Where Angels Fear To Tread …

Even though today is “Pi Day”, I hope not to be irrational in this rant.  Having said that, I am going to tread carefully into an area that I try assiduously to avoid here; I am going to comment on a prominent political figure.

A few weeks ago, the FBI investigation of college basketball was prominent in the news and lots of commentators were tut-tutting about player exploitation and NCAA greed and the venal mess of a system that has evolved around recruitment of top-shelf players and … you remember all that stuff.  Amid all that sound and fury, President Obama said that the current NCAA system for college basketball is:

“… not a sustainable way of doing business.”

First of all, I think it is perfectly sustainable; it has been going on for a while and absent a legal theory in the Department of Justice that says schools are defrauded when a shoe company pays money to a player to attend a specific school – that is the essence of the legal theory behind the FBI probe – there is no reason the current system cannot project to the future.  The event that will make the current system unsustainable would be for the shoe companies to decide to stop the payments to the families of the high school recruits.

President Obama addressed a Sports Analytics Conference hosted by MIT in Boston.   In addition to his statement about unsustainability, he also said:

“[Basketball] needs to create a well-structured [developmental league], so that the NCAA is not serving as a farm system for the NBA with a bunch of kids who are unpaid but are under enormous financial pressure.”

Please note that if the Department of Justice under President Obama three years ago did not start the probe they are continuing today, the kids would be paid – not by the schools but by the shoe companies – and that would alleviate the “enormous financial pressure” that they putatively face.  For the top-shelf high school player who is a year away from being a lottery pick, the payment of $100-150K by a shoe company can tide him over for his year in college; then he can sign his millions-of-dollars guaranteed contract in the NBA.  Let us not lose sight of the fact that the real problem here is not the poor kid who is getting a six-figure tax free payment; the real problem here is the hypocrisy of the schools and the NCAA who pretend that these are “student-athletes”.

On another vector, I have to point out that President Obama is late to the party.  He was the President for 8 years and in those 8 years, there is ample evidence that he was paying attention to college basketball.  He made the “Presidential Bracket Selection” into an annual television program; his brother-in-law was the head coach at Oregon State.  I recognize completely that the President of the United States has lots of things on his calendar every day of the year, but President Obama had 8 years to use his bully pulpit to push for reforms of college basketball – – and he did not.

For those of us out here who have long thought that the NCAA is feckless, hypocritical and corrupt, may I pose this question to President Obama with utmost respect:

  • “Where were you when you could have used the prestige of your office to move the debate here on a positive vector?  Surely, you have not had this epiphany after you left office; you had to know the current system was rotten at the core.”

I am not willing to accept that the time was never right for the Administration to take a position on this matter because President Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, managed to use the NCAA Tournament as a reason to decry the less-than-laudatory graduation rates for “student-athletes” at many of the big time schools that were participating in the tournament.  [Aside:  It always fascinated me that Secretary Duncan never acknowledged how ill-prepared some of these “student athletes” were to be college students and that lack of preparation came out of institutions nominally aligned with the Department of Education.  But that is none of my business…]

I am not here to “trash” President Obama.  Rather, I want to urge him to pitch in and help do something to fix college athletics – basketball and football being the two sports that need the most “fixing”.  If the FBI probe shuts off the money from the shoe companies – via assistant coaches at various schools – to the players and if nothing else changes, the players will be the main victims of the probe.  Is that really the outcome most desired by most people?

The NCAA will take in more than $800M from the basketball tournament this year; they have little motivation to change much of anything so long as that money spigot stays wide open.  The NBA is making plenty of money too; they have no economic reason to change much of anything; if they do make a change, you can be sure that it will not voluntarily be one that costs teams or the league a ton of money.  Change is only going to come from pressure outside the sport – and once the FBI has concluded its probe and potentially some folks are indicted and tried for what the DoJ thinks is fraud and bribery, the FBI will be on to other things.  The FBI is not an agent of change here.

Presidential involvement in college sports goes back to Teddy Roosevelt; no new ground needs to be broken here.  If President Obama holds these ideas in something more than a rhetorical context, I hope he will take the initiative to add his voice and his prestige and his energy to making the system into a better one.  I doubt that he needs to worry about accidentally making it worse; I am not sure it could be much worse.

Finally, the other annual sporting event that happens around this time of the year is the Iditarod.  Here is a comment from Dwight Perry in the Seattle Times giving us a status report from the middle of the race:

“Norwegian mushers were a surprising 1-2 when this year’s Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska reached the halfway point.

“Race-watchers say they’d never seen dogs trained to cross-country ski before.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



8 thoughts on “Where Angels Fear To Tread …”

  1. Think back to the eight years Obama was President. For about nine of those years half the people in the country questioned whether he was legitimately elected. That same half disagreed with his observation that the sun rose over the eastern horizon. The other half thought he had sold out to the right wing of the Republican Party. To suggest that he could have done something about the NCAA requires that people agree he had a position of power in the debate. Democratic Presidents tend to become popular with more people after they leave office. Maybe their influence also increases. I welcome anyone who can potentially help clean up the mess in college basketball.

    1. Doug:

      I too would welcome him to do something about the mess starting now. And, mere rhetorical flourishes at various symposia will not do the trick.

      I give him less of a pass for his 8 years in office than you seem to do, but that is particularly why I try to avoid politics in these rants.

    2. If he wasn’t one of their biggest cheerleaders when he was in office that might fly. He is STILL picking brackets. That makes him more part of the problem than the solution.

      1. Ed:

        Rather than making him “part of the problem”, I think he could become the perfect example of someone who is not a hardened criminal who fills out brackets because he happens to like college basketball and reacts to that “liking” in a way that is similar to millions of other “fans”. According to reports, the Supreme Court used to hold an annual Bracket Pool organized by then-Chief Justice Rehnquist; they too are not hardened criminals. Maybe what is needed is a point-person or two with regard to this issue to make some positive changes. Chief Justice Rehnquist cannot be that point-person; perhaps President Obama can.

    1. Pete:

      I realize that – and that is why I try to stay away from “political stuff” in these rants as much as possible. It would have been hard to comment on this matter without dipping a toe into the political realm, however.

    1. Bones:

      I was wondering if anyone would comment on that opening. My long-suffering wife said I should be embarrassed to put something like that on the Internet where it will remain as evidence of my warped mind. Oh well …

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