Questioning Michael Cross’ Purposes

Is a Penn State administrator's athlete survey side biz an exploit — or exploitation — of college sports reform? Plus: What we found in Jayhawks inboxes after Snoop Dogg's KU shock performance.


This is Newsletter of Intent, an occasional emailed dispatch about college sports issues from The Intercollegiate. You can:

Ready to commit to your college sports education?


By Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers

Last March, a modest-looking Blogspot website called "Ultimate Sports Insider” published a post titled, “Risking prosperity in college sports.” To however many (or few) of its readers, it offered these sage words about the underlying dark forces of intercollegiate athletics:

Systemic pressure to win, life-changing wealth, status, social media and institutional brand consciousness are powerful dynamics contributing to the current state of affairs. Yet each negative story erodes the prosperity of college athletics. It's time to use our prosperity to fix the front porch and rebuild the core of college athletics - holistically educating and developing student-athletes without exploitation.

The author of the post — and the creator of the blog — is Michael Cross, a man of multiple hats whose day job is as the assistant athletic director in charge of “new business development” for Penn State, an athletic department all too familiar with exploitation. Cross was hired by the Nittany Lions in 2015, after he left his post as athletic director at Bradley with two years remaining on his contract — presumably a departure not of his choosing. According to the private university’s tax filings, Cross had been earning $267,750 in annual pay as one of the top-paid athletic administrators in the Missouri Valley Conference.

But Cross has more than made up for the demotion, financially anyway, with what the kids might call a side hustle. Cross and his wife, Jennifer, co-own Princeton Leadership Services, an educational consulting firm that peddles a software product called Athlete Viewpoint, which makes money not from the sweat of college athletes — nor from their names, images and likenesses — but from their very thoughts.

The proprietary software is designed for use by college athletic departments in querying athletes about their experiences throughout the year. As we reported last fall, Athlete Viewpoint software is also sometimes used to gather, slice and dice data from NCAA-mandated exit interviews.

The company insists it’s all about the athletes, a position it codifies in its mission statement:

As athletics becomes more of a business, AV believes it’s critical to remember that students are at the core. Naturally, AV takes pride in collaborating with and supporting partners who prioritize the student-athlete experience. 

But in working to “prioritize the student-athlete experience,” a key component of the Athlete Viewpoint business model is that, in a metadata sense, at least, Princeton Leadership Services owns the expressed viewpoints of the college athletes it surveys. For someone who holds himself out as a “change agent” and “tireless advocate for the student athlete-experience” — and who publicly whinges about money-grubbing, status-seeking coaches and administrators ruining college sports — Cross’ extracurricular work begs for scrutiny.

While college sports administrators can, and often do, find ways to make extra money on the side, it’s unusual for one to be concurrently operating a college sports-related business that could conceivably pay them as much or more than their full-time jobs.

Through public records requests, we recently obtained several universities’ contracts with Princeton Leadership Services, which reveal the kind of cash Cross earns with this venture as well as some fine print that may raise red flags, especially amid the expanding debate over the personality rights of intercollegiate athletes. Conservatively speaking, based on what the company has previously claimed about its customer base, Athlete Viewpoint stands to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue. Consider the nearly $35,000 in fees its services have generated this year between just four universities that responded to our records requests:

  • $3,995 from the University of New Hampshire

  • $4,999 from Wisconsin-Eau Clair

  • $8,000 from Illinois

  • And $15,500 from Rutgers, for both the athlete survey and a custom “coach/staff review” project

Each school also paid the $600 annual license fee Athlete Viewpoint charges for the “dashboard” access to the data the company compiles.

One of the software’s selling points is that schools who purchase it can compare their athletes’ feedback to the other schools that Athlete Viewpoint serves, to see how they are faring. For the company to capitalize on this feature, however, it needs authority over the data — the athletes’ opinions. The company pushes to control this information exclusively, and for perpetuity, although it negotiates terms with the universities.

For example, in their contracts, New Hampshire and Wisconsin-Eau Claire agreed to serve as joint owners with Athlete Viewpoint of the data gleaned from their surveys. Illinois’ agreement makes the school the exclusive owner of the survey results, but permits Athlete Viewpoint to use the “de-identified data” in comparative sets for its other clients. Rutgers, according to a contractual memorandum, at first consented to Athlete Viewpoint being the solitary owner of its survey findings, but later revised the terms so that the “client is considered owner of the client’s own data.” A Rutgers athletics spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about what triggered this revision.

Athlete Viewpoint claims its software has already made a substantial difference in improving the lives of college athletes. And the product no doubt looks impressive, providing subscribers with technicolor graphs and a numerical rating system for how likely current players are to recommend the school to future prospects.

A glance at Illinois’ exit interview report, for instance, reveals in easy-to-read charts that Illini players in 2018 were fairly satisfied with their coaches and decidedly dissatisfied with their facilities. There are also direct quotes from players that put some anecdotal meat on the survey-data bones. “We need more athletic trainers/student interns on our staff,” reads one highlighted comment. “One guy is not enough for 30+ athletes.”

The tidy presentation is no doubt handy for athletic department professionals in the ever-escalating recruiting wars, and the product seems to have caught on. In the past five years, Athlete Viewpoint has blossomed as a business venture, reportedly contracting with at least 40 universities, including Penn State, all while Cross has continued to be employed by the school.

In response to questions about how the university’s athletic department navigated the precarious path of having a staffer also serve as a vendor, Penn State Associate Athletic Director Kristina Petersen provided this vague statement to Newsletter of Intent:

After a thorough University procurement process, Penn State Athletics contracted Athlete Viewpoint. Athlete Viewpoint followed Penn State University’s RFP process and submitted all required documents. Any conflict of interest concerns were vetted through the process and were external to Intercollegiate Athletics. Penn State does not disclose financial information regarding our vendors.

While Jennifer Cross, whose LinkedIn profile reveals no college athletics background, serves as Athlete Viewpoint’s signatory and principal agent, her husband’s connections have clearly paved the way for its growth.

For his part, Michael Cross has not been especially demure about his business interest, boosting Athlete Viewpoint in recent on-the-record interviews with Sports Business Journal and the Wall Street Journal.

As part of the company’s partnership with AthleticDirectorU, a web-based content platform for college sports administrators, Cross has also moderated web video discussions with other college sports officials in his capacity as Athlete Viewpoint’s co-founder. For example, here's an interview he conducted last year with University of Chicago Athletic Director Erin McDermott, who also happens to serve on Athlete Viewpoint’s Board of Advisors

McDermott declined to respond to a request for comment about the extent of her ties with the company, but another Board member, Amy Sirocky-Meck, the Title IX coordinator at James Madison University, told us the position did not entail a financial stake. Still, there are potential red flags here, too: One of Athlete Viewpoint’s clients is Tulane University, whose senior associate athletics director, Charvi Greer, is also on the Athlete Viewpoint Board. (Greer did not respond to a request for comment.)

Athlete Viewpoint’s arrangement with AthleticDirectorU — which includes a series of “Inside The Industry” surveys and an “Athletic Director Power Index” — represents just one of the new partnerships the company has been able to forge in recent years, as its tentacles continue to spread throughout the college sports industry. Last February, Athlete Viewpoint struck a deal to collect athlete feedback for all 14 Big Ten Conference members.

In December, Athlete Viewpoint signed on with CoSIDA, the professional organization representing college athletics spokespeople, to conduct a salary survey of its members. The company also now conducts post-event participant surveys for Women Leaders in College Sports, a non-profit organization. Weaving a web so tangled as to make Sir Walter Scott plotz, Jennifer Cross hosted a panel discussion in December at the Women Leaders in College Sports convention, which was sponsored by AthleticDirectorU, and which featured Penn State Associate AD Charmelle Green as one of its panelists. (Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour currently serves as the organization’s president-elect.)

Meanwhile, Michael Cross continues to burnish his reputation as a right-minded college sports reformer, having recently been tapped as a consultant with the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It’s not a bad situation for Cross, given his rather forgettable showing at the helm of the Bradley Braves.

For reasons that were certainly not all of his making, Cross’ Bradley administration presided over the dark days of the program’s recent history. Among his specific missteps was the hiring of basketball coach Geno Ford — who slogged through a tumultuous and win-starved tenure — and a much-maligned decision to relocate the school’s long-standing Red-White basketball scrimmage to a makeshift outdoor court on the banks of the Illinois River. On his current online bio, Cross boasts of having signed Bradley’s first-ever apparel deal with Adidas and asserts the cum hoc, ergo propter hoc claim that, “More than 80 percent of Bradley student-athletes earned a 3.0 GPA or higher during each of (his) last three full years as AD.” For what it’s worth, a Bradley athletics spokesman told us that the university is not currently an Athlete Viewpoint customer.

In an exit interview with the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star in March 2015, Cross plugged his Ultimate Sports Insider blog and spoke of the advantages of being less constrained by his employment. “The demands of this job prevented me from getting my thoughts out to the public as much as I would have liked,” he told the paper. Four months later, he took the job at Penn State and, the following summer, launched Athlete Viewpoint.

In 2018, Cross was rumored as a potential candidate to fill the AD job at Buffalo, his alma mater. But he ended up staying at Penn State and, shortly thereafter, was promoted to general manager of the Pegula Ice Arena, the school’s home hockey facility, in addition to his other departmental duties.

It stands to reason that Cross would have a much more difficult time making a go of his business interest if he were, in fact, running an athletic department. And, despite not serving in the title role, Cross keeps finding new professional footholds — like the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee, which he was named to last summer.

Whatever his purpose, Cross’ entrepreneurial venture is a critical reminder that just as the public should be keen to the mercenarism in college sports, it should also consider the potential conflicted interests in college sports reform. We wanted to ask Cross about how he might address such concerns, among other things, about his work. But both he and Jennifer Cross ignored our repeated emails and phone calls over the last week, in which we sought their input for this story. Perhaps, for the sake of Athlete Viewpoint’s prosperity, it’s best that the questions only go one way.

SNOOPING KANSAS’ ‘LATE NIGHT’ REAX

In October, the University of Kansas was compelled to issue a public apology after hosting a totally foreseeable performance by rapper Snoop Dogg at the school’s annual “Late Night in the Phog” preseason basketball event. The 48-year-old Snoop’s enfant terrible act included pole dancers and a cash gun that shot fake hundred-dollar bills, a not-so-subtle lampooning of the FBI’s college basketball pay-for-play investigation that had ensnared the Jayhawks. 

Speaking of making it rain: A few days later, we filed a public records request with Kansas, seeking emails and communications between top university and athletic department officials about the concert-gone-haywire. The university agreed to produce the records for the price of $449. Generally, we would pass on putting up that kind of scrilla for this sort of thing, but, as a great poet once said: “If the ride is more fly, then you must buy.” Plus, we stupidly put it to a Twitter vote:

(Pro-tip: when FOIAing communications of public officials from institutions notorious for charging obscene copying fees, make sure to specifically exclude any listserv emails the subjects might have received.) 

