By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
March 3, 2014
Les Miles, the head football coach at LSU, recently picked up a commitment from quarterback Zadock Dinkelmann. Zack’s an 8th grader from Texas.
That’s not a misprint; Dinkelmann is indeed an 8th grader. Recruiting middle school kids is increasingly common at the highest levels of college sports. And this phenomenon isn’t just limited to men’s football and basketball.
Unfortunately, a negative fallout of Title IX has been equally absurd recruiting practices for both genders. There are numerous cases of talented 8th grade female soccer and lacrosse players making their college commitments the last couple years.
The reality today is that some young athletes are being pressured by college coaches to choose their colleges before they even walk the hallways of their high schools for the first time.
Most students, parents and even college coaches aren’t happy with the situation but believe they have to participate in the insanity for fear of being left out. Parents and athletes don’t want to miss out on a college scholarship and coaches don’t want to miss out on elite players.
“To me, it’s the singular biggest problem in college athletics,” according to University of Virginia women’s soccer coach Steve Swanson.
It’s all part of the ongoing professionalization and commercialization of big-time college sports, which is fueled by a win-at-all-costs and revenue-at-all-costs mentality that is becoming pervasive throughout college athletic departments.
Of course, the kingpin in this crazy system remains football.
A Sports Illustrated article from last year, titled “Go For It On Fourth and Multiply,” by Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples, highlights the mushrooming staffs of big-time college football programs in this country.
For example, the University of Alabama last year employed 24 non-coaching support staff members for the football team alone. Those support staff members were paid $1.6 million. The 24 staff members, in areas such as operations, player personnel, football analysis, strength and conditioning, athletic relations, and video, are in addition to the head coach, nine assistant coaches and four graduate assistant coaches. The cost for the coaching staff is around $10 million more. Nick Saban, Alabama’s head coach, is making more than $5 million a year by himself.
And I haven’t even mentioned the millions of dollars going toward new or upgraded luxury locker rooms and training facilities for these programs.
“I fear for college football,” says CBS News’ investigative reporter Armen Keteyian. “It’s a runaway train.”
Alabama brings millions of dollars of revenue in every year from television and radio contracts, ticket sales, sponsorships, etc. They’re rolling in the dough, primarily because they don’t have to compensate the athletes responsible for these revenue streams at anything close to fair marketplace value.
A full athletic scholarship is nice but Johnny Manziel was worth $37 million in media exposure to Texas A&M during his freshman season.
To be sure, Alabama is far from the only school caught up in this big-time college sports arms race. Top football and basketball programs across the country are doing much the same thing. The issue at hand is do these sports operations more closely resemble pro sports enterprises (which should be taxed as such) or extracurricular activities designed to enhance the educational experience of athletically-inclined college students?
Obviously, that’s a rhetorical question, yet Alabama — along with about 75 other big-time sports universities — is allowed to operate its highly-commercialized athletic department under its school’s non-profit educational institution umbrella.
The reality is, the mission of big-time college sports factories is far from the NCAA’s stated purpose of integrating “intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student athlete is paramount.”
“If you don’t have some parameters in place, you could eventually have a football staff member for every two or three [players], and I don’t think that’s healthy for the industry,” says Greg Byrne, University of Arizona’s athletic director.
Nevertheless, Arizona and other Division I colleges continue to play along, seemingly stuck in a high-stakes game of “Keeping Up With the Joneses.”
For their part, NCAA bigwigs are afraid to clamp down too tight on this steady expansion of college sports behemoths. They’re afraid if they push too hard, or penalize too much, the Alabamas, and Ohio States of the world will tell the NCAA to take a hike, and then form their own governing body apart from the NCAA.
Where this all ends is hard to predict. But we do know that big-time college sports is filled with hypocrisy. Many NCAA administrators, college and university presidents, athletic directors, and coaches constantly talk about their educational values and the importance of “student-athletes” getting an education. But their actions speak louder than their words. Every decision they make seems to be driven by revenue-at-all-costs and/or win-at-all-costs motives, not educational ethos.
At some point, that has to change.
Or, we’ll soon be reading about 5th graders committing to good ol’ State U.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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