Monday, June 20, 2011

So, Should We Ignore All That BCS Stuff?

Jim Delany is none too pleased with southern and western (read: non-Big Ten) domination of the college baseball world series:  

College baseball isn't fair to Big Ten schools, Delany says. And for 10 years, he's fought like hell to level the playing field. He gives himself an “A” for effort.
“But if I were giving myself a grade for getting on base and driving in runs, it would be a very low grade.”
Perception says the Big Ten doesn't care about baseball. But no administrator in America has pressed harder to revamp the system. Delany's biggest ideas:
• Adopt a national start date in March or April and move the season deeper into summer.
• Devalue the RPI, which favors Sun Belt schools.
• Ditch the current method of national seeding and return to regional qualification for the College World Series.
College baseball's answer: No. No. No.
Then, last summer, Delany formally proposed the CWS move from eight teams to 10, with the two new slots reserved for cold-weather schools. Cold shoulder again.
“I've got no more proposals,” Delany told the World-Herald. “I'm out of ideas. What else can we possibly do?”
 In response to Delany's proposals, Sun Belt commissioner Wright Walters had this to say:
The problem is you want your conference to take away opportunities for my teams, to play on the stage our teams created in 1947.
Just kidding! That's what Delany said, with a few minor alterations, about BCS access this past winter when the Mountain West pitched a fit about the uneven playing field.

I supported Delany then, and I support the principal now. The major conferences, Big Ten and SEC foremost among them, drive most of the interest in college football. The stage is their stage, and if they don't care to cut ever-larger slices to conference that cannot fill 30,000 person stadiums, then swell. But the converse applies as well in those rare circumstances where the Big Ten can't compete against the big boys like, uh, Cal State Fullerton and Fresno State. The College World Series is their big stage, and the Big Ten shouldn't be guaranteed a few spots on that stage just because it has teams north of the 40th parallel. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Phil Mushnick, Professional Concern Troll

Rich Rodriguez will be appearing on CBS College Sports next season, and New York Post Really Old Guy Phil Mushnick that is a very bad thing. Normally I'd link the pertinent sections and laugh, but this deserves the full fisk:

Cbs [sic] Sports Network has hired Rich Rod riguez as a college football game and studio analyst. 
The same Rich Rodriguez who regularly recruited and indulged criminals and assorted bad boys as the head coach at West Virginia and then Michigan? 
Yeah, that one. 
Pacman Jones and the late Chris Henry, for example, starred for Rodriguez at WVU. Both would accumulate rap sheets as thick as playbooks. But such players helped land Rodriguez the gig at Michigan, where the stadium they call "The Big House," began to take on the other meaning.
As Adam Jacobi points out, Pacman Jones and Chris Henry combined for one offense during their time at West Virginia, a fight for which Jones received a suspension. Those two accumulated lengthy rap sheets as professionals. Abolish the NFL! Unless bored football players start assaulting people, of course.

As for the crack at Michigan, once again, as Jacobi points out, Rodriguez's tenure was known for a lot of lulzy things but not for all uncontrolled criminal malfeasance

Mushnick continues:
1. Big-time college football and basketball are as crooked as the lines on a polygraph. American universities continue to serve as see-through false fronts. Few college presidents, ADs or head coaches could beat racketeering indictments.
I think most college presidents can go to sleep easy knowing that they are not going to be convicted of extortion or heading criminal enterprises. (Note to writers: Don't use legal terms the definition of which you haven't the foggiest notion. See also: antitrust).

That many football and basketball players -- recruited at great expense -- have no other business enrolled in the college has been a given since Bear Bryant was just a cub. 
No school's charter, especially the charters of tax-funded state colleges, mentions a thing about football or basketball. They stress education and its benefits to society.
The charters don't mention anything about movies on the quad, free condoms, or music schools either, and they do all those things. And they've been playing football for much longer than most of those activities. The first game was played in 1867; good luck stuffing that genie back into the bottle.