So, what did we discover on this exceedingly pricey expedition down Interstate 70? For one thing: how much Kansas fussed over all kinds of potential minor NCAA violations in the lead-up to Late Night.

On Oct. 2, Alex Reid, a KU compliance staffer in charge of amateurism issues, sent a detailed email to Kansas coaches about potential NCAA issues that could crop up around the 18 Jayhawks recruits who were expected to attend the event. Among the issues Reid reiterated was that any recruits who wanted a refreshment at Late Night had to pay for it out of their own pocket. 

“We will need a sign-in sheet of all persons eating and the money collected must be turned in to the business office,” Reid instructed the coaches.

Meanwhile, Fred Quartlebaum, the director of men’s basketball operations, and Paul Pierce II, another KU compliance staffer, went back and forth over the permissibility of putting streamers and balloons outside the entrance of Hadl Auditorium, adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse.

“As a friendly reminder, the July 12, 2017 NCAA Interpretation states that it is impermissible to arrange for a mascot, cheerleading squad, dance team or band to appear for any prospect’s campus visit as such activity would constitute a celebritizing of a campus visit,” Pierce wrote in an email.

(For much more about the flabbergasting world of NCAA interpretation requests, you can consult our Jan. 7 issue of NOI.)

The next day, Elisha Brewer, an assistant track and field coach, emailed the compliance staff about whether Kansas could pay for an Uber ride from the airport for one of her recruits. (Yes, it was later determined.)

And so on it went. Indeed, to pore through the Jayhawks inboxes is to see how much energy Kansas exerted in fretting over the stupidest kinds of NCAA restrictions. Although, after the fact, that’s definitely not how many fans and alumni came to see things.

“(O)ur Late Night appeared to be a gigantic middle finger to the NCAA when we should be worried about ourselves and how we are going to weather this storm,” one angry KU fan emailed Kansas Athletic Director Jim Long, the day after the festivities. “Intentional or not, the optics of Late Night could not have been worse. A 20 second google search should have been sufficient to know what Snoops appearance would be like (and I love Snoop btw).”

Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod reaped much of the morning-after whirlwind from beside-themselves KU alumni, who didn’t buy the school’s excuse that it had expected something more family-friendly from the gangsta rap graybeard.

“Pretty much 100% of middle school and high school Kansas athletic directors would know what to expect when hiring Snoop Dog,” wrote one fan. “Taxpayers money at work?  Perhaps you can get Snoop Dog to be a character witness for you in your NCAA basketball investigation?”

Another alum rued their recent “five-figure contribution” to the athletic department, writing:

I come from a long line of proud Jayhawks, and tonight I brought my 7 year son [sic] to his first Late Night with my mother. I am disappointed in myself for exposing them to this experience, and saddened that my once comfortable environment of Allen Fieldhouse apparently is no more.

A self-described “West Coast Parent of a High School Freshman” opined:

The first error in judgement was bringing Snoop Dog [sic] in on the consideration choices. Maybe here on the West Coast we get our faces rubbed in controversial poo everywhere we look but jimmny [sic] cricket you think you all would have a moment of pause before considering that particular individual as a positive role model or even appropriate in the sense of what he represents in his material or lifestyle.

An area high school freshman weighed in with an admonishment:

Please do not do this is the future and apologize to the hundreds of families who had to deal with this. Yes, I am 14 years old and should not be worried about this.

A number of email complaints specifically called out the misogyny of Snoop’s act, and how that reflected on an institution of higher learning.

“Shame on you for allowing this to happen in an era of the ‘me too’ movement and when campus rape is still such a significant issue,” wrote one critic. “This is a slap in the face of every woman affiliated with KU; the objectification of women, and in this way specifically, is inexcusable by KU. How could pole dancers ever have been perceived to be appropriate?”

You can read the rest of the disavowals here.

Long, the AD, (seen posing with Snoop the day before shit got real) officially took the public brunt of the blame, other than that which he tried to pass off on the rapper’s management. The following Monday, however, Long received a private vote of confidence from Reggie Robinson, the university’s vice chancellor for public affairs.

“Don’t beat yourself up about the Snoop thing!” texted Robinson, who has since become CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation. “We’re taking hits, but easy to overblow this one, I think. [Redacted]. Hang in there! Things will even out!”

By then, Long was sounding chill about the whole episode, at least among his colleagues. That same day, he sent a text message to Dan Beckler, his associate athletic director for public relations, expressing relief upon hearing the hosts of KU’s flagship sports talk station downplay the controversy.

“610 radio guys this morning were mostly good,” wrote Long, who gets paid $1.5 million per year. “(S)aid you know what you get with snoop and people that were there were not offended...took shot (at) national basketball beat writers…”

Still, the athletic program went on heightened alert in the aftermath of Late Night. In a text message to other department staffers, Deputy AD Chris Freet forwarded this explicit directive from Long: “To be clear, all of our marketing materials etc etc needs to go vanilla until further notice….is the swimming poster still advisable? No edgy social media etc etc….we are clean of the clean….”

Morgyn Seigfried, an athletics communications staffer, quickly chimed in: “I’ll make sure we tone it down on social.”

From then on, all was copacetic in Kansas — for a little while, at least.


Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent. You can reach them with questions, comments, tips and leaked drafts of inadvisable KU swimming posters at dlibit@theintercollegiate.com and lcyphers@theintercollegiate.com.

Featured photo-composite by Newsletter of Intent; Photo by Alex Korolkoff / Unsplash


The Intercollegiate is proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.

When NCAA Critics Clash

The overlooked cracks in the college sports reform movement. Plus: An update on Jon “Good Luck” Rothstein and a silver lining to New Mexico’s transparency cloud.


This is Newsletter of Intent, an occasional emailed dispatch about college sports issues from The Intercollegiate.

Ready to commit to your college sports education?


By Luke Cyphers and Daniel Libit

(A note to subscribers: Due to the length of today’s Newsletter of Intent, it may be truncated in your inbox. If so, you can be certain to read it in its entirety on our Substack page here.)

An in-depth investigative series by USA Today on dozens of college athletes who transferred between NCAA institutions, despite previously being disciplined for sexual offenses, could be expected to generate commotion.

The Predator Pipeline” certainly did that. The surprise was that some of the most heated debates came from an unexpected corner of the Twitterverse: an intramural fight among advocates for college sports reform.

Advocates for athlete rights, such as attorney Richard Johnson and former Duke lacrosse player Maddie Salamone, took issue with the framing of the series and some of its conclusions, while sexual-abuse victims advocates, such as Katherine Redmond and Brenda Tracy, took issue with the issue-takers. 

The social-media dustup laid bare a reality that’s little discussed in the coverage of the recent wave of efforts to call the NCAA to account: While college athletics is the target of what can accurately be described as a vital, maybe even historic, reform movement, not all reformers want the same things.

From those who worry about athletes coming away with too little from the multi-billion-dollar industry they labor in; to those who worry about athletes getting away with too much; to those who care about gender equity among athletes; to those fighting to subordinate athletics to the educational mission of universities; to, well, name your beef with college sports, and someone’s out there beefing about it, too—all of these factions are trying to inhabit what is, if not yet a big tent, a diverse and potentially unruly one.

“I don’t think we think that much about it,” says Victoria Jackson, a former college track athlete who teaches sports history at Arizona State. "We know there are these tensions and fault lines, but sometimes we just kind of assume everybody who is a college sports reform person is going to be like-minded and agree, and that is not the case.”

Tensions among these factions are surfacing, probably not coincidentally, amid a time of great hope that the NCAA is finally on its heels. Court cases have nibbled away at the underpinnings of the NCAA’s draconian restrictions on athletes’ rights over the past decade. California’s passage of a law allowing college athletes to capitalize on their names, images and likenesses (NIL) set off a wave of copycat bills in other states. Federal legislation looking to overhaul college sports governance has been introduced. A rival basketball league, which will pay college players a salary and allow them to make as much money as they want from endorsements, plans to begin play in 2021.

All the while, mounting revelations of academic fraud, sexual assault cover-ups, under-the-table sneaker-company payoffs, exploding salaries for coaches and administrators, and bizarre readings of the bloated amateurism rulebook have left the NCAA with precious little moral high ground for “the collegiate model” to stand on.

Not that it’ll stop trying.

At last week’s national NCAA Convention in Anaheim, Calif., the power-wielders of college sports gave various winks and nods at and vowed to deliberate over some of these points of contention. Scarcely anyone we spoke to is holding their breath.

Nearly everyone in this story — from the more conservative college sports reformers to the most nihilistic — agree on this much: the NCAA sucks, and irredeemably so. Most also agree that the current system of college sports selectively serves to enrich a small, elite group of rich, primarily white, men. Beyond that, in diagnosing the underlying disorder or prescribing its most effective remedy, it gets complicated.

Each new crack in the governing body’s armor creates different ideas on how to exploit it for the betterment of athletes, the broader university communities, the taxpayers who underwrite much of the college sports infrastructure, and even the sports themselves.

Those divergent perspectives can create rifts, exemplified by the fight over the USA Today investigation into college athlete perpetrators. But there are other disputes, as well, namely over the issue of player compensation. While name-image-likeness legislation has served as a major catalyst for the current reform movement, the California law and its successor bills make for “an idiosyncratic tipping point,” says Donna Lopiano, a former sports administrator at Texas and one-time head of the Women’s Sports Foundation, because NIL wasn’t atop the to-do list for most reformers and was often seen as a half-measure.

Real reform debates, and genuine reformer divides, more often center on whether and how much athletes in revenue-generating sports such as football and basketball should be paid — which makes sense, given the billions of dollars the NCAA rakes in from its TV contracts and tournaments.

“We have had lots of sniping, already,” says B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University. 

The clashes between reformers can resemble — if not serve as proxies for — the kind of friendly fire one finds rivening the political Left ahead of November. “Using the Democratic Party as an example here, they have one goal, and that’s to beat Donald Trump,” Ridpath says. “And at some point in time they’re going to come together to do that. If they undermine each other, they’re going to lose out on that goal.”

Further agitating the movement is the concern that this opportune moment — in which public attention and bipartisan political interest have neatly coalesced around college sport’s shortcomings — is fleeting. How reformers deal with this opportunity, especially on the federal level, could determine whether any real change comes to college sports any time soon, says Ramogi Huma, founder and executive director of the National College Players Association, a nonprofit that advocates for greater player economic rights and health protections.

"It feels like the fourth quarter,” says Huma, “when everything is hanging in the balance.” 

Who are the groups and individuals pushing the current reform movement? What are their various goals, priorities, tactics? And where do those goals and priorities collide with each other?

To get our arms around it, we spoke with more than a dozen prominent or influential voices in the arena — or multiple arenas, including athlete compensation, academic integrity, gender equity, and athlete health.

