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Rutgers symptom of a sick system
The most galling part about this Rutgers mess isn’t simply that the incompetence of the university has reached near-buffoon levels. It is how much the university’s double-dip into the ugly sea of coaching abuse emphasizes the power imbalance in college sports.
Why did Rutgers basketball players passively take the stomach-wrenching abuse that former coach Mike Rice dished out at practices, never standing up and fighting back? How did the new Rutgers athletic director get that $450,000 a year job when a bit of digging into her past revealed coaching abuse allegations disturbingly similar to the behavior that got Rutgers into this mess in the first place?
It’s all pretty simple, really: The money-hoarders of college sports — the coaches, the administrators, the universities themselves — have 100 percent of the power. That sort of absolute power keeps players, the money-generators of college sports, under their thumb through the myth of amateurism that we all know is bogus.
But there’s a piece of good news on the horizon. Because in the next month, the first domino might fall in a system-wide shift in the power dynamic of college sports.
In April as the NCAA was preparing for the Final Four, the culmination of the annual NCAA event that generates more than $1 billion in television ad revenue, ESPN aired an appalling practice video of Rice throwing basketballs at players’ heads, calling them names, and just generally acting like someone who never ought to be in a position of power.
Then this weekend, The (Newark) Star-Ledger reported that new Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann came with her own history of abuse allegations. A decade and a half ago, Hermann resigned as the University of Tennessee’s women’s volleyball coach after all 15 players on her team wrote a letter accusing her of abusive behavior, including calling her players “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.” (Hermann denies the players’ characterization of her alleged abuse, and Rutgers president Robert Barchi said he still backs her.)
You could argue that Rice, Hermann, and former Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti got their just deserts: Rice was fired, Pernetti resigned under pressure, and Hermann quit her job at Tennessee. But in the upside-down world of college sports, punishment and public humiliation come with these sorts of benefits: Pernetti and Rice each received more than $1 million apiece in settlements when they left Rutgers, and Hermann kept climbing the ladder of college sports, with a successful administrative career at Louisville’s athletic department that led to the Rutgers job.
Even when they’re publicly humiliated for their actions and stripped of their duties, those in power in college sports — the coaches, the administrators, the bureaucrats — are taken care of.
And the players? They’re the ones who make bundles of money for their universities but see only a tiny fraction of it through scholarship money. They’re the ones who essentially are working on a year-to-year, performance-based contract because schools aren’t allowed to give four-year scholarships, only one-year scholarships that either can be renewed, or not. They’re the ones who go on the football field on autumn Saturdays and risk their future brains turning to mush, while the universities wash their hands of the health consequences of tomorrow as they reap the monetary benefits of today.
So where’s that piece of good news on the horizon, you ask?
It could come as early as June 20, when a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., will rule whether “O’Bannon v. NCAA” can proceed as a class-action lawsuit. The antitrust lawsuit began in 2009, when former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon noticed that the NCAA still was making money off him, using his likeness in an EA Sports video game 14 years after O’Bannon led the Bruins to the 1995 national title. He sued. If the O’Bannon case becomes a class-action lawsuit, that means the NCAA could be liable to pay billions to college athletes, past and present.
What does a lawsuit that centers on pay-for-play have to do with former coaches who treated their players like dirt?
I asked that question of Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, which is like a players union for college athletes. Huma formed the organization after the NCAA suspended one of his All-American UCLA football teammates for accepting free groceries after his scholarship check ran out at the end of the month. That got Huma thinking about the power imbalance in college sports, and thrust him into the world of pay-for-play, health insurance for college athletes, scholarships that are renewed on an annual basis instead of given for four years of college, and coaching abuse.
“Of course it’s related to the O’Bannon case,” Huma said of the Rutgers situation. “There’s a culture in higher education that excuses the mistreatment of college athletes on many levels, from downright abuse and psychological torture to financial abuse and robbing players of their fair market value.”
Clearly, Huma is not some unbiased observer. He’s one of three board members in the Former College Athletes Association, a group that likely would disperse any settlement money in the O’Bannon case. But he is someone constitutionally attuned to the overlooked needs of the college athlete, and he believes a pro- player ruling in the O’Bannon lawsuit would be empowering to the athletes. They would get a slice of the financial pie they’ve helped build, but it’s deeper than that. The O’Bannon lawsuit could be the first domino to fall in what could lead to an entirely different model in college sports — one that’s more empowering to players, that gives them at least a semblance of financial freedom if scholarship renewals are held over their heads, and that gives them self-worth in the face of a system that can chew them up and spit them out.
Would that sort of ruling in the O’Bannon lawsuit mean the next situation of coach abuse would be nipped in the bud by these suddenly empowered athletes? Of course not. Landmark lawsuits do not change power dynamics overnight. Instead, they nudge American culture in a certain direction, and they empower certain groups to fight their own fight. Brown v. Board of Education didn’t mean schools were integrated overnight; it set the table for a gradual shift in racial politics that had cultural implications far beyond just ending segregation in schools.
We all should be both saddened and enraged at what’s come out of the Rutgers athletic department the past couple months. We also should be encouraged that next month could be the beginning of a massive change. College sports’ offseason so far has been filled with a storm of bad news, from Rutgers to Auburn to Miami. But the real storm of college sports is just over the horizon, possibly with a power shift that could make the Rutgers mess look like the calm before everything changed.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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