yet they continue to pour resources, including exorbitant coaches’ salaries, into their football and basketball programs. Despite starting the season 7-0 (they finally lost two weeks ago) and being ranked in the top 15 nationally, Rutgers University’s football team still struggled to attract attention or generate any revenue.

Of course, no one is about to pull the plug on big time college football or basketball. It would take a man as stubborn as the late John Silber, who, as president of Boston University, eliminated the school’s football team because it was a waste of resources, to attempt anything of the kind. (Though one is amused by the thought of what Silber might have wrought if he’d ever been selected to head up the NCAA.)

Still, the NCAA and the university presidents who make up its governing body recognize there’s a problem. Just this fall, they revised the penalty structure for recruiting violations, expanding the number of categories of violations from two to four, and making the penalties harsher. More significantly, head coaches can now be held responsible for the activities of their assistants. Before the new penalties were announced, it was too easy for head coaches, or, at least, as Andy Staples pointed out at Sports Illustrated, too easy for the head coaches who were smart enough not to micromanage their assistants, to create plausible deniability by erecting a wall of ignorance between them and the dirty work that is buying an 18-year old kid a new SUV because you desperately want him to come play for your team in order to justify your multi-million dollar salary.

Who knows if the new penalties will really change coaches’ behavior? A man like John Calipari, who has had not one, but two trips to the Final Four voided due to recruiting violations, is not about to become a paragon of virtue just because the NCAA turns the heat up slightly. The conversation about the proper roles football and basketball should play within a 21st-century university and the regulatory means necessary for defining those roles is one, I suspect, we will engage in for many years to come. Recent developments, including changes to the Academic Progress Rate and the new penalty structure, are, however, steps in the right direction.

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About Liam Day

Liam Day has been a youth worker, teacher, campaign manager, political pundit, communications director, and professional basketball player. His poems have appeared at Slow Trains Apt, and Wilderness House Literary Review. His op-eds and essays have appeared in Annalemma Stymie, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. He lives in Boston, where he works as a public health professional. He is the Sports Editor at The Good Men Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @LiamDay7.

Comments

  1. So tired of the attacks on Paterno. He graduated more kids than any of ‘em. http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/07/paternos-revenge-penn-state-football-is-no-1-in-academic-bowl/

    • So tired of so many of the Penn State fans who place a football program over rape victims. (Not that Penn State is unique in that regard.)

      So tired of the Penn State students who rioted not because a pedophile coach had been allowed to continue his dirty doings on their beloved campus, but because their little god JoePa had just been fired.

      So tired of the Penn State students who mocked the victims by turning the surname Sandusky into a verb, as attested to by the sister of one of the victims who had to put up with her classmates’ cruel remarks.

      So tired of the way one of the victims was treated at his high school after he had been outed by a coach there in whom he had confided. So tired of the grandmother of one of the Penn State players who walked up to the victim’s mother and in a sickening display of complete self-centeredness and a lack of empathy and compassion actually said to her face, “Now the football team is going to lose, and it’s all your son’s fault!” (Oh, really?) So tired of those of his classmates who held him responsible for the tarnishing of JoePa’s reputation and started bullying him so much that he had to drop out of the high school before he could complete his senior year. So tired of the lack of outrage on the part of Penn State football fans over what happened to this young man, who was victimized again — all in the name of Penn State football.

      So tired of all the Penn State students and football fans who rejected the findings of the Freeh report and moaned and groaned over a statue being taken down.

      So tired of all the football fans who have neither shame nor conscience. Winning is everything.

  2. The problem there Bill — and in all these other examples, like UConn — is money. “Winning” isn’t everything…MONEY is everything. Winning is what produces more money, and then the schools can use the money to subsidize academics and other athletics. (Men’s football, and in some cases basketball, essentially subsidize entire major athletic programs.)

    This isn’t a new thought of course — there are fantastic scientists and TED talks on how the need to promote competition uber alles is what drives the economic machine, and the economic machine “has” to keep going. (I don’t know if anyone has stopped to ask why, but that’s the thinking.)

    If you are speaking merely to the fan perspective, I’d suggest that many of the extremists (“fanatics”) haven’t actually thought about their relationships with these sports programs. Deriving pleasure or pain, producing violence and despair…these are unhealthy relationships. Dehumanize people for a uniform is an unproductive strategy.

    • Ben, your point is well made. The problem is that, more and more, due to the investments required to build a competitive program, particularly a competitive football program, schools are having to subsidize their athletic departments. In fact, only 10% of large public universities maintain an athletic department that turns a profit. The University of Maryland was forced to cut 8 sports due to a $17 million athletic department deficit.

  3. Yes, the spartan race does burn fat…when done right

Trackbacks

  1. [...] kick off the college basketball season, I wrote a piece about the danger of idolizing coaches. In honor of the NBA’s new season, I write about a topic [...]

  2. [...] second reason for the suit I’ve alluded to before on The Good Men Project. The Penn State football program is one of the state’s biggest economic [...]

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