We asked our sources how they identified their roles in the movement, where it stands today and what direction it’s headed, and especially, what kinds of internal conflicts could hinder progress in changing college sports.

We immediately identified one line of schism: Advocates who believe college sports’ exploitative economic model is the most pressing issue, and those who come at NCAA reform believing education, gender equity, or health and safety issues are paramount.

Of course, these concerns exist on a continuum and frequently overlap, with many a reformer in more than one camp for reasons that sometimes have as much to do with philosophical differences as they do with their professions (lawyers vs. economists vs. academics), personal connections to college sports (athletes vs. non-athletes), gender and race. Even among the likest of minds, there are myriad debates over the way to manifest change.

For example, the economic reformers harbor multiple (and at times conflicting) theories on how best to skin the fat NCAA cat, whether it be through the courts, legislatures, trade unions, or new kinds of organizing.

College sports reform efforts are as old as college sports, with the NCAA itself being founded as a means to quell the alarming death toll in football in the early 20th century. But it’s important to take stock in how rapidly the reform movement has evolved of late. 

In 2009, Allen Sack, a sociologist and sports management professor at the University of New Haven, penned a study for the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, which sought to “identify the issues and assumptions that divide reformers and reform groups.”

Sack divided college sports reformers into three categories: 

  • “Academic capitalists” who emphasize “the importance of the bottom line,” assume “big-time college athletes are amateurs engaging in sports as a vocation,” and “view extracurricular activities as equal in importance to what is taught in the classroom or laboratory.”

  • “Athletes rights” advocates who “assume that collegiate sport as commercial entertainment is deeply embedded in the fabric of American life” and “view athletic scholarships as contracts for hire, not educational gifts.”

  • “Intellectual elites” who “argue that highly commercialized athletics has a negative effect on American higher education” and “are unrelenting in their criticism of athletic commercialism.”

The contours of those categories have changed over the last decade but, for at least that long, the hub of the intellectual elite crowd has been a think tank Sack remains deeply involved in, The Drake Group, whose own history provides a salient example of how disorderly college sports reform can be.

THEIR CRITICAL FACULTIES

The Drake Group was founded in 1999 by Jon Ericson, a former provost at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, who had previously written a book, “While Faculty Sleep: Intercollegiate Athletics and Feel-good Reform.” 

At Ericson’s behest, the original charge of The Drake Group was to address the corrupting influence of college sports on the academy, and TDG’s membership almost exclusively consisted of faculty from universities around the country.

In fact, the group’s original proposed name was the National Association of Faculty for College Athletic Reform — or NAFCAR — but The Drake Group ultimately stuck, even though only Ericson was affiliated with the eponymous university.

The Drake Group’s “intellectual elitist” reform agenda, as Sack noted in his study, included proposals of replacing one-year-renewable athletic scholarships with those independent of athletic performance, ensuring athletes could pursue the major of their choice, and “closely monitoring the growth rate of operating expenditures in sports.”

In addition, The Drake Group served as a kind of morale booster for college faculty in the face of what they perceived as college sport’s encroachment upon its core educational mission.

“It was a whistleblower support group, to some extent,” says Jason Lanter, who served as The Drake Group’s president from 2010 to 2012.

But it was not exactly athlete-centric. Kenneth Shropshire, a former Stanford football player who is now CEO of Arizona State’s Global Sport Institute, recalls recoiling in attendance at TDG’s debut gathering when he was a professor at Penn. 

“There’s a photo in the bowels of the Internet of me explaining the Buckley Amendment to The Drake Group,” says Shropshire, who coauthored the 2017 book, “The Miseducation of the Student Athlete: How to Fix College Sports.”

“At this first meeting,” Shropshire says, “my first and only meeting, there was a discussion that we should disclose the grades of all these students and all of the courses they’re taking, so we can put sunshine on this whole thing. I was outraged. It was really not understanding the rights of these athletes.” 

Since those early days, Shropshire adds, The Drake Group’s thinking evolved. “It is a key player in the struggle,” he says, and over the years, the group’s reputation grew. It counted as members some of the country’s most prominent scholars in the critical study of college sports, including Drexel University sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky, Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist and Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute. (Disclosure: CSRI and The Intercollegiate have a formal partnership, however CSRI had no editorial involvement in this article.)

But TDG’s core membership has never grown much past a dozen.

“One of the challenges is most faculty don’t get involved until they have to get involved,” says Lanter, who served as president from 2010 to 2012. “It is only when athletics come into play in their daily lives that they may reach out. It is hard to get starting assistant professors to join The Drake Group.”

While TDG would occasionally engage with the NCAA over its reform proposals, it regarded itself as a much more independent and unfettered organization than, say, the Knight Foundation Commission, which had formal tie-ins with the NCAA. By contrast, The Drake Group could exhibit a contrarian streak, hosting, for a number of years, a counter-programming convention at the sites of the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

Ridpath, an early TDG member who currently serves as its interim president, recalls the group’s creative, and successful, efforts to garner media attention, such forming a picket line in front of the coaches’ hotel at the Final Four and naming one of its awards for Robert Maynard Hutchins, the University of Chicago president who dropped football in 1939 and pulled his school out of the Big Ten Conference.  “We got a lot of press coverage,” Ridpath says.

But a decade into its existence, The Drake Group had little real-world progress to show for its efforts. If anything, things had only gotten worse on the academic integrity front, as evidenced by the University of North Carolina “paper class” scandal in 2011.

The Drake Group’s major turning point came in 2013, when Sack, then its president, brought Donna Lopiano into the fold.

“I was constantly and throughout most of my life a dyed-in-the-wool athlete rights guys,” says Sack. “I have moderated to a certain degree.”

Credit — or blame — Lopiano for his shift.

Sack tells of a come-to-Jesus moment over dinner with Lopiano at a Chinese restaurant in New Haven, Conn., when she proposed to him a Congressional solution for college sports reform — one she argued would require TDG to change its disposition from irascible sideline critic to productive change agent.

The big concession would be to give the NCAA a “limited antitrust exemption,” as Sack describes it, something it had long coveted. Lopiano’s case was that you needed a big enough chip to offer if The Drake Group ever truly hoped to rein in the commercialism of college sports, as was its organizing principle.

“It kind of gave up a little bit on the faculty,” Lopiano acknowledges. “We didn’t see how we had any power — the NCAA is this big, behemoth thing, and everybody agreed that faculty wasn’t going to stand up. The theory of Congressional change is you don’t need the masses, you don’t need a lot of power, you do need access to tipping-point people in Congress.”

With Lopiano and Zimbalist taking the lead, TDG proposed federal legislation called the College Athlete Protection (CAP) Act, which included a series of provisions aimed at increasing financial support and medical benefits for college athletes while restoring “the ability of national governance associations to combat commercial excesses.”

The CAP Act provided for college athletes the right to benefit from their name, image and likeness, an idea that had been championed for years by Zimbalist, and which has now taken hold everywhere.

But the CAP Act’s proposed antitrust exemption, however limited, struck a core Drake constituency as an unholy capitulation to the NCAA at precisely a time when the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust case was seen as a game-changer. While Lopiano aggressively lobbied Congress to bring about the CAP Act, roughly half of Drake’s executive board — including Staurowksy and Lanter — cut ties with the group. 

Sack describes the fallout as “one of the most painful things in my life.”

“I was a pariah for a while,” says Sack. “They wouldn’t listen to me. They thought I was supporting a total antitrust exemption, which would allow the NCAA to get away from O’Bannon.”

Staurowsky says she has still not received a satisfactory explanation for what transpired.

“The Drake Group’s abrupt reversal from being supportive of O’Bannon — and, within weeks of submitting amicus brief in support of O’Bannon — to [then] echoing the NCAA talking points, seemed very puzzling to me,” Staurowky tells Newsletter of Intent.

Lanter says his bigger concern with TDG was how it began juggling too many balls — like head injuries and NIL — that he felt had nothing to do with the cause of academic integrity.

“Where is the line with the original stated mission and vision?” Lanter says.

These days, The Drake Group, whose motto remains, “We Are The People Defending Academic Integrity,” highlights 19 different “issues” of concern on its website, from gender equity to athlete rights. And there continues to be upheaval among its ranks.

Two months ago, Fritz Polite, an assistant vice president and chair of the sports management department at Shenandoah University in Virginia, prematurely stepped down as TDG’s president because of his concerns with the organization’s direction.

“I thought they were veering off into other areas,” Polite says. “I think we should stay focussed on the academic integrity piece.”

Lopiano is now The Drake Group’s president-in-waiting, due to officially take the reins from Ridpath on July 1.

When it comes to athlete compensation, Lopiano and Sack, who is now retired from the University of New Haven but continues to serve on TDG’s board, want reform to stop at the water’s edge of NIL. Opening a completely free market to athletes, they argue, will only further disconnect college sports from higher education.

“Athletes’ rights have risen to the top and there has been an increased acceptance of commercialized sport to the point where even academicians are throwing their hands up and saying, ‘Pay the athletes,’” says Lopiano. 

The Drake Group has been the main engine behind a bipartisan House bill proposed last month by Florida Reps. Donna Shalala — a former college president at the Universities of Wisconsin and Miami — and Ross Spano, which would create a Congressional blue-ribbon panel to explore a broad list of college sports reform concerns, many of which mimic the provisions of the CAP Act Lopiano pushed for seven years ago.

Huma doesn’t support the Shalala bill, because he doesn’t trust the NCAA with any kind of antitrust exemption, big or small. He thinks legislative efforts to cut coaching salaries and athletic department costs will have a perverse effect: ensconcing college athletes as unpaid laborers under federal law.

“I don’t see that as advocacy for players,” Huma says of The Drake Group’s lobbying. “It’s actually adopted a lot of the goals that we’ve been fighting for for a long time, but I think also, partly, it’s being used as a Trojan Horse to attack players’ rights when it comes to economics.”

Staurowksy, meanwhile, has joined a recently created NCPA oversight board, most of whose members, including Salamone and Victoria Jackson, describe themselves as “athlete advocates.” 

GROUP CONFLICT

In the current college sports reform schema, Richard Johnson considers The Drake Group and the NCPA as merely “marginal critics” of the NCAA. But few voices in this space are as demonstrative and, at times, antagonistic, as Johnson’s.

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice lawyer based in Cleveland, Johnson represented baseball players Andy Oliver and James Paxton in their separate NCAA eligibility cases, ultimately winning Oliver a $750,000 settlement. He subsequently published a 638-page article about the case’s significance in the Florida Coastal Law Review.

Johnson counts himself among the NCAA’s “outspoken critics” — who, in his telling, are the ones that count. Johnson includes in this category academics like Staurowksy, Southall, Houston’s Billy Hawkins, and Eastern Michigan’s Richard Karcher; historian Taylor Branch; journalist and author Joe Nocera; and former shoe company executive and pay-the-player advocate Sonny Vaccaro.

