NCAA Rules: Boosters Gone Wild, Buzz Bissinger Gone Crazy

Brian Floyd at the SB Nation mothership had a very interesting bit of commentary lately that deserves more exposition and analysis.  Brian makes the point that it is the culture of college sports that makes it possible for renegades like Nevin Shapiro to exist.  To wit:

With enough money, a donor can buy access to just about anything in college athletics. The higher the donation, the more access -- from sideline and press box passes to events that allow a booster to rub shoulders with the players and coaches. The access is the tangible reward for a monetary donation; the carrot at the end of the stick used to entice donors as athletic departments make their sales pitches.

I am not privy to enough large boosters or athletics department inner workings to either confirm or gainsay Floyd here, but you have to think that at Miami, this certainly held true.  If it holds true at Miami, it certainly stands to reason that it holds true in other college athletics programs.  How many?  Perhaps all, I can't say with authority.

Even if this is so, it is also true that colleges can control the amount of access they grant.  The fact that Miami apparently did not could speak more to the fact that it's access to funds other than through direct donations is limited, a point I have seen made before.

Floyd goes on to make the point that the players themselves have very weak "immune systems" from opportunistic people at this point in their careers, immunity that they will develop later as pros:

With the access gained through booster status comes the ability to develop relationships with players -- again, something that doesn't exist in the professional ranks. By the time a player makes it to the NFL, likely earning a seven-figure check for his efforts, the ranks are solidified. Players have inner circles and tend to stay detached from the public, for all intents and purposes. In college, however, the barrier does not yet exist.

Again, this makes sense.  Very young players who have not established a circle of trust can easily find themselves swayed by powerful, moneyed people who know how the world works.  When those people lack the ethical alarms necessary to keep them from abusing the advantage gained by their major donor status, problems can and do arise.

Floyd concludes his piece with this admonition:

Boosters aren't going away -- their money funds athletics and academics at institutions around the country. Taking away access as an incentive for donation removes the biggest reward for giving, as well. Even paying players doesn't mitigate the risk of boosters gone wild: why pay for something when it can be had for free? Snuffing out bad boosters -- cutting off the improper benefits at the source -- is an endless cycle; while it's not an exercise that should be dismissed, the process resembles a perpetual game of Whack-a-Mole.

Exactly right, in my view.  Boosters cannot be willed away, and some level of program access is what entices them to keep writing checks.  The problem is, when schools come to understand that the greater the access, the greater the cash flow, that can be problematic when that cash flow is the absolute lifeblood of the program.  Pressure on the coaching staff to win eventually winds its way up the chain to the president, and the president is the last line of defense.  When too much access is granted, the buck usually stops at the desk of the president or chancellor.  Too much interest in that money equals too much access, which equals the Miami Hurricane now sweeping through Coral Gables.

Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, in his last piece for the Daily Beast, suggests that the way to fix this problem is to simply kill Miami football:

The Miami football program must be given the death penalty by the NCAA. Not for one year. Or two. But forever. Gone. Kaput. Who will really suffer? Only the Wahoos who care about the Hurricanes more than they do their families—and need to get another life, anyway. The coaches? The players? If they have talent, they will all land somewhere else. In the real world, three strikes and you’re out. In the athletic world, three strikes and you’re just beginning. Who benefits? A university that perhaps may realize its primary mission is, can you believe it, academic and not athletic.

My impression of this is that Bissinger has lost contact with reality.  This solution would not only throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater, but the mother as well.  It is also quite unrealistic, almost comically so.

In the first place, for this to happen, the NCAA would have to disband itself.  There is no way a group of college presidents would ever agree to something this radical, no matter how crazy the situation at a school became.  It is the nature of these people to educate, not exterminate, and even though many presidents are in some level of conflict with their athletics department, they know the reality of what athletics brings to a school. 

That the NCAA is reportedly not even considering a TV ban, let alone the "death penalty" against Miami is a  testament to how strongly and well-ingrained the lessons learned by the previous harsh punishments of schools like Southern Methodist are. This suggestion by Bissinger, although I'm sure it was offered seriously, is so conflicted with reality that it almost rises to the level of self-parody, which I thought it was for a moment when I was reading the piece.

Bissinger goes on to say that Miami president Donna Shalala should be forced out or fired, which actually does make sense to me.  But he doesn't stop there.  He insists that congress should drag her before them and put her under oath, then scrutinize her testimony for untruths and prosecute her for perjury.  Yes, Buzz, that's just what we need -- replace the oversight of the NCAA, a bureaucratic but generally well-meaning institution, with that of the U.S. congress, a bureaucratic and not-so-well-meaning institution.  No thank you, sir.  Keep congress the hell out of my college sports, I've seen how well their oversight of professional sports has worked.

Finally, Bissinger says that boosters should be banned altogether, and that colleges should make do without their money.  This would have the effect of putting many schools out of the athletics business altogether, eliminating many scholarships, a good number of which wind up going to underprivileged young people, providing them a way to get out of tough circumstances and get an education.  It is unlikely that athletics money would find its way back into the university system at all except at already rich institutions.  To me, that would truly be a shame.

Is the booster system a problem?  Yes.  Can all abuse of it be ended by any means?  Maybe, but such draconian measures do more harm than good to both the institutions and the communities they serve.  Should congress be invited in to replace the oversight of the NCAA?  Under no circumstances whatever.  Will the NCAA ever permanently kill an athletics program, or major portion thereof?  Never, nor should they.

Brian Floyd is right.  This is the system we have, and it has flaws, some of them serious.  Is there a solution?  No magic bullet, to be sure, but there are some things that can be done.  We'll get into those in the second installment of this commentary to follow a bit later on.

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