I've been paying attention to the whole NCAA / Ohio State / Jim Tressell / Terrelle Pryor meltdown in Columbus as much, if not more, as the next guy. And I have to admit taking some satisfaction in the self-destruction of a program that caused my team and its fans so much agony of defeat back in early January at the Sugar Bowl. I believe the great German word, schadenfreude, captures my feelings pretty well right about now. Among Razorback fans, I am sure I am not alone in this at all. Michigan fans too, no doubt.
But I've also been thinking about the bigger picture of amateur college athletics as a whole and how it fits into our larger culture. America from day one has been a "How can I strike it rich?" society. The great national myth is the rags to riches story. We don't pull the rich, at least not yet, out of their nice Connecticut homes and hang them in the street because they are rich and so many others are poor, for we think, hey, I might be that rich guy someday, or if not me, my kids. As long as the idea that anybody can make it here with enough effort lives on in the American mindset, the rich can apparently sleep comfortably.
We are also very reluctant to tax the rich a great deal, for a great number of us think, "Hey that could be me before the IRS someday, right?" And isn't that what our culture, especially our advertising, tells us we should want, to be that rich guy. The more you own, the better you are. And take this thought into account, our own revolution, unlike the French one, was run basically by the Chamber of Commerce of 18th century America who wrote a founding document that has the pursuit of happiness (another way of saying wealth) as being fundamental to who we are as a people.
Yet here in the land of "Everybody is Entitled to Make as Much as You Can," we have a little island called NCAA athletics where to create a level playing / recruiting field no athlete is to maximize profit for about four years. If you want a really good visual image of that as metaphor, think of those people who put sandbags all around their houses as floodwaters surround them. The water represents the American culture of profit, and the NCAA along with the universities are the little guys trying to keep those sandbags in place.
Given our culture where these athletes have been taught since childhood that to have money and things is better than not to have money and things with their teacher sometimes hard circumstances, is it any surprise really that some players can be found taking down those sandbags as fast as their elders are putting them up? To tell a young American to not take extra money for four years while their elders do just that off their labor goes against the whole cultural push of earn as much as you can with what you got. Is it any wonder that leaks keep springing in that dam? Does that excuse their behavior? No. For others do go by the book. But it at least sets the behavior of the Terrelle Pryors of the world into a larger context. Terrelle Pryor is from Pennsylvania, USA, not Mars, afterall.
Do I have a solution for this? Well, I've heard a lot of them lately, and I don't think any are without some fault or another. Some say pull down the sandbags and let them make as much money as they can. Others say we just need to do a better job of making and stacking sandbags. Though I am partial to the side of the argument that says student athletes are getting a wonderful deal with a debt free education and a place to show their talents, I also contemplate maybe getting rid of the whole idea of "student athlete" completely and let them become just university employees with a four year contract. Would that be so bad, really?
The NFL would stop getting a free minor league and start helping universities run football programs. American corporations in the form of grants pay for all types of research on college campuses, so why shouldn't the NFL pay for future players? The athletes could choose to get a portion of their salary in the form of education or not. The smart ones would get their education as well and take a smaller salary. Those not smart enough to earn one or smart enough to see the wisdom of having a college education, would at least not be a drain on educational resources. For Division One football, recruiting would be replaced with a draft system to help level the playing field for the teams and to cut out the booster with the one hundred dollar handshakes. And a standard salary would exist across the 120 teams in Division One and could be adjusted for inflation as the years go by. Why not stop pretending that college football isn't a business and save ourselves from all this grief about paid players?
Admittedly, my idea is a dream scenario that will probably never happen. The NFL isn't going to want to start paying for something it gets for free, and the power teams in college football aren't going to agree to a more level playing field that a draft would create. And there are no telling how many other complications that I haven't considered.
I thought I would end this post by quoting a line from the "The Godfather" trilogy, which captured more of the American ethos than I think many of us would want to admit. Take the scene where Michael and Fredo are having their last conversation after Michael has learned that Fredo has rather stupidly betrayed him. The line that sticks out to me is where Fredo says, "He said there was something in it for me." (I've heard it said that that line should be stamped on our national currency instead of "In God We Trust." ) And I can easily imagine Terrelle Pryor in some past conversation with Jim Tressell saying or texting the same thing, "He said there was something in it for me, [Coach.]" How many people in Columbus, Ohio, I wonder, are taking Terrelle Pryor in their minds on an imaginary fishing trip right about now? But at the risk of getting political here on a sports blog, might I also suggest that the people of Columbus consider making room on the boat for the Wall Street banker, the lobbyist bought politician, and the quarterly profit above all costs CEO. Truthfully, Terrelle Pryor could not even begin to hold their jockstrap in terms of damage done!