“Maybe ‘intellectually honest’ is a better way to describe outspoken,” says Karcher, a former law professor who has been publicly critical about the way the California NIL law was written. (Karcher served as an expert witness for Johnson in both cases.)

Staurowsky, for her part, chafes at the term “critic,” saying it plays into a rhetorical trap set by college sports institutionalists, like former NCAA President Myles Brand, who have sought to diminish scholarship critical of the business practices of college sports.

Staurowsky divides the reform landscape into those whose focus is “player-centered” and “institutional-centered.” 

"Efforts to ‘reform’ college sport by adjusting existing sport governing bodies (NCAA, conferences) are misplaced,” she says. “The structural issue is to create a counterbalance to the power wielded by the NCAA and conferences by empowering athletes with individuals who represent their interest.”

That’s what Andy Schwarz believes he is doing by co-founding the Professional Collegiate League, set to begin play in the summer of 2021 with a model that pays its players a salary and allows them to earn as much endorsement money as the market will bear. An economist who worked as an adviser in the O’Bannon case, Schwarz sees the new league as a way to offer college players full economic rights that the NCAA has resisted through its fusty amateurism model.

The PCL’s view is that NCAA “reform” isn’t the answer, Schwarz says, “as it will inevitably result in compromising in key areas. As a league, we're entirely focused on creating a professional, equitable option, rather than concerning ourselves with where we stand in comparison to the NCAA. We think we’ll get there first, and whether the NCAA ever gets there becomes somewhat moot.”

Schwarz may not believe in NCAA reform, but he doesn’t loathe college sports, either. “I think colleges should be in whatever economic market space they want to be,” he says. “Money is not inherently evil… I think college can and should be in this space if they can do it legally and ethically.”

Hawkins, who wrote the 2010 book, “The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions,” likewise doesn’t seek the end of college sports as we know it.

“I see the good in it,” he says. “I have been in close proximity to see there is a lot of good being done. But it is an unstoppable commercial machine that we are trying to grab hold of, and a lot of the time a lot of individuals are getting ground up in this whole process.”

The problem is irreconcilable, according to Southall of the CSRI, whose advisory board features Sack, Staurowsky, Johnson and Polite. In Southall’s view, there’s really no ethically sustainable way to be a college sports reformer, at this point.

"You cannot reform something that is immoral,” he says. "I think some reformers wish that college sport was the mythology that the NCAA had created. And so for them, reform is controlling coaches salaries, (and) having stricter admissions standards so that the athletes are real students and not taking fake classes. In many ways, I don’t think some folks like the college athletes in football and basketball in the Power 5. I think there are some elements of class that are also elements of race or ethnicity in play here." 

For Johnson, race must be at the very center of the college sports reform conversation. Indeed, one of Johnson’s biggest criticisms of the recent antitrust litigation targeting the NCAA in the O’Bannon and Alston antitrust cases is that they didn’t sufficiently make a race case, highlighting the disproportionate numbers of black athletes who participate in college sports’ revenue-generating sports.

COMPETING INTERESTS

Johnson, who is white, says his sensitivity to racial discrimination has intensified in his latter years because of his marriage to his husband, a black physician from Jamaica.  

“I have watched how he has had to struggle,” Johnson says. “I have become, over the last 10 years, incredibly sensitized to economic power, civil rights as they effect gay people, and civil rights as they effect black people — and by extension other minorities.”

That is the prism through which Johnson says he read USA Today’s “Predator Pipeline” series and combatively took to Twitter to confront what he perceived to be its dangerous racial implications. (The series’ author, journalist Kenny Jacoby, discussed his reporting with Daniel in Episode 7 of The Intercollegiate Podcast.)

This put Johnson at odds with Brenda Tracy and Katherine Redmond, two advocates for survivors of sexual assault committed by college athletes. Tracy, who, in 1998, reported to police being gang-raped by four men, including two Oregon State football players, now leads an initiative called #SettheExpectation and has lobbied athletic departments, conferences and the NCAA to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault, which she has codified as the Tracy Rule.

Redmond was a student at the University of Nebraska who successfully sued the school for violating Title IX after she went public about being assaulted by a Cornhusker football player in the 1990s. She went on to found the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

Joining the online scrum was Salamone, a former chair of the NCAA’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee, who mostly sided with Johnson. (Disclosure: Salamone is a contributor to The Intercollegiate Podcast).

The resulting confrontation, which ramified across several Twitter threads, was ostensibly about the practicality and legality of an NCAA rule forbidding sexual assault perpetrators from playing college sports. But if you went down the rabbit hole — and we’ll let you do so on your own accord — it became a deeper, more fraught clash about issues like race and gender.

As Shropshire notes, when the NCAA was forced by reformers to open up transfer rules, it allowed more freedom of movement for athletes, which includes more freedom of movement for athletes with bad acts in their past. So something seen as institutional progress may have created an unintended consequence.

It’s a problem indicative of the NCAA’s business model, one too often based on greed, says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Duke swimmer and Olympic gold medalist who now runs Champion Women, which promotes opportunity for girls and women in sports. “One of the ways they’re greedy is they’re not willing to absorb the cost of bringing a sexual predator onto campus,” she says. “The cost will be borne by the women on the campus. That’s an externality that needs to be changed.”

Salamone and Johnson believe the Tracy Rule unnecessarily and unfairly targets college athletes, who themselves represent the ultimate victim class in college sports. Tracy and Redmond believe there is sufficient data to justify focusing specifically on college athletes who perpetrate sexual assault. Johnson and Salamone don’t.

Johnson also worries certain kinds of advocacy divert public attention from athlete-rights reforms.

“We have one gallon of energy,” says Johnson. “We only have so much to use and we have to maximize its effectiveness. If you want to talk about sexual misconduct, we’ll talk about sexual misconduct on campus. We are not going to take it down to a microscopic level to have it target football players.” 

Victoria Jackson, who ran track at North Carolina (and wrote her doctoral dissertation on 50 years of Tar Heel female sport history) makes a similar limited-resources argument as Johnson, but with a different target: She has argued that gender equity is less important than giving the revenue-generating athletes the opportunity to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor.

In a much talked-of Los Angeles Times op-ed she authored two years ago, Jackson decried modern college sports as the “21st century Jim Crow.” A white woman, Jackson asserts that there’s a zero-sum game between the Title IX activists and race-conscious athlete rights reformers.

“I simply can't morally advocate for more resources going to women's sports, even when schools might be out of compliance with Title IX — at least at Power 5 institutions, where I focus my work — because we have not been good allies,” says Jackson. “Title IX is great. But we can't be advocates for women's sports in a vacuum.”

Not surprisingly, Hogshead-Makar, who has spent much of her 30-year legal career pushing schools to comply with federal law under Title IX, says any reform that sacrifices women isn’t worthy of the term.

“I don’t think you can have reform that only seeks to protect one group of people,” says Hogshead-Makar. “It’s not just going to protect the athletes that are competing. The reform also has to have an impact on women being able to participate, and on sexual violence. I just can’t imagine any reform that wouldn’t have an impact on making sports more gender equitable on campuses.”

Redmond doesn’t buy Johnson’s notion of a scarcity dilemma, either. “Why wouldn’t you take on the NCAA from multiple angles?” she asks. “Why would you just focus on one area, instead of getting at all of the NCAA issues, sports issues, so that the NCAA has to take this on on a number of fronts?”

In fact, Redmond sees player compensation and sexual assault awareness as mutually reinforcing advocacies. Redmond grew up a college sports fan; her father played baseball at Nebraska. But she’s seen enough corruption of the NCAA and the system surrounding it — from boosters to local law enforcement — to believe it’s irreparable, and says the best way to heal college sports is to privatize it and remove the taxpayer subsidies NCAA teams currently enjoy thanks to their attachment to the education system. “I’m all for paying the athletes,” she says. “Because when victims go to sue (currently), they will usually sue the university,  and not the athlete himself.”

Paying players “allows a path to that,” Redmond says. “And it allows a path to privatization. That’s why I’m for it.”

Adds Tracy, “As an advocate and survivor, I’m not competing with others who are championing important sports reform issues. I believe there is room for everyone.”

In the case of Cody McDavis, though, that room may not be comfortable.

THE TWO-WAY PLAYER

Perhaps nobody exemplifies the weird intersectionality that arises from the reform efforts than McDavis. A former Division I basketball player at the University of Northern Colorado, McDavis became active in efforts to speak out against and prevent sexual abuse among athletes, working closely with Tracy’s #SettheExpectation campaign. But he became a national lightning rod early last year, when he wrote a New York Times op-ed, which criticized proposals to pay college players, and subsequently took to cable TV to defend the NCAA’s position on amateurism.

“Those are two definitely divergent opinions,” says McDavis, who since graduating from college earned a law degree from UCLA and now works for a firm in San Francisco. “I’m of the opinion that the NCAA is in the right with their stance on amateurism, and in the wrong in their lack of having a stance at all on sexual-violence prevention and policies.”

Although the NCAA has no doubt found McDavis’s friendly voice useful — having featured him in several promotional video clips over the years — McDavis rejects the idea that he is a tool for the status quo.

“I don’t have a blind support for the association,” he says. “I think it does good things and I’m willing to look at it objectively. But when I came out with my stance on pay-for-play, and people read it, they made sure I knew they were against it. I know what it’s like to put an opinion that ruffles feathers. People will come out in droves to make sure that I’m aware that they think my opinion is asinine. I have not had a single response like that to my advocacy in calling for the NCAA to reform its sexual violence policy. Not a single one. It’s been universal support or just crickets.”

McDavis says his background informs both positions. Raised by a single mother, he says he saw family members cope with sexual violence. And growing up poor, he says the basketball scholarship changed his life. “I had about $1,000 a month given to me in a stipend, and I pocketed about $300 of that after taking care of rent (and) food,” he says. “The rest, I didn’t need it—so it went into a savings account, every month that I was in college.”

According to McDavis, he graduated with $10,000 in the bank.

“I came to see what you can get out of college if you appreciate it,” he says.

Some of McDavis’ critics have accused him of selling out to the NCAA, or of having something akin to Marx’s “false consciousness” about player exploitation. McDavis argues the real falsity is allowing commercialism to trump education, and believing that even more commercialism, this time from the players’ side, will make things better.

“The truth is when you pay student athletes, you are doubling down on the idea that you are there to win, to play sports,” says McDavis. “You can’t pay someone to be a great athlete and expect them to be excellent at anything else if all their incentives are in athletics.”

In an interview with NOI, McDavis gave a sanguine accounting of his past collisions with athlete-rights reformers. “I don’t disrespect or take anything away from other opinions,” he says. “I just disagree, and that’s OK. That’s where change happens. If everybody’s in agreement, you’re doing something wrong.”

