The Real Concern in College Athletics
I really had no intention to write about college athletics, but last week I came upon an alarming statistic:
In the six years that Urban Meyer has been head football coach at the University of Florida, 27 different collegiate football players (or should I say student-athletes?) have been arrested, with a grand total of 30 arrests.
So while I get that the Reggie Bush-Heisman Trophy-USC-Pete Carroll story is interesting, sells papers, gets the clicks, calls into question USC's football history and starts the "Is USC a dirty program?" debate, I'm a bit more concerned and troubled by the statistic mentioned above.
Now, let me state a couple things before I dive on in:
- I have nothing against Coach Urban Meyer or the University of Florida. Unfortunately I know that many collegiate programs have a long list of student-athlete arrests. University of Florida is just a recent example.
- I'm not a compliance or NCAA expert, actually far from it, so if I state something ludicrous or untrue (or you just disagree), please call me out and educate me and the other readers in the comment section below.
The latest University of Florida arrest involves Chris Rainey, a starting wide receiver and punt returner, who was charged with aggravated stalking after he sent disturbing & threatening text messages to a female. While Rainey is currently suspended, there are reports that he will return to the team.
Fly across the US to Oregon.
Last off-season, University of Oregon star running back LaMichael James, who holds freshmen Pac-10 running records, was charged with menacing, attempted strangulation and assault. He pleaded guilty to the charges. University of Oregon athletic department’s response - 1 game suspension.
Now Oregon State redshirt lineman Tyler Thomas was found naked and intoxicated in a stranger's home and then when confronted by police, tried to tackle them as if they were Saturday opponents on the football field. Oregon State athletic department’s response - kicked off the team.
So it appears to me that if you're an on-the-field producer or star or "money maker" for collegiate athletes, you get looked upon in a more favorable light when getting in trouble with the legal system. If not, you're "the example." Now of course you won't find an NCAA representative or anyone associated with collegiate athletes to recognize that, but I think it's pretty obvious pattern.
But if I understand this correctly, if a collegiate athlete talks with agents and takes that sweet Hummer as a gift or gets a financial gift to help his poor family, he will most likely lose his ineligibility and cause the university/college & NCAA to review the athletics department, program, coaches, etc, which may then result with possible coaches' suspension, coaches' dismissal, loss of scholarships, removal of records, etc. On the other hand, if a student-athlete makes threats, attacks people or is publicly drunk, the university & athletics department either gives the collegiate athlete no punishment, a very very light one or kicks the collegiate athlete off the team and possibly out of the entire university system, while the athletic department and coaches escape punishments.
Now I understand that there is a difference between NCAA violations and society's legal system, but isn’t there something wrong with this picture? I don't know about you, but I'm a bit more concerned about the safety of others, as opposed to whether or not a collegiate athlete is talking with an agent about his future career. I’m not saying the latter is right, but my level of concern lies with the former.
Here are some additional insights:
- In Coach Meyer's press conference last week he remarked: “We do our best to win games. Dirty program? It’s not a dirty program. We follow the rules and some guys make mistakes and we’ve got to correct those mistakes. We follow the rules. We do it the right way at Florida and we have to do a better job with correcting some of the people making mistakes.” ... Now, University of Florida and their student-athletes may be following the rules of the NCAA, but I think there are some other (more important?) rules that aren't being followed all too well.
- If you look on the NCAA's website, there are words like integrity, education, excel, sportsmanship being thrown around. I went to my alma mater's athletic department’s website and I found the following statements:
"Our commitment is to complete development of Alumni whose athletic, academic and interpersonal skills have reached the highest level of maturity"
"We promote traditional values of honesty, integrity, commitment and hard work as the foundation of our reputation and continuing success."
"We respect each student as an individual and their personal welfare is our highest priority.”
"Our goal is to aid in the social preparation of young people for the diverse world they are about to enter."
Now I would imagine that most athletic departments and universities have the same or similar principles, however when we look at the operations and actions, it appears to me that the NCAA and most universities are more concerned about the eligibility of the athlete, as opposed to educating and preparing student-athletes to be professionals and maybe more importantly, successfully integrating into society. I think if this were truly the concern and mission, the NCAA and universities would impose certain standards and hold coaches, administrators and athletic departments (and student-athletes) responsible and accountable, similar to the way they do when an athlete is receiving gifts from an agent.
- How do you hold coaches, administrators & athletic departments accountable for unknowing actions that may be happening at 3:00 AM on Sunday? It’s not easy, but they're already being held accountable for student-athletes talking to agents at 10:00 PM after a game or accepting gifts. Certainly there would need to be a structure & repercussions set in place for coaches & departments. This leads me to my next point.
- Coach Meyer talks about correcting "those mistakes." But what does that truly mean? Is correcting done by punishing the student-athlete? And if so, why do those punishments vary from university to university and even within the university (star athlete vs. "the example"?) Or is it a different approach that involves education & prevention techniques? In my opinion, this "prevention" doesn't fall under the compliance departments, which seem to be already in overload with monitoring the abidance of NCAA & institutional rules. I would say this falls more along the lines of a team life coach or student-athlete development coach. A lot of universities will probably say their academic advisors serve in this capacity, but I think there needs to be dedicated & trained people to handle issues beyond academics and athletics. It's good to see that some universities, such as the University of Iowa, have already taken this approach. The seminars should be mandatory for all student-athletes as freshmen and continue throughout their time as student-athletes, with a focus on life skills, personal relationships & behavior management, temptations of being a college student, high visibility of being a student-athlete, social media approaches & behaviors, etc. Beyond just this coaching, I think there should be a rehabilitation process that student-athletes need to go through after committing a legal offense and before being allowed to play again. For example, the University of Oregon running back who was suspended for one game. Was there anything he actually learned (other than I break the law, I don't get to play one game)? If we are talking about an educational system, how are we remedying uncalled and bad behavior? What efforts are being made to understand why some student-athletes are having problems off-the-field? There's a reason why laws are broken and actions are committed. What are they for each individual & how can athletics departments be supportive in the best interests & welfare of their student-athlete?
- I have noticed that more institutions are hiring external experts and resources like Kathleen Hessert's Sports Media Challenge, a company that helps athletes (college and pros) when it comes to speaking with the media and in public atmospheres, as well as in the social media space. I think this type of training should be mandatory for all student-athletes (and not just the higher profile ones) in every university. If this type of education and training exists in the media realm, why not in other areas?
I know collegiate athletics is under a lot of scrutiny these days with player-agent relationships, the commercialization of athletics & student-athletes, and the debate on whether collegiate athletes should be paid, but isn't the concern about how student-athletes are integrating & acting in society of ultimate importance?
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NOTE: The opinions expressed by Jared Melzer are his own and not necessarily the opinions of Sports Business Radio