Post-Fab: Scores, Scandals, and Stigmas in College Athletics

Michael Calderone

Pessimists argue that this bygone role of college sports can no longer exist, yet students and educators can decide to wrest their teams away from negative outside influences. As a result, it may be possible to remove the athletic albatross from bringing down the academic worth of the institution, and college athletics would once again truly serve the student body.

Chris Webber

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"A day of great shame," is how University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman aptly dubbed the corruption scandal that has sullied both the school's reputation and fond remembrances of a time when Michigan was heralded above most college athletic programs.

As vividly as other climactic adolescent moments, I will not be able to forget Michigan basketball forward Chris Webber calling for a non-existent time-out. The collegiate star's momentary lapse resulted in a costly technical foul, and led to North Carolina's 77-71 triumph in the heated 1993 NCAA title game. Proudly clad in Wolverines gear, I watched this, the last game that Michigan's "Fab Five" would play together. It was the end of a run featuring an all freshman squad that posted an astonishing 56 wins in their two seasons as a team.

Like countless young sports fans, I was swept away by the endearing qualities of the five freshmen whose mixture of hardwood hubris and baggy shorts made them not only a top NCAA contender, but a sight to be seen. The scourge of opponents on the court were Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson, a squad that lived up to their "fab" moniker and created a Beatles-like craze throughout the country. "We used to go on the road, and there'd be fans lined up outside our hotel wanting autographs," said Juwan Howard in a recent USA Today article.

Similar to many who remember the great team of the early '90s, however, it is difficult to ignore the press reports of corruption that have scandalized the University of Michigan in the Fab Five's wake and left more than a slight blemish on the exceptional records the men's basketball team has achieved. In the fall of 1997, an investigation coordinated by the NCAA began delving into the involvement of athletic booster Ed Martin and several former Michigan Wolverines.

Although this investigation only yielded a few minor violations, the findings of a recent federal investigation could produce harsher penalties. In November 2001, a federal investigation brought to light strong allegations that Martin had given $616,000 to four Michigan players, Chris Webber, Robert Traylor, Maurice Taylor and Louis Bullock. While only Webber had been a member of the illustrious Fab Five, the reputation of the entire team has been tarnished.

Before waiting to have a punishment bestowed upon them, Michigan announced self-imposed sanctions that appear deliberately harsh. By openly sanctioning themselves, the University of Michigan may not be further chided by the NCAA when the college athletic organization has the opportunity to re-open the investigation it began five years ago. The school decided to forfeit victories from six seasons, skip postseason play in 2003, pay back substantial revenue from NCAA appearances, and remove the banners from the '92 and '93 final four appearances that triumphantly look down upon the court in the Crisler arena.

Struck down also, for former players and fans alike, are of memories of hard fought wins that helped propel the team to the NCAA finals in two consecutive years and create a bonafied craze in the world of sports. While never capturing the illustrious NCAA title, the Wolverines captivated sports viewers and posted the top two positions in NCAA television sports ratings. The loss to North Carolina, with Webber's fateful technical foul, was viewed by 20.7 million people, making it second only to the Michigan's loss one year earlier to Duke.

Although television ratings are important, the value of the school should not be undermined by the athletic department and the scandals that tend to arise when money begins to be thrown at young, talented individuals. Ideally, the value of the academic institution should be paramount to athletic accolades, but in a media-saturated society driven by spectacle, this seems to be a very difficult task.

Like other scandals before it, the recent case of the University of Michigan serves as another cautionary tale for other programs; however, it seems unlikely that many schools will take heed. Previous college athletic scandals have leaked hidden truths about payoffs in money and merchandise to athletes, schemes and backroom bargaining for the profit of the athletic departments and boosters, and all at the expense of the University.

These past infractions show that athletic programs, including the players themselves, must be held accountable for their actions. The extravagant luxuries normally reserved for blue chip athletes, for example, should be withheld. Not only do coaches and athletic directors account for this added emphasis on sports (and the corruption that such emphasis can bring about), but also University officials who see big-time sports programs as means of getting their schools national recognition.

Does mere popularity, spurred by a few well-known athletes or successful teams, give a University a better name though? Eventually, corporate and business interests are going to prove that their aim is not in bettering the role of higher education, but instead to make a momentary profit off the sweat of semi-professional athletes. While athletic department proponents scoff at the critics who denounce the exploitation of semi-professional athletes, many thought-provoking books have shed light on this unfortunate phenomenon. Far from an isolated incident, payoffs to amateur athletes have fueled numerous investigations of big-time basketball programs.

