Give it to the NCAA
Thursday morning’s cover of USA Today blared the two words on everyone's lips: “the death penalty.” No, this isn’t because Texas Governor Rick Perry – who just loves executin’ innocent and guilty alike - is now running for President. It’s the fate that most people believe awaits the storied football team at the University of Miami. The death penalty means that the NCAA will for an indeterminate time shut down the entire Hurricanes program. It’s a brutal, financially crippling fate that many believe Miami has more than earned, following a Yahoo Sports expose by Charles Robinson which detailed eight years of amateur violations that would make Dennis Rodman blush. A mini-Madoff financial criminal named Nevin Shapiro, currently serving 20 years behind bars, offered prostitutes, payola, jewelry, yacht parties and every possible South Beach excess for the Hurricane players. While corrupting the athletic program, he was simultaneously being feted by school President, former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala and Hurricanes athletic director Paul Dee. They even let him on two occasions lead the team out of the tunnel on game day.
This bombshell has the moral majority of sports journalists in full froth, rushing to the barricades to defend amateur sports. We have people like Sporting News columnist David Whitley, to use merely one example, writing, “The only way to make Miami behave is a long timeout. No more football, smoke and parties for a couple of years. Nothing else has a chance of ending the culture of corruption that is The U.” He even calls Miami "the Ben Tre of college football", writing, “American forces wiped out the village to get rid of the Viet Cong, prompting a timeless explanation from the U.S. commander: ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.’ The only way to save Miami is to destroy it, stripper pole and all.” But like the war in Vietnam, not to mention the actual death penalty, the call for the NCAA to shut down the program is dead wrong. As with capital punishment, eliminating the Hurricanes is an exercise in hypocrisy that does nothing but ensure these scandals will happen again and again.
What this scandal should produce, instead of the isolation and destruction of one program, is a serious reflection on the gutter economy that is college athletics. Players cannot be paid openly and legally so instead we get the amoral wampum of “amateur sports.” Reading the Yahoo Sports story, it’s difficult to not be chilled by the casual misogyny detailed as strippers, “escorts” and hookers were purchased and handed to players like party favors. You wonder why over 80% of NFL players get divorced after retirement. It’s because as teenagers, they are mentored by parasites like Nevin Shapiro who show them that women are the exchange value for their lucrative labor. This kind of gutter economy also has an ugly echo in old slave plantations, as the prized sports specimens in the antebellum South were handed women by the masters in return for their athletic prowess. Or as David Steele wrote earlier this week, ”Of course, America’s tender little feelings will be bruised if this is equated to slavery, or a plantation economy, or a plantation mentality. Fine. Maybe it can live with a metaphor like sharecropping. You do all the work, we take all the profits, we compensate you with the bare necessities of life, and tough break if you don’t like it."
The metaphor works because once you wave away the smoke and hot air, this is about jock sniffing criminals and corrupted college Presidents taking advantage of primarily poor African Americans from the South, who see everyone getting paid but them. