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.
|The Intercollegiate||Feb 19, 2020||3|
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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
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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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