2. The primary underwriters of this racketeering are TV networks. It's their money that drives the armored trucks. TV networks make no moral value judgments as to who gets their money (see: CBS, Charlie Sheen). A dirty conference stocked with powerhouse teams will be generously funded before all others. 
Fox and ESPN recently signed on to pay about $3 billion over 12 years to broadcast football and basketball for the soon-to-be Pac-12. It's easy. You hold your nose with one hand, sign with the other. 
And then, to add to the insidious lunacy, you instruct your broadcasters to shill it up, to see and speak no evil. Why? Would any conference otherwise refuse to cash your checks?
TV networks are evul because Charlie Sheen.
3. Big-time coaches who fall, regardless of why, are "taken care of" by TV. They're hired as analysts, hired for their "expertise," though their expertise on exactly what it takes to succeed is left unspoken.
College head coaches are hired because people know who they are and because every single head coach knows way, way more about football than you do. I know, I know, Ron Zook is clueless and Joe Paterno is old and Ron Prince and Mike Locksley and all the rest, but as much fun as it is to make fun of those guys, they know more about football than almost anyone in the world. This makes them more viable candidates for jobs that call for talking about football than, say, sports media journalists. And Rodriguez isn't even a dope; at minimum, he is one of the architects of the spread football revolution, one of the top offensive minds in college football, and will be a head coach somewhere within a year or two. I think that works for qualifications, Phil.
Colleges typically dangle large cash bonuses to coaches for a certain number of wins, for making bowl games and postseason tournaments. How do such incentives serve anything other than exacerbating the win-at-all-costs corruption?
They give bonuses for graduation rates too. But yes, schools like winning. News at 11.
CBS Sports Network, a fairly new entity, is just working off the same old plan. TV is loaded with college football and basketball coaches who were hired and fired for the same bad reasons. What should disqualify you only enhances your chances. But where do the clean guys go for a TV gig?
Is Urban Meyer dirty? Bob Davie? Steve Lavin?
And 'round and 'round, lower and lower we go. And we call it college athletics. Yahoos, here there and everywhere, lap it up, love it, don't care if it's crooked. Besides, your school's more crooked than theirs!
Take that, yahoos!

So how does American society benefit from all this? What's our payoff for indulging this? What do we get in return for making college basketball and football coaches the highest-paid, by far, state or university employees? 
Beats me.
Ugh one sentence paragraph endings. But leaving that aside, since when must everything exist for the benefit of American society? Besides from hilarious penis joke headlines, how does the New York Post benefit American society? How does Phil Mushnick benefit American society? How do any sports benefit American society? And what a strange standard to set.

BONUS MUSHNICK COVERAGE: believe it or not, this wasn't the dumbest part of today's article:

SO Plaxico Burress exits prison wearing a red Phillies' cap, a hoodie over the cap, sunglasses and shorts (Was it hot out or cold?) claiming to be a changed man. 
Hmmm. Put me down as "undecided."
What could possibly be the point of this little aside? If he genuinely doesn't know, why include it? You could literally put anything in that spot and it would make as much sense ("Is Plato's Republic still relevant in 21st Century America? Hmmmm. Put me down as undecided.")

Obviously, this isn't what he really means. Mushnick is winking at his audience--look how this hoodlum dresses!--and hoping the readers catch on. Replace "SO" with "I'M NOT RACIST BUT" and you'll get the full effect, and yes, if you can blithely state that you can pick a college coach's name out of a hat and find someone indictable under RICO, I can play the race card. Trollface is as trollface does.

Maybe Mushnick would prefer if college coaches just avoided recruiting players that look like Plexico Burress? (One more sentence here. Will not close with one-sentence zinger ending).