That sanguineness, however, may bely the tumult that McDavis has been part of in recent years, while jousting online, sometimes quite bitterly, with pay-the-player proponents. His social-media sparring partners have included Ridpath, Salamone, ESPN announcer Jay Bilas, law professor Marc Edelman and Schwarz, who was compelled to turn one of their Twitter tiffs into a multi-part blog series. McDavis has more recently made his Twitter private, citing personal reasons.

Meanwhile, misgivings about McDavis have sometimes redounded to Tracy.

“I think it totally discredits her,” says Salamone. “On the one hand, you are crafting a rule that specifically targets athletes, ignoring the fact there are sexual assaulters and perpetrators who are not athletes. And you are aligning with someone who is adopting some of the NCAA nonsense and excuses [on amateurism].”

Tracy says she has not sufficiently researched the athlete compensation issue to “form a responsible opinion” and has no intention to stake one out publicly.

Salamone adds: “What annoyed me about this [Twitter] conversation is people on the same side of the cause — Brenda and I want the same thing: we want fewer to be hurt; we want fewer victims; the system to run fairly; and for athletes to be given a good chance and protected; and for people to be protected — when advocates are fighting each other, it is so pointless.”

GAME THEORY

Can competing ideas among reformers be sufficiently resolved to make the moment count? That remains an open question.

Shropshire and Hogshead-Makar both point to an original sin baked into American athletics that makes it so resistant to reform: the fractured nature of the system. 

“Every other country has a minister of sport,” says Hogshead-Makar. “And we don’t.”

The U.S., she says, could be like other nations who have “a holistic look: What’s the best way to nurture talent, what’s the best way to make a healthy population (allowing) everybody to participate, what’s the best bang for the buck?”

Instead, with no single entity governing national sports, and with two of the most popular sports — football and basketball — enmeshed in the higher-education system, the governance resembles a collection of feudal fiefs often at war with one another. NCAA policies look awful, as do national Olympic committee policies, and state high-school policies, and local travel-team policies — if those even exist.

That’s why you can expect more discord, and shifting alliances, in the coming years as reformers attempt to change college sports. Consider the Shalala bill. The legislation authorizes an independent federal commission to study college athletics, which seems agreeable enough, but which some reformers fret might be the first step in a slow, bureaucratic death march to nowhere.

There are the debates over what such a commission should study: Both the NCPA and The Drake Group support NIL protections for athletes, but those like Zimbalist believe NIL must be regulated to prevent abuses, e.g., a booster paying a recruit $50,000 for NIL in return for a luxury stadium suite from the college sports program. Huma and the NCPA, on the other hand, want no legal caps on athlete earnings, and fear the college adminstrators marshalling their nationwide lobbying power to game the federal debate, so that NCAA rules, including limits on athlete compensation, are turned into the law of the land.

Like Huma, Redmond doesn’t agree with preserving NCAA amateurism, but she helped write TDG’s sexual-abuse policy.

“It lays the framework for basically forcing the NCAA or athletic departments to work in that area,” she says. “That’s not currently happening. Is it a cure-all? No, because it doesn’t get at the system, but it cracks the door open to legislation that will.”

Ridpath says the NCAA “could be brought down tomorrow” if players in the Power 5 conferences went on a general strike, and he believes societal changes make that a real possibility, “Athletes now as opposed to when I was growing up, they all know each other,” Ridpath says. “They can stay in touch for free on social media. When I was growing up you didn’t talk to rival athletes. Now these athletes talk to each other and they’re starting to realize collectively the voice they have. I give Ramogi a ton of credit.”

Ridpath points to the Missouri football team in 2015, which forced the resignation of the school’s president, then under fire for incidents of on-campus racism, by declaring they would not take the field in a regular-season game.

Karcher concurs.

“I've come to the point where I realize that any meaningful reform has to come from players taking the initiative to do something about it, as Billy Hawkins has talked about long before me, which certainly wouldn't happen without a major fight,” he says. “But Curt Flood did it. Because the football players in the Power 5 conferences possess incredible economic power, they actually have the ability to change the system.”

Huma knows this as well as anyone, but he also knows how difficult this simple-sounding solution is. Players who step out of line with their schools and speak up risk losing everything — scholarships, stipends, and in the cases of elite athletes, a chance to advance to the pros.

“That’s a hard dynamic,” Huma says. “I could dream up personally a million ways for college athletes to get involved and be active. But the reality is players typically don’t feel comfortable doing that. And that’s why in all these years you can look back and see how rare it is.”

Power resists change, as everyone working to reform college sports is well aware, and there’s rarely consensus on the best way to reform a cultural powerhouse like college sports. But despite the disagreements, change is happening nonetheless.

“There’s always a potential for divisiveness to hurt any reform movement,” says Zimbalist, “but I think at this point, the idea of NIL reform has penetrated into both political parties, and it’s penetrated from the radical left into the center of the political spectrum.”

And NIL may be the start of bigger reform, however one defines the term. As with so much else, we’ll know so much more come November. -30-

SCOOP: NYT BIDS “GOOD LUCK” TO ROTHSTEIN

The New York Times has ended its weekly college basketball column with CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, NOI has learned, following our revelations last month of his hyper-friendly texting regimen with college basketball coaches.

On Dec. 17, we published screen grabs from a month’s worth of text messages between Rothstein and a randomly chosen sampling of eight D-I coaches, in which Rothstein wished them “good luck” before each of their games. The texts were obtained through FOIA requests we made to a couple dozen public universities.

“We experimented with a weekly report on college basketball but it did not find much of an audience and we discontinued it,” says Randal Archibold, the Times sports editor. Archibold says that the paper’s arrangement with Rothstein was always “informal” and that he was never placed under contract.

Rothstein began writing a weekly column for the Times on Nov. 8, but his byline hadn’t appeared in the newspaper (or on NYTimes.com) since his Dec. 16 piece, “College Basketball Is Wide Open, And Could Stay That Way,” which ran the day before NOI unveiled his SMS missives.

Although this curious journalism marriage has been annulled, Rothstein’s Twitter bio still anoints him as: “Contributor: NY Times.”

THANK YOU, SORT OF, NEW MEXICO

Since we last published, the University of New Mexico formally settled a public record’s lawsuit Daniel filed, by agreeing to pay $30,000 plus legal fees.

Daniel’s suit stemmed from UNM’s denial of several records requests he had made in late 2018, while still at the wheel of NMFishbowl.com. The university claimed Daniel’s requests lacked “reasonable particularity,” which was nonsense, as are far too many claimed exemptions by university records custodians.

But alas, some public good has come from it: We’re putting that full 30K to work in furtherance of The Intercollegiate’s journalism and awaiting our next opportunity to take a transparency-avoiding public institution to court. We’re open to suggestions. We’re also grateful for — and ultimately reliant on— financial contributions that aren’t the result of court-ordered mediation. 


Luke Cyphers and Daniel Libit, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent. You can reach them with questions, comments, and tips at lcyphers@theintercollegiate.com and dlibit@theintercollegiate.com.

Featured photo by Bogdan Karlenko / Unsplash. Photo of The Drake Group’s 1999 meeting courtesy of The Drake Group. Photos of Donna Lopiano, Richard Johnson and Brenda Tracy provided by the subjects.

New Podcast: Ep. 10, Heretics in the Temple (Baton Rouge Edition)

  
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By Daniel Libit

In our latest episode of The Intercollegiate Podcast, I speak with LSU journalism chair Bob Mann, an outspoken campus critic of what he describes as the discrepant financial priorities Louisianans place on college football and higher education.

PLUS: In our College Sport Research Institute segment, Peter Schroeder, an associate professor at the University of the Pacific, tells me about his academic work seeking a model by which to evaluate a college athletic department’s “culture.”

You can listen to the full episode here or, better yet, subscribe and download via the following podcasting apps:

As I mentioned on last week’s podcast, Luke Cyphers and I have decided to unbind ourselves from a weekly publishing schedule for our reported issues of Newsletter of Intent, in order for us to make sure we’re delivering those goods when we have them in hand. (We’ll have one next week).

Happy listening.


The Intercollegiate is proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.

Interps All the Way Down

The silly, paranoid, stupid (and necessary) rules questions college athletic departments ask the NCAA.


This is Newsletter of Intent, a free (but no longer weekly) emailed dispatch from The Intercollegiate. To learn more about us visit www.theintercollegiate.com.

  • You can follow The Intercollegiate on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Subscribe to the (still) weekly Intercollegiate Podcast

  • Scroll to the end to learn about our creative partner, the College Sport Research Institute. 

Ready to commit to your college sports education?


By Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers

Is a luau a meal with entertainment? Or entertainment where food is served?

This was the conundrum facing the University of Hawaii’s athletic department. A judgment was needed. And not by any of the qualified cultural anthropologists on its Honolulu-based campus, but by someone in Indianapolis. 

After all, this question was neither philosophical, nor academic, nor gastronomical. It was about recruiting. Hawaii wanted to bring some football prospects to a luau during their official visits. But, according to Bylaw 13.6.7.5 (a) of the NCAA Division I Manual, member institutions are allowed to spend upwards of $75 per day “to cover all actual costs of entertaining” recruits and their family members. That spending limit, however, excludes “the cost of meals and admission to campus athletics events.”

Thus, the conundrum: what is a luau? Dinner or a show?

At first, Hawaii went to its compliance contacts at the Mountain West Conference, which agreed that the meal portion of the luau could be excluded from the $75 per diem, if it could be priced out of the entertainment. Still, the school sought something more definitive.

And so, early last year, Hawaii’s compliance office transmitted a formal Interpretation Request to the NCAA through its Requests/Self-Reports Online (RSRO) database, the same Internet portal where college athletic departments are made to concede any number of low-level rules violations.

The Interpretation Request, however, is typically a proactive measure a school takes to avoid running afoul of those rules.

“Interp is needed because a luau consists of guests eating Hawaiian food, but also featuring [sic] entertainment such as Hawaiian/Tongan/Samoan music as well as cultural dance,” Hawaii wrote to the NCAA.

“Because this is an excellent opportunity for (prospective student-athletes) to learn about the unique culture of Hawaii, institution would like to have PSAs and family members attend a luau and not use entertainment monies.”

The NCAA assigned Hawaii’s query Case No.1044446.

Some 60 individuals in the NCAA’s academic and membership affairs department handle Interpretation Requests across all three college divisions. That’s in addition to their duties of processing waivers and providing other kinds of “governance support.” In the simplest cases, where the letter of the rule or a previous official interpretation speaks directly to a school’s inquiry, the staff can render a binding confirmation. If the school fails to follow the directive of the binding confirmation, it’s considered a rules violation.

In some cases, an individual NCAA staffer will handle the Interp Request alone. For Hawaii’s layered luau controversy, though, the matter was taken up at a “bylaw team meeting.” 

