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Don't Hate the Player: Are College Athletes Working for a Degree or Working for a Cartel? 

Wednesday, Jul 16 2014

Page 3 of 5

The problem is that the exigencies of playing Division I college football just may not provide enough time to get a real education. And not every athlete is willing to take on Joe Igber's self-punishing lifestyle.

"I remember looking at one of my résumés, and it had nothing but football on it," White says. "I didn't have internships, apprenticeships, nothing — I was just Russell White."

That realization prompted a moment of intense foreboding. What do you do, White thought, when you're 23 years old and the NFL dream is over?

Mark Lewis, the NCAA's executive vice president of championships, was the last witness called at the O'Bannon bench trial in June. When he took the stand, Lewis recounted a childhood story about his family's university-owned home, in Athens, Ga. His father was a defensive coordinator for the University of Georgia football team; whenever it had a losing streak, fans would litter the Lewis' yard with "For Sale" signs. It was Lewis' job to yank them out before his father woke up.

Football and other college sports are a form of collective identity and camaraderie in Athens. And that's not unusual for college towns throughout the country.

"It's a huge part of the Midwestern ethos," NCAA President Mark Emmert testified during the trial. "The colors of the team, the traditions, the stadiums... the rivalries built over generations." Sports form an atavistic line in many of these places, and become so embedded in the cultural fabric that the schools' seemingly frivolous trophies — the Little Brown Jug passed between the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, or the carved wooden turtle exchanged between Ohio State and the University of Illinois — acquire an almost spiritual significance.

NCAA administrators often play up the notion of college sports as a local folk tradition, arguing that it distinguishes them from the pros. Yet in recent years, with more college games being broadcast on ESPN, and more money being juiced from media rights and team merchandise, the pro and amateur spheres have come to resemble one another.

College conferences negotiate contracts for broadcasting and licensing, which translate into big returns. Exhibits presented in the O'Bannon trial revealed that the SEC (Southeastern Conference) made $314 million during the 2012-2013 fiscal year, up from $148 million in 2008. This year, bowl games and tournament payouts alone will reap a combined $311 million for the five powerhouse conferences — the Big Ten, the SEC, the Pac-12, the Big 12, and the ACC — according to a recent report from Forbes.

Revenue gets divided among the individual schools in each conference and funneled back into their athletics programs. This funds less-profitable or unprofitable sports (meaning anything that isn't men's football or men's basketball), scholarships, equipment, athletes' travel expenses, and coaches' salaries, which far exceed those of professors. By the time he left Berkeley, Tedford was raking in $2.44 million annually; the current highest-paid coach in the country, Nick Saban at the University of Alabama, makes some $7 million a year.

Because there's so much money on the line, and because better teams make more profitable conferences, schools have adopted an "arms race" mentality when it comes to intercollegiate athletics. (The term "arms race" is tossed around a lot in discussions of the college sports business; UC Berkeley professor emeritus Harry Edwards says he first used it back in 1983.) Schools like UC Berkeley have undertaken major stadium remodels, financing them through a combination of private donations and high-interest bonds, according to a 2009 Knight Commission report. These luxurious facilities might help raise the team's profile, or lure in desirable high school recruits.

But they leave the schools with massive debt.

That's particularly apparent at UC Berkeley, a school that, just 10 years ago, exulted in its winning football team. At that time, Memorial Stadium was packed for every game; Igber remembers looking out at the swelling crowds and wondering where the hell everybody parked.

In the years since, that team has plummeted; game attendance is down. Tedford decamped, but UC Berkeley owed him a $5.5 million buyout. And it's hemorrhaging millions more for a stadium remodel that now looks like a monument to hubris.

On a brittle night last October, Cal's loyal but penny-pinching faithful huddled together on a cliff overlooking Memorial Stadium — affectionately dubbed "Tightwad Hill," because it offers a decent view at no cost. To get there, one need only squeeze through a padlocked gate outside the stadium perimeter, snake alongside a softball diamond, dash through a rugby court, slip through another gate (eluding two weirdly unquestioning security guards), and scrabble up a rocky bluff to a makeshift picnic area littered with blankets and beer coolers. There, a small audience watched the Cal Bears get pummeled by Oregon State, 49-17, as a diaphanous fog clung to the barren stadium. The Cal band's sprightly Britney Spears medley, performed with choreographed chorus-line moves during halftime, was the undisputed highlight of the night.

"I think we've reached the nadir," one Tightwad Hill spectator slurred, doddering over the pile of beer cans at his feet. Others nodded quietly.

But losing by four touchdowns and a field goal had become a new normal for Cal. In 2012, the team had three wins and nine losses, including a humiliating drubbing by rival Stanford during the Big Game. It would be Tedford's final hurrah at a school that had once revered him. Reports of Cal's abysmal football graduation rates leaked to media the following year.

Nobody could have predicted that outcome in 2002, when the then-promising coach came onboard to whip UC Berkeley's team into shape. More disciplinarian than his predecessor, Tom Holmoe, Tedford revoked scholarships from players who were on academic probation, and instituted a pre-packaged self-improvement system called the Academic Gameplan, which was invented at his alma mater, Fresno State.

"Basically, we had to write down our classes," Igber remembers. "It actually was hindering me because it was a bunch of paperwork I didn't need to do."

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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