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Where the Players Own the Game

Will Leitch in the Atlantic identifies what the magazine thinks is one of the 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year (and by extension, the biggest idea in sports this past year):
The world of sports is able to exist because it treats its labor unlike any other business on Earth. If you are an accountant, a librarian, a car salesman, whatever, when you receive an offer from anyone in the world for your services, you are able to take it. You can work anywhere, for whatever wage you’re able to grab. If this happened in sports, the result would be chaos: every team’s roster would turn over every year, and all the talent would be concentrated on two or three teams (even more than it already is). So much of a sport’s appeal is in the illusion of team history and continuity; unbridled free agency would destroy that illusion. For all the talk of supposed “rich and spoiled athletes,” few other industries can get away with labor practices that essentially amount to high-paid indentured servitude for the players.  
LeBron’s example marks an evolution in athlete culture, one in which players realize their power. You’re seeing this everywhere now, from the NFL and NBA labor battles to the better understanding of concussions and athlete safety. For their part, fans are better educated than they’ve ever been (thanks to the Web) and are starting to side with the players in kerfuffles like labor disputes. Fans used to feel that owners somehow “earned” their money, while pro athletes were just fortunate winners of a genetic lottery. This is the exact opposite of the truth. (Holding on to your job is about 95 million times harder for a player than for an owner.) Sure, guys like LeBron and Carmelo Anthony are seen as mercenaries, but from a business standpoint, we understand their leverage ... and even appreciate and envy it. 
Basketball is a bit unique because the NBA salary cap restricts how much individual players can make. Lots of players are "maximum" level, and if they decide to change teams, every team in the league with cap space will offer them the maximum. In those situations, players use secondary factors, like favorable tax environments or climate, to make decisions.

But the NBA is the exception to the rule. One thing that has always alienated me from professional sports is that players have very little control over their career. Once drafted, the player is stuck with that organization for at least one year no matter what. When they try to get out of that situation, they are portrayed negatively by the media and fans. When they reach free agency, they generally just follow the money--there are exceptions, of course, but they are just that: exceptions. Your favorite player on your favorite professional team is there either because he is contractually obligated, or because they threw the most money at him. It is hard to romanticize that.

That's not to say the system is evil or that players shouldn't chase money (though I absolutely despise the draft process). And it's not to say that college players don't chase money, too. But just as you make a decision as to where to go to college or which team to cheer for, every college athlete makes a decision (mostly) severed from economic considerations to attend that institution. A linebacker is a Packer or Bear or Lion or Viking by coincidence; he is a Badger or a Wildcat or a Wolverine or a Gopher by choice. If LeBron's Decision leads to a professional sports environment where athletes have true attachment to their locales, that is the best news I've heard all year.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Let Agents Pay the Players

I share John Gasaway's beliefs about amateurism and see the NCAA's attempts to define amateurism as "accepting no benefits besides a scholarship from anyone ever) as misguided. I also think there are a few low-hanging fruit situations where athletes are clearly getting a raw deal. Case in point: EA Sports sold about 1.5 million copies of NCAA Football 2011 for XBox 360 and PS3. If they sold the game for $5 more, maybe sales fall to 1 million (assuming an unrealistically inelastic demand curve), but that $5,000,000 could be given back to the players through the NCAA. It wouldn't be a huge amount of money even then (less than $1000 per player), but it would be equitable--every DI player that had his likeness in the game would get the money--and fair--the game gets every single detail about these players correct except the names, so they are effectively already using their likeness. If the NCAA wanted to play hardball on this I have no doubt that the changes would be implemented immediately.

The argument for allowing players to sell their stuff is also easy, although it assumes no second-stage problems. What I mean is this: there was a mini-uproar after the A.J. Green jersey sale suspension, and later during Gold Pantsgate, as to whether players should be allowed to sell their own stuff, with lots of people coming down on the side of "this is America so yes." And as a first-stage approximation I think this is correct. Some players are more valuable than others, and a good way of letting those players benefit without exacerbating the differences between the SEC and the MEAC would be to let the valuable players sell stuff that other people want. Third parties, and not strapped athletic departments, will then foot the bill.