Although written while the Fab Five were still teenagers, Peter Golenbock's Personal Fouls served as a scathing indictment of Jim Valvano's North Carolina State basketball program in the early to mid 1980's. Well known for a litany of books on sports, including several player biographies, Golenbock insisted on not criticizing the gifted athletes who are oftentimes used for their athletic prowess, only to be discarded if they no longer perform on the court. He reserved instead his harshest judgment for the athletic department and the increasing professionalization of college athletics, evident in increased television exposure and merchandise sales. Regarding the alarming trend of athletic corruption, Golenbock remarked that "college basketball used to be about school spirit and cheering for the boys and beating the archrival, but with the age of television, and now the superfund age of cable television, there is simply too money being tossed around for any athletic director to ignore it."

Focusing on Valvano's North Carolina State, the author critiqued what would be the beginning of a rising trend of commercialization. With the emergence of ESPN, and a host of cable networks, more airtime is now allotted to college sports teams and their top players. Previously, many games would have only been viewed by fans in attendance or coverage on local or campus stations. Now, these college stars are shooting in front of millions of eyes nationwide.

Culpability should certainly not be cast on the networks airing games, though, for it is understandable that people will enjoy watching these spectacles on-screen, where talented players compete for both collegiate titles and the opportunity to play in the NBA or other pro sports leagues. For today's top high school athletes, a potential deal breaker in deciding which college to attend could be the question of which market will give him the most television exposure.

And while most of these athletes plan, and a few succeed, in turning pro, it must be made clear that college players are not paid professionals, who earn a market value for their performance. They are not reaping the monetary benefits for themselves, but are instead scouted and recruited simply for the amount of television revenue they may bring to the athletic department, and not the University as a whole.

So who wins in this equation? While not earning cash, players receive the opportunity to spotlight their talents on the national stage, and, if successful on the court, may be able to skip the last few years of college and head straight to the NBA or other pro leagues. Athletic departments, for their part, reap tournament revenue and merchandising money to aid in recruitment. And the University may attract more students by having a nationally ranked sports team.

One collective loser in this scheme, though, is the group of individuals that continue to cling to the idealized notions of what the University is supposed to be: higher education for millions of people and further academic research into everything from literature to medicine. Contrary to the presupposition that a big sports program is always enticing to potential applicants, it should be stressed that consistent academic excellence is still a valuable commodity. Several prominent academic institutions such as New York University and the University of Chicago downgraded sports and have not suffered as a result. Instead these schools have prospered with having high academic rankings and a flurry of requests for admissions while not serving as a minor league for the NBA or NFL.

Somewhere along the line, however, the University's role (generally speaking) shifted to include providing minor leagues for professional sports teams. All the while, athletic departments and their boosters are kept happy with the resulting profit. And in the event that their departments fail to make a profit, sports programs often siphon money from other areas of the University.

Having attended a University that was recently adjusting to life in Division 1-A athletics, it was obvious that the necessary facilities for the majority of students were neglected for the upkeep of costly stadiums and arenas, and the placation of the school's "student-athletes," many of whom benefited from free tuition and numerous other privileges. Former long-time collegiate rivals were callously replaced after this entrance into a new conference--with many schools whose athletic records often trumped any academic successes.

In this same vein, Murray Sperber's definitive work on the subject, College Sports, Inc. illuminates many misconceptions about college athletics, principally that they serve to benefit the entire student body. He emphasizes a great disjuncture between University athletics of the past and the current state of commercial sports entertainment. Understandably, the profit potential attracts agents, boosters, and corporate sponsors with dollar signs in their eyes. While showing numerous ways others can profit off of college hoops, the author comes to a poignant conclusion: most college athletics departments lose money and are allocated funds that could serve the rest of the University.

In addition to sports programs raking in much needed funds from cash-strapped departments for equipment, facilities, and scholarships, the exorbitant coaches' salaries can be up to tenfold what an adjunct professor earns. Top college coaches are earning six figure salaries while those who are supposedly upholding the primary focus of a University, education, are made to suffer. Subtitled "The Athletic Department Vs. The University," Sperber's book provides countless examples and statistics to validate his position that the athletic department is oftentimes running counter to the educational mission of the University.

While remembering the on-court heroics of Michigan's freshmen superstars, it is difficult to forget about how money and University politics greatly affect the game played on the court. At many schools, individuals are reacting to the rampant commercialization by calling for college athletics to revert back to its former role: a chance for inter-collegiate rivalries and spirited showings of athletic talent for the benefits of the students, not for the profit of corporate sponsors and cable networks.

Pessimists argue that this bygone role of college sports can no longer exist, yet students and educators can decide to wrest their teams away from negative outside influences. As a result, it may be possible to remove the athletic albatross from bringing down the academic worth of the institution, and college athletics would once again truly serve the student body.





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