Last Jan. 22, the NCAA rendered its judgment:

As the event is both a meal and entertainment, the analysis should focus on what is the purpose of the event. For example, is the event primarily for entertainment but food is served? Or is the event primarily for a meal and entertainment will simply occur while the meal is consumed?

(A Hawaii athletics official says the school now asks its luau company how much the meal portion costs and allocates it as a recruiting entertainment expense.)

If any of this reads like pure insanity — or at least farce gleaned from a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” script — be warned: we’ve got a lot more where that comes from.

As crazy-making as the NCAA rulebook actually is, its specter creates a paranoia multiplier effect that perpetually agitates a cottage industry of professional worrywarts, who are made to wrack their brains over some of humanity’s most inane and extraneous questions. But fail to do that and run the risk of losing your job.

For a window into the mania of college sports compliance, there’s perhaps no better place to look than in the RSRO database. So, that’s what we did.

Beginning last summer, we made public records requests of scores of Division I public universities for NCAA interpretation requests transmitted over the first half of 2019. Today, we are publishing documents we obtained from 91 different D-I athletic programs. In most cases, their schools provided us the RSRO case summaries of Interp Requests, with or without the NCAA’s verdict. Texas also provided the informal emails sent between its athletics compliance staff and the NCAA over a series of different rules questions.

The Southeastern Conference handles the NCAA interpretation requests for its affiliates, so we instead obtained the email communications between the SEC compliance office and three member schools — LSU, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

Needless to say, there’s plenty to make you hike an eyebrow.

Five years ago, the NCAA promulgated a new interpretations philosophy meant to benefit athletes and streamline the process by giving schools greater discretion and flexibility over how they apply the rules. As these documents attest, those directives have done little to curb the systemic neurosis. There remain still too many rules with too much ambiguity and professional stakes too high over concerns too small.

“I don’t know how much flexibility the new process actually gave,” says Jo Potuto, a University of Nebraska law professor who previously chaired the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions. “Compliance people are operating in a world where they want black and white answers. They don’t want to be on the hook for discretionary decisions.”

And so, in addition to the fundamentals of a luau, here’s some of the other kinds of concerns that bedeviled college athletic departments last year:

  • Ball State wanted to know if its football players had broken NCAA’s “promotional activities legislation” by being televised on the NFL Network announcing the Indianapolis Colts 197th overall draft pick.

  • Bowling Green wondered whether a life coach contracted by its men’s basketball team could take a basketball player and his girlfriend out to dinner at a local restaurant “as part of one of the relationship counseling sessions.”

  • Missouri Kansas-City wanted to know if it could keep two moveable barber chairs in the teams’ locker rooms, which the school had purchased as part of an effort to elicit sponsorship deal with a local hair stylist to provide haircuts to athletic department staff athletes. 

  • Nicholls State reported that several of its athletes had appeared on a student-hosted YouTube show called, “Bayou Boyz Live,” where they were given the chance to win $10 gift cards to Subway, Outback and Hooters by competing in trivia contests. “We believe this to be similar in nature to Notre Dame University Arika Ogunbowale being able to win prize money on the Dancing With the Stars because dancing was not related to her skills as a basketball player,” the school wrote in its Interpretation Request to the NCAA. (Apparently, the association overlooked Ogunbowale’s heroic performances in the NCAA tournament, aka “The Big Dance,” which is a trademarked phrase.) 

Some of the Interpretation Requests read like half-hearted attempts by compliance people to satisfy terrible ideas from within their departments. One notable example comes from Utah State, which asked the NCAA if it could do promotions with local businesses that had cheeky tie-ins to two of their current basketball players’ names. (NIL, anyone?) For example, the school offered, a local grocery store could sponsor a so-called “Bean Night," where the first 1,000 fans attending a men’s basketball game would get a can of beans — presumably in homage to sophomore forward Justin Bean. The rationale? “We think these promotions could sell a lot of tickets just because the fans love these two guys,” the school wrote. The NCAA adamantly denied the request. 

The most overwrought request we discovered came from the University of Connecticut, although its meticulousness may be understandable given how the school was involved in an unrelated NCAA investigation.

Last January, UConn sent the NCAA a nine-page memo, written and footnoted like a legal brief, seeking “interpretive assistance” on an incident in which then-Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving had been present at the home of women’s basketball coach/podcaster Geno Auriemma, at the same time two Huskies recruits were hanging out.

This kind of pre-arranged contact, between a professional athlete and a recruit, is generally considered an NCAA no-no. But UConn attempted to argue that the contact was entirely unavoidable, in part by trying to throw Irving under the bus.

As the memo explained, in hilarious detail, Auriemma had met Irving around 2010 during the coach’s involvement with the USA Basketball men’s team. When Irving was traded to Boston in August 2017, the two would occasionally see each other during the Celtics’ off-season workouts.

“In addition to a passion for basketball,” the memo read, “Auriemma and Irving learned of a shared passion for wine.”

A subsequent footnote expanded on the coach’s oenophilia: “In addition to a publically [sic] available line of Italian wines produced under his own label, Auriemma maintains a highly regarded private wine collection in his home cellar.”

(Let no opportunity for promotion go unclaimed.)

On Sep. 22, 2018, Irving came to Storrs, Conn., at Auriemma’s invitation.

According to the memo:

Irving visited UConn’s campus that Saturday afternoon. Despite Auriemma’s instruction to arrive at his home later that evening, Irving and a friend arrived some time before 7 p.m. while the recruiting event was still going on. Auriemma never considered sending Irving away or excluding him when he arrived because he did not consider him a representative of the institution’s athletics interest and, regardless, Irving was not present to interact with the prospects or otherwise provide any recruiting benefit. In Auriemma’s words, “I know who can’t be there, and I did not think that Kyrie fell into that category.”

The NCAA was not persuaded. In a Jan. 29 response to the Interpretation Request, it declared:

Based on the facts presented, an impermissible contact occurred when a professional athlete, who was not a permissible recruiter of the institution, had off campus contact with (prospective student-athletes) and their families at the house of the head women’s basketball coach. The professional athlete was invited to the home of the institution's head women's basketball coach where a recruiting activity was occurring. The facts provided do not support the contention that contact was incidental or unavoidable as his presence at the coach's house was by invitation and the professional athlete remained in the locale of the activity. The institution should work with its conference office to report the violation.

Last week, the Hartford Courant reported that the “impermissible” Irving contact was one of 28 secondary violations UConn self-reported over the last two years.

It’s a good thing that college sports doesn't have bigger ethical concerns to worry about.

Keep in mind: all of this supposedly represents a sanity check over the way rules compliance used to be. 

In 2014, the NCAA announced the adoption of new “student-athlete well-being” rules, including the allowance of unlimited meals and snacks. This came in the wake of former UConn men’s basketball star Shabazz Napier’s stunning on-camera claim that he sometimes had to go to bed “starving” while leading the Huskies to that year’s National Championship.

In addition to those rules changes, the NCAA sent a memo hailing its new “interpretive initiative,” encouraging schools to apply more of their own common-sense judgment. In a color-coded graphic, the NCAA identified certain categories of rules that had “more flexibility” in the ways in which they would be applied.

“From my perspective it made some difference, but not much,” Potuto tells Newsletter of Intent. "Maybe the major reason for it is this is a competitive environment and every school is watching to see what other schools are up to. And the leeway a school has to try and decide to be more flexible comes up at really lower level violations. Schools are still wary of doing that, because if you make a mistake, and you compete a student athlete, you face at least a potential of bigger consequences down the line.”

One of the categories of rules where the interpretive flexibility has officially remained “limited” is in recruiting, which accounts for many of the Interp Requests we obtained.

Clemson wrestled with whether a South Carolina recruiting news outlet, High School Sports Report, which asked a Tigers coach to speak at an event it was holding, was also a “scouting service” under NCAA rules.

Clemson thought not: “Institution is of the opinion that this is a news outlet that provides some information on prospects incidental to its primary mission of highlighting the high school sports programs around the state of South Carolina.” But the NCAA staff saw potential trouble: “Having coaches or sport specific staff attending the event makes this a bit of a slippery slope because of the ability to possibly recruit at the event. If this does happen, there may be a violation...”

LSU, Clemson’s fellow national football championship finalist, asked about do’s and don’ts when dealing with high school coaches who drop by campus by the summer to attend team practices. In its request, LSU made clear the prep coaches would be unaccompanied by any potential recruits, would not discuss recruiting with LSU staff, and would not be treated to any food, drink or transportation costs to come to campus, in accordance with Bylaw 13.8.

Just to make sure, LSU compliance officer Matt Jakoubek emailed his SEC counterpart: “If we drove them across the street in an institutional vehicle to see Tiger Stadium, would that be impermissible?”

The SEC’s response: “Yeah ... The provision of transportation generally is included in that prohibition technically....” Translation: We don’t care how hot it is in Baton Rouge in August, prep coaches. You’re walking.

Georgia State wanted to know whether it could give rides to women’s soccer recruits to a rescheduled game taking place 37.1 miles from its campus — “outside the 30 mile radius permitted to provide transportation to a prospect on an official visit” — after a rainstorm had flooded its home field.

Boise State asked if there was a limit on the number of in-flight bags the school could pay for a recruit to travel with to an official visit. It cited NCAA Bylaw 13.5.2.1, which allows an institution to provide “actual transportation costs.” The school wrote in an Interp Request that the wording of the bylaw made it“unclear whether or not there is any limitation on the number of bags an institution could pay for a PSA to bring on a flight to campus.”

Murray State asked about Bylaw 13.4.1.5 (a), which stipulates that a program can send postage to a recruit that is no bigger than 8 1/2 by 11 inches. A coach was interested in sending 16 individual letter-sized mailings that the recruit could put together to create a “personalized poster.” The NCAA said this was permissible. “However, the nuance to this is that it would not be permissible for the institution to have all pieces of correspondence already put together.” Clearly.

Ole Miss asked the SEC whether a coach could bring a personalized puzzle to a recruit during an in-home visit and, failing that, “permissible to take other forms of entertainment to an in-home visit (e.g. board games) if they are not personalized for the prospect.”

Kentucky emailed its SEC compliance contact about how it could use one of its green screens to take photos of recruits, without violating NCAA Bylaw 13.10.2.4. “We have been consistent that a green screen or media backdrop have to be permanent fixtures in that location,” Kentucky Associate AD Kevin Sergent wrote to SEC Assistant Commissioner Matt Boyer. The email continued:

We have extended that to not being able to have a screen in a closet, and then bring it out only for recruiting visits. In looking for ways to make a screen a permanent fixture, two situations came up that are similar and I want to confirm with you.

1. Have a green screen that rolls up but is always in the same location. For example, we have a blank wall in our team lounge that we could leave the screen at the base, and then during photoshoots (both team and recruiting), we’d raise it up and pin it on a hook; 

2. Have a blank screen/green screen that rolls down from the ceiling and then can roll back up at will (see photo below).”