The second-stage problem is, what happens when teams start giving players cheap crap that they can then sell on the open market. Think of the Gold Pants problem, only if the Gold Pants were made of tin. Every Ohio State player gets Very Special Tin Pants with their initials engraved, and those Tin Pants cost the school $10 each. Boosters know about the Tin Pants arrangement and pay $1,000 a pair for them. There is no difference between this arrangement than the boosters giving that money to the players directly, or the boosters giving that money to the school to give to the players. And I'm not sure how to avoid these fake secondary markets for crappy trinkets that will undoubtedly spring up purely as a way of providing backdoor salaries.

The only solution I can imagine is to permit binding agent relationships on the players at any point during their collegiate careers. In other words, players can agree to agents while in school, and those agents can give money to the players once those players have signed. However, the player must use that agent for his first contract in whatever professional league they next play. Now, agents have a vested interest in finding the best players; they won't just throw money at the backup long-snapper on Auburn because he goes to Auburn. Those few players that are actually underpaid can earn something approximating their true value early, and third parties will take on the risk. There will have to be rules protecting against unconscionable agreements and all that, but the details don't seem all that hard to fill in. And despite my protestations that I really could not care less about the MEAC, this rule will help better protect the little conferences; agents will be more interest in talent than name recognition, and if you are a safety at Southeast Missouri State that will definitely go in the top three rounds of the NFL draft, and agent somewhere will throw money at you to sign.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Rules Are Made To Be Broken

The official Big Twen Position on Intercollegiate Athlete Compensation is as follows: most D-1 athletes are overpaid relative to what they would get in a truly free market, even in the revenue sports. All efforts at capping total compensation, including by preventing players from selling merchandise, are attempts to level the playing field between programs. Recent proposals to increase the amount of aid to players are no different in principal than attempts to allow players to sell swag. Any changes to the system in favor of greater compensation will likely result in greater disparity between the Big Ten and the MEAC (and I'm fine with that) and fewer athletes overall on scholarship at their schools (I'm a bit more uncomfortable with that but on the fence).

What the reaction to the Big Ten scholarship proposal made quite clear is that very small amounts of additional money ($3000/year per revenue athlete, plus Title IX costs) are enough to threaten smaller programs.  Unless we're going to go beyond "Screw the MEAC" to "Screw the Mountain West and Maybe the Big East Too," any compensation proposals will have to be limited. If we are going to say firmly grounded in the world of reality, the difference between paying the players and not paying the players is going to be a couple thousand dollars a year per athlete.

Which is why I don't believe this for a second:

Jim Tressel resigned today, after the weight of allegations against him and his program became too much to bear.  There is a Sports Illustrated piece on the way that threatens to blow apart the basics of what Tressel actually did to warrant his hasty resignation, but to date we know his players sold memorabilia and received sweetheart deals from local auto dealers, he knew of it, and not only did he do nothing to stop it but signed a piece of paper saying he had no knowledge of it.  If this were simply the tattoo story from December, we would not be here.  It was a conspiracy of one that brought down The Great Sweatervest, and it's solely and completely his fault that his career at Ohio State ended this morning.  This post is not about that. 

No, this post is about what's being done to prevent it from happening again.  Because as long as the college football system -- and, for that matter, the NCAA system in general -- continues to exploit student athletes, it will happen, and happen repeatedly.  Jim Tressel did what he did not because he wanted to gain an advantage, per se; take a look at the cars your team's players are driving and tell me auto dealers in Columbus are acting alone.  Rather, Tressel did what he did because he wanted to protect his players from breaking a rule that he and his players clearly felt was improper and insignificant. And he's right.  And it's why Jim Delany's plan to increase scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance will save us from a repeat performance.

So long as we cap total compensation, we will have to prevent players from going over that cap. Some won't want to do this, like when, for example, car dealers decide they want to contribute to the team in the best way they know how. More money is always better than less money, and a certain type of player will always select the more money option regardless of whether there are rules in place to stop him or whether he is already getting money from the school. There might be some marginal deterrence at the edges, but the players willing to wantonly violate the rules, as Terrelle Pryor and others are alleged to have done, are unlikely to be dissuaded by $10 a day. As long as there are rules, Terrelle Pryors will exist to skirt those rules.