Which is worse? The New Jersey high school star who had his football scholarship offer rescinded at the eleventh hour by Connecticut? Or the Oregon players who were put through off-season workouts so grueling that three of them were hospitalized?
It’s only been 10 or so days since underdog Clemson beat Alabama in a thrilling national title game, but already the game is showing its festering underbelly. Once again, a lucky, powerful few get rich while the players get screwed. This is a story that spans the Northeast to the Northwest, involves contracts worth millions of dollars, and even winds its way to President-elect Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, Oregon suspended its football strength coach for a month without pay after three Ducks players were hospitalized for several days following an off-season workout The Oregonian described as being “akin to military basic training.” Oregon head coach Willie Taggart, newly hired from South Florida to reinvigorate a once-dominant Ducks program, said in an athletic department press release that he offered his “sincere apologies” to the three hospitalized players and their families.
It seems Taggart was trying to instill a culture of toughness at but went overboard in doing so. At least, one could argue if they really tried his intentions were in the general vicinity of the right place.
If only the same could be said for Connecticut coach Randy Edsall.
Edsall recently took over the Huskies program, which had previously offered a scholarship to linebacker Ryan Dickens, a high school senior from New Jersey. Dickens accepted that offer several months ago.
Dickens “wore UConn T-shirts to school, chatted in group text messages with other UConn recruits and had already planned to major in business,” NJ.com reported Tuesday.
“The kid’s world went into disarray.”
Then just over two weeks before national signing day, with the recruiting landscape largely settled and many teams out of available spots Edsall called Dickens and told him he no longer had a place at UConn.
“The kids world went into disarray,” Dickens’ high school coach told NJ.com. “Were just trying to pick up the ashes right now and find the best way to move forward.”
But rarely has timing conspired to make the imbalance of power between coaches and players in the big-business world of college football so starkly illuminated.
Enter Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
Dabo backs up the Brinks truck
When Clemson beat Alabama last week, Swinney didn’t just win a national title. He got paid. Big time. Clemson’s post-season success earned the coach a bonus of $1.4 million to plop on top of his already-fat $4.55 million salary.
Star quarterback Deshaun Watson got zero.
Now consider a Swinney quote from 2014. Asked whether college players should be paid, he replied: “We try to teach our guys, use football to create the opportunities … But as far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.”
Yes, you read that correctly. The guy whose extreme wealth is based on unpaid athletes risking their short and longterm health complained about entitlement.
Now is the point where a skeptic would ask, “Well isn’t this always how it’s been? Haven’t college players always toiled for the reward of a scholarship and little more? Why should it change now?”
Dave Zirin rebuts this argument powerfully in The Nation. In a piece called “The Unbearable Entitlement of Dabo Swinney,” Zirin compares Swinney’s haul to that of Clemson’s coach in 1981, when the school last won a national title.
“The head coach in 1981, Danny Ford, made $50,000 that year (adjusted for inflation, that would be $140,000 today),” Zirin writes.
“As for players, their lot in life is the same as in 1981, except now they receive a $388-a-month stipend,” he adds.
Between 1981 and 2016, college sports became a cash cow. Case in point: ESPN in 2012 paid more than $7 billion to broadcast the college football playoffs for a dozen years.
But with fatter coaching contracts of course comes more pressure. The kind of pressure that might, for example, lead a program to push its players too hard in workouts (ahem, Oregon) or coldly rescind a scholarship offer from an eager kid to make room for someone else (ahem, UConn).
All of this is why momentum has grown in recent years to pay college football players. Will that actually happen soon? Not if one cabal can help it.
And here is where our story reaches president-elect Donald Trump.
Beltway machinations in Trump’s D.C.
Lead1 is an association of collegiate athletic directors who, as The Washington Post recently reported, want “to quash proposals that would allow scholarship athletes to be paid.” In December, Lead1 announced plans to form a political action committee. Lead1’s press release touting the move says a political action committee will allow “members and affiliate members to pool their personal financial resources to support candidates who philosophically align” with the group’s “goals and objectives so that they achieve a stronger voice on Capitol Hill.”
This September, Lead1 will host a gala in hopes of furthering its cause to ensure college athletes remain unpaid while coaches such as Swinney as well as administrators such as athletic directors become filthy rich. That gala’s location? Trump’s D.C. hotel, according to the Post.
Draft promotional material for the event advertised a chance to rub elbows with “members of Congress, and special guests, including the President and Vice President of the United States,” the Post reports. A later version was more vague, offering only a chance to meet with “administration officials.” Lead1s CEO, former Maryland congressman Tom McMillen, has reportedly known Trump for decades.
Think this all sounds just a wee bit shady? You’re not alone.
From the micro level, seen through UConn’s football coach pulling a kid’s scholarship offer, to the macro level, seen through a political action committee’s Beltway machinations, college football has become rancid with greed and inequity.
We knew that already, of course. But this off-season has already underscored the dismal trend with rare luminosity. And college football season is still several months away.