In other words, a green screen that is self-aware.

Yes, it’s all rather laughable unless, of course, it’s your job.

“Every compliance person is looking at a certain point for a route out,” says Brandon Wright, who did the work at Cincinnati and Maryland before leaving the biz entirely in 2016. He is now an assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University.

“There are rewards,” Wright adds. “For example, if I filled out a waiver request for an athlete to stay on campus — if you work hard and massage relationships with the NCAA and get a positive result, the benefits are very intangible but they are there. But in terms of the day-to-day, those are few and far between. Maybe once a semester you get a positive response in terms of an interpretation or waiver approval.”

In a 2017 study published in the Journal of NCAA Compliance, Texas A&M assistant professors Clay Bolton and Anthony Rosselli surveyed 286 Division I compliance staffers to unpack, among other things, the pressures of the job. According to their findings, 35 percent of the respondents who experienced work-based anxiety couldn’t pinpoint the source.

“This is troubling in the fact that some professionals cannot seem to identify the causes of stress,” the study stated.

We have an inkling.

THE INTERCOLLEGIATE ON NPR

Last week, The Intercollegiate was profiled on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” in a flattering segment that looked at how (some) college sports reporters have turned up the skepticism dial of late.

“New Year's traditionally is one of the biggest days in college sports,” said ATC host Mary Louise Kelly, in introducing the story. “In recent years, though, college sports coverage has shifted away from a singular focus on entertainment. There's more hard-edged reporting on issues such as paying athletes or the disproportionate power and wealth of university athletic departments. NPR's Tom Goldman has this story about a journalist who has embraced the shift and become a college sports gadfly with plenty of targets.”

You can listen to the segment here.

NOSTRA CULPA

In our piece about the film “College Coach” in the Dec. 17 issue of NOI, we quoted William Wellman Jr. saying that his father, the legendary Hollywood director, had once told him in regard to remakes: “Bill, if it was good once, it can be good again.” In fact, it was another filmmaking legend, Howard Hawks, who said that. We regret the error but still believe you should see the movie.


Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent. You can reach them with questions, comments, tips and luau invitations (meals included) at dlibit@theintercollegiate.com and lcyphers@theintercollegiate.com.

Featured photo from @HawaiiFootball / Twitter


The Intercollegiate is proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.

An Old College Sports Film for Our Time

Plus: Revelations from Mizzou, Cal athlete exit interviews and Jon Rothstein's texts are even worse than his tweets.


This is Newsletter of Intent, a free weekly emailed dispatch from The Intercollegiate. To learn more about us visit www.theintercollegiate.com.

  • You can follow The Intercollegiate on Twitter or Facebook.

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  • Scroll to the end to learn about our creative partner, the College Sport Research Institute. 

Ready to commit to your college sports education?


By Luke Cyphers and Daniel Libit

Movies tackling the unsavory side of college sports — from “Blue Chips” to “The Program” to “He Got Game” — are nothing new, and have often been lauded for exposing the dire costs and hypocrisy inherent in what the NCAA likes to call “the collegiate model.” 

But a nearly forgotten 1933 film from the legendary Hollywood director William A. Wellman may be the most unflinching, sociopathic look at intercollegiate athletics ever produced—and the most instructive for would-be college sports reformers.

It’s called “College Coach,” and this raggedly executed examination of the dark, absurd heart of college football stands out because it could easily be remade today — by the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino or Ryan Coogler.

Though the picture is dated, when it comes to the game itself, there’s nothing in the 86-year-old film that feels anachronistic in 2019: academic fraud, on-field brutality, and supposedly august institutions captured by, and complicit in, abject hucksterism.

What is different? The film decides, in the end, there’s absolutely nothing to be done about it.

Nearly nine decades after it was made, “College Coach” still gets to the nub of why modern college football is so resistant to a revolution: Soul-destroying, bandit-capitalist nihilism sparks joy.

Though the film still appears occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, if it’s thought of at all these days, it’s little more than trivia fodder.

A young John Wayne, himself a former football player at USC, has an uncredited cameo.

Pat O’Brien inhabiting the title role is fascinating, given his professional arc. Just seven years after he played the shameless antihero in “College Coach,” O’Brien cemented the myth of big-time coaches as iconic molders of men in “Knute Rockne, All-American.”

Then there’s, of course, Wellman, a brawling, pioneering maverick who directed the first Oscar-winning Best Picture, “Wings,” and several other influential twentieth-century films, including “The Public Enemy,” “The Call of the Wild,” “Beau Geste” and the original version of “A Star Is Born.”

“College Coach” is worth a reconsideration now because, unlike its genre successors, it suffered no illusions about football, higher education or the coaching profession. “Right now, I’m the best football coach in the world,” says O’Brien, as Coach Gore, early in the film. “But it’s a racket. A racket where they catch up to ya awful quick. Let’s cash in on it while we can.”

Gore enriches himself with big-money merchandising agreements and media contracts, including a shoe deal, a radio show, and an autobiography, “My Life in Amateur Football.”

The coach isn’t the only one on the take. Academic institutions are willing to sell out any and all principles for the promise of gridiron glory and the dollars it brings. “Our big mistake was financing the new science lab,” says an administrator.

The players get paid under the table and don’t bother to pretend otherwise, though they do pretend to go to rigged classes. Even the dimwits, which is most of them. “Now there’s nothing in these courses that’s likely to keep them up nights, is there, professor?” Gore asks the team’s academic adviser.

The adviser assures him that’s not a problem, and tells the coach that Matthews, a backfield ace, will major in Aesthetics. To which Matthews replies, “OK, except I can’t spell what I’m majorin’ in.”

A bumbling lineman threatens to transfer: “Me goin’ Atlantic Eastern College. They make me fine big offer. Every week check I get 50 bucks. With besides automobile drive myself. Anyplace I want go … She got six cylinders.”

The canny Coach Gore makes a deal to keep the player on the roster: “I’ll get you one with seven cylinders.”

There are locker-room fistfights (encouraged by the coach), a star player who tries to sleep with the coach’s wife (not encouraged by the coach), and a scandalous insider real-estate deal centering on construction of a new stadium (instigated by the coach).

Does any of this seem familiar?

Nobody saw “College Coach” as among Wellman’s best work, certainly not the man himself. “It was not a film my father appreciated,” the director’s son, William Wellman Jr., tells NOI.

Wellman Jr. grew up among Hollywood royalty, and he went on to his own career as an actor, director and writer. He penned an entertaining biography of his father, and today, in his 80s, still gives lectures on Hollywood history.

The younger Wellman says his old man would have no problem with somebody remaking “College Coach,” or any of his movies. His dad once told him, “Bill, if it was good once, it can be good again.”

The success of all three reboots of “A Star is Born” is proof.

But at the time, few thought “College Coach” was good. The biggest issue was its casting, with Dick Powell in the role of Phil Sargent, the team’s conscientious star quarterback.

Powell was a heartthrob in early musicals, known for sappy ballads. “This was his first so-called dramatic role,” Wellman Jr. says, “and I thought it was ridiculous for him to be cast as a football player. There’s even a scene where he’s singing and tinkling the ivories.”

Almost any of the contract players for Warner Bros. would have worked better. Just two years earlier, Wellman directed James Cagney’s electrifying performance in “The Public Enemy,” and the director and actor were good friends. “Cagney could have played that role,” Wellman Jr. says. “You’d have bought it.” 

But Wellman was stuck with Powell, and “College Coach” never became more than a puzzling product of its genre. And yes, college football films were a genre in the 1930s, a way to wring money from the sport’s rapidly growing fan base.

Many of these movies were credulous tales inspired by Grantland Rice and the other the sycophantic, “Gee Whiz” sports writers of the day.

As the invaluable sports historian Murry Sperber pointed out in his 1998 book, “Onward to Victory: The Crises that Shaped College Sports”:

‘Gee Whiz’ sports journalism connected directly to athlete-hero juvenile fiction—some writers worked in both fields—and its product, in its simplest form, was the journalistic equivalent of Hollywood’s primitive college football films.

For a while, there was a counter-narrative, the “Aw Nuts” school of sports writing. A 1929 Carnegie Foundation report on corruption in college athletics proved a boon to the “Aw Nuts” view, as Sperber writes:

The report confirmed with hundreds of pages of data what the “Aw-Nuts” skeptics had long argued: College football was a huge commercial enterprise and its famous coaches, including Knute Rockne, were among the greatest self-promoters and buccaneers of the 1920s. The Aw-Nuts writers kept the issue of commercialism and corruption in intercollegiate athletics alive during the 1930s, preparing the public for further Carnegie “Bulletins” as well as Hollywood depictions of their criticisms of college sports.

While gee-whizzing flicks like “The Spirit of Notre Dame” and “Navy Blue and Gold” pumped out propaganda, Sperber points out that “Aw-Nuts” football stories also made it to the big screen. “Touchdown” in 1931 features a vile coach who lures players to campus with big payments and forces them to play injured, endangering their careers and lives.

Then there was the brutal satire of the Marx Brothers’ 1932 “Horse Feathers,” in which university leaders decide to tear down the college, including the dorms, to pay for a football stadium. When the faculty asks where the students will sleep, the college president played by Groucho Marx responds: “Where they always sleep. In the classroom.”

“College Coach” couldn’t seem to figure out where it was on the Whiz/Nuts spectrum, and with a final act that can only be described as bonkers, the movie winds up falling into an utterly cynical gray area, one today’s kids might call “Deze Nuts.” 

Which is why it’s so relevant now. 

Just like the fedora-topped reporters in “College Coach,” who normalize or ignore the systematic corruption of higher education because a winning team is “good copy,” the modern media band plays on, accompanied by a chorus of victory-hungry fans.

Wellman plays some of this corruption for laughs, and effectively, with a spicy Pre-Code Hollywood script.

“How’d ya like to sick a finger in her coffee?” says a lascivious player.

“They’re making me an honorary Woodpecker,” a booster tells Coach Gore at a speaking engagement for a Boy Scouts-like organization, and then points to his friend. “He’s a ‘pecker, too.”

But throughout much of its uneven 75 minutes, the film shakes its head and frowns on scandal, setting itself up as a formulaic Aw Nuts morality play about sportsmen gone bad.

The coach wins the conference championship and fills the stands thanks to his rampant cheating, but the coaching racket catches up to him awful quick. In his second season, with his roster depleted by his prior bad acts, Gore’s team struggles. The season finale becomes a true must-win game; a loss would blow up the financing of the coach’s stadium scheme and send him to “the poor house.” 

Gore seems headed for a deserved comeuppance. Except that’s not what happens.

At the film’s climax, Phil Sargent, Powell’s miscast quarterback, who had quit the team because football was getting in the way of his chemistry classes, is coaxed into rejoining the squad for the dying moments of the final game. So too is the character who’d been expelled for trying to shag the coach’s wife. Thanks to the prodigal players, the team comes from behind for the victory, and … 

The team erupts in celebration. So does the coach. So does his long-suffering wife. So does a chemistry professor who had previously been disgusted with the university swapping its integrity for football.

It’s an ending rendered even happier when Coach and Mrs. Gore, who’d vowed to slow down and work on their troubled marriage, abruptly decide to leave for a better-paying job at a bigger school.

In the 1993 James Caan film, “The Program,” victory in the climactic big game is a temporary triumph for the beleaguered players and coaches over a crushing system. In contrast, “College Coach” glories in the victory of the corrupt system itself: a cleat stamping on a human face—forever.

Intentionally or not, Wellman throws down a gauntlet for anybody who believes the games we watch can uphold quaint notions like sportsmanship and fairness, or that they can be reformed in any meaningful way.

In his final pre-game speech, Gore extols the most salient value in this world, then and still. “There's a crazy, daffy crowd out there screaming for a hundred thousand dollars worth a ball game,” he says. “Now go on out and deliver.”

Flawed and dated though it is, this little relic of a movie casts light on why today’s NCAA reformers have such a Sisyphean task. For more than a century, there’s been a rabid audience for the spectacle of college football, a crazy, daffy crowd that doesn’t care about hypocrisy, overlooks scandal, ignores player safety, and worships flimflam men posing as coaches—so long as they put people on the field who go out and deliver.

MORE EXIT INTERVIEWS: MIZZOU & CAL

This newsletter started with our publishing of thousands of pages of materials from Division I athlete exit and end-of-season interviews, which we obtained through public records requests. We’ve now updated our online library with documents from two more schools, Missouri and UC Berkeley.

Unsafe medical and training practices have been a regular and disquieting feature of college sports programs over the past decade. So, it came as no surprise when we saw the issue pop up at Mizzou.

But the language in an internal school memo, summarizing last year’s exit interviews with 19 football players, is still still eye-opening:

Several football student-athletes expressed serious concerns regarding the Sports Medicine program and the culture of the training room. One student-athlete described his experience as “being failed by the training staff.” All student-athletes who voiced concerns about the medical treatment they received stated they were doing so to prevent other student-athletes from having to go through what they experienced…”

The document goes on to cite athletes reporting delays in receiving “appropriate treatment” that led to “prolonged recovery.” Players worried the delays would affect “their ability to be ready for the NFL draft, limiting their opportunities to play professionally.”

The summary also states:

Student-athletes were made to feel that they were “the problem,” ie, responsible for their injury and prolonged recovery. Some student-athletes also reported that the training room is not welcoming and that some athletic trainers appear reluctant to do their job; in particular, student-athletes with chronic injuries or who do not play are begrudgingly treated.

The documents are heavily redacted, as this screenshot from one of the interviews illustrates:

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NOI contacted Missouri to ask what, if anything, the university did to address the athletes’ concerns. Nick Joos, a Mizzou spokesman, responded in an email:

In the past year as the new South End Zone Facility was opened, which features an extensive athletic training area, some structural changes were made with staff responsibilities to help ensure appropriate oversight and resources were being dedicated to all of our sport programs.

Last summer, Associate AD/Medicine Rex Sharp, who had been the Tigers’ head trainer since 1996, was reportedly replaced as the football team’s primary trainer, although he still oversees the university’s sports medicine center and supervises the entire athletics training staff.

A gendered fault line showed up in the sport of track and field, where male athletes believed they were getting short shrift—complaints summarized in Missouri’s Spring 2019 report under Areas of Concern:

The distance track and field student-athletes expressed concerns with the current state and future of the men’s distance program. They felt that the large women’s roster (~35 student-athletes) and diminishing men’s roster (~15) is negatively impacting the men’s program. From the student-athletes’ perspective a significant portion of the women’s team is not committed to athletic success and, as a result, they make choices that are detrimental to performance (e.g., alcohol consumption, lack of effort at workouts). 

They also believed they knew the culprit:

Because of Title IX, the coaches cannot cut student athletes who are not committed to the program. Permitting these student-athletes to remain part of the team has a negative impact on team culture, devalues the meaning of wearing “Mizzou” on the jersey and is detrimental to the men’s program. The size of the men’s team is restricted and Missouri talent is not going to Mizzou.

 And they offered solutions:

They suggested having “A” and “B” teams who would practice at different times and receive different level (sic) of equipment support. The other suggestion was to hire a “hands-on” assistant coach as part of the problem is that Coach Burns cannot give enough individual attention with such a big roster.

The Title IX complaints came exclusively from male athletes, though one woman runner noted “a lack of collective commitment to winning,” stating that team rules were “not enforced,” which sent “mixed messages about expectations.”

Some university athletics programs have been accused of circumventing Title IX equal opportunity requirements by creating “Potemkin” teams of non-competitive athletes to build up female athlete numbers, as this 2011 New York Times story revealed.

It’s also true that non-revenue sports for both genders often lose out to titanic football programs in intra-departmental battles for resources, which the interviews with Mizzou athletes in the throwing events highlighted:

...they noted disparity among sports in access to the weight room. They also noted that they cannot use their indoor facility at the Hearnes Center until after November because of football.

Joos responded to follow-up questions about the track interviews without really addressing them. “We consider student-athlete feedback as well as a myriad of other information we gather during the course of the year in order to provide a supportive environment for our student-athletes to excel in academically and athletically,” he wrote.

Finally, Missouri’s 2015 anti-racism protests also figure in last year’s exit interviews. The student movement four years ago threw a spotlight on racist incidents and a broader atmosphere of intolerance on the university’s campus. Shortly after Mizzou football players joined the protests and vowed not to take the field in an upcoming game unless student demands were met, the university president resigned.

Sprinkled throughout the Fall 2018 exit interviews were comments from athletes, most of whom were freshmen at the time of the protests, who said the events had a profound effect on them—and their school.

One player, for example, said the culture of the team was in “much better shape,” and that the “campus has been more responsible because nobody wants to go back to … 2015.”

Another player noticed “much more integration across racial/ethnic groups across campus” and cited as an example “3 or 4 white guys pledging historically black fraternities.”

The protests drew heavy criticism in some quarters, and were blamed for steep drops in freshman enrollment on the Columbia campus over the next two years.

That decline has reversed recently, and Missouri is now bucking national enrollment trends.

Meanwhile, Cal provided us heavily-redacted summaries of end-of-season interviews for each team sport, besides than men’s basketball and football. According to athletic department spokesman Herb Benenson, the school didn’t interview basketball players at the end of last season because there was a coaching change; the football survey documents are apparently still forthcoming.

Despite the latticework of black redaction bars, one Cal team’s problems really stood out: of the 14 Cal softball players who were interviewed, none responded as having an above-average experience.

That might be surprising to an outsider, given the program is helmed by the storied Diane Ninemire, now in her 33rd year coaching the Golden Bears. There appears to be lots and lots of athlete feedback in the documents, but scarcely any that the school would allow us to see.

When we inquired about the negativity surrounding last year’s softball team, Benenson suggested that the players’ problems largely related to facilities:

[W]e are presently investing more into the program, including in recruiting and in a new facility. Once completed, the softball stadium will include locker rooms, fixed seating for 1,500 fans, enclosed batting catches, a video board, field lighting and a press box that will enable the team to host NCAA Tournament games – all elements that the program does not currently enjoy and are important features based on feedback from student-athletes and the softball community.

Was this really the extent of the complaints? Perhaps some enterprising reporter at The Daily Californian will dig further.

HOW TO TEXT LIKE A CBB “INSIDER”

As a new college sports publication, we’re always interested in learning the ropes from those in the know. How do you build an audience? How do you make yourself relevant? How do you develop key sources? We have some intuitions, but we’re always game to pick up new tactics from the true masters of the beat.

Like Jon Rothstein, CBS Sports’s “College Basketball Insider”, who has marked off an indelible niche through sheer — how should we put this? — indefatigability. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be a nugget of college basketball news too trivial, from a team too forgettable, which Rothstein won’t glowingly hype on Twitter. His singular brand of — what might we call it? — reporting has won him some 190,000 Twitter followers, a regular New York Times (!!!) column, and the bemused attention of his media brethren.

As part of all this, Rothstein has also become, as successful people often are, the subject of some rather scurrilous rumors and innuendo: e.g., that he might not be sentient. So, we were a more than a little skeptical when we heard, some time back, that Rothstein, throughout the college basketball season, sends a “good luck” text message to every Division I coach before each game. Stadium’s “Basketball Insider” Jeff Goodman has also, in recent years, tweeted several snarky references to his competitor’s alleged texting regimen.

But come on: who would have the time to text every coach before every game? And even if this project could somehow be sufficiently streamlined — mass-texting, SMS bots, Keebler elves — who would be that obsequious?

Anyway, last week, we started making some public records requests of some Division I schools, seeking text message communications between Rothstein and their basketball coaches over the last few weeks. You know, just to put this to rest.

Well, we can already now confirm that Jon Rothstein does not send “good luck” text messages to every DI college basketball coach, before each game. For example, he appears not to have given his blessing to the Idaho Vandals coaches, who surely could’ve used it. Ditto for the coaches at Eastern Washington, who, according to the school’s public records custodian, “do not know who Mr. Rothstein is.” But these might be the outliers, because, according to our records requests…

Rothstein did send multiple “good luck” texts to Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber:

And Florida Gulf Coast’s Michael Fly:

And Nebraska’s Fred Hoiberg, who never replied:

And Colorado head coach Tad Boyle, who never replied:

And Colorado assistant Bill Grier, who never replied:

And Colorado’s other assistant, Anthony Coleman, who apparently handles the Rothstein duties for the Buffs:

And Stony Brook associate head coach Bryan Weber:

And the New Jersey Institute of Technology head coach Jeff Rafferty, who needs to charge his phone:

And…OK! Stop! Uncle! This is getting way too weird. For one thing, we rarely get public records requests returned within a few weeks, let alone a few days. (It’s nice to see college athletic departments can really hop to it when they want to.) Secondly — and seriously — what kind of journalist does this?

And yes, Rothstein does publicly self-identify as a journalist. (And yes, we reiterate, he is a New York Times contributor.)

Rothstein did not respond to an email seeking comment about his “good luck” text messages, which, regrettably, we continue to receive in droves.

But here’s some declarative wisdom that likely won’t materialize into one of his daily aphorism tweets: Real journalists FOIA, not fawn.

Now, that’s a t-shirt we’d wear.


Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent each week. You can reach them with questions, comments, tips and “good luck” messages at dlibit@theintercollegiate.com and lcyphers@theintercollegiate.com. NOI will be taking a holiday break next week, returning to your inbox on Dec. 31.

Featured photo from Annyas.com / Movie Title Stills Collection


The Intercollegiate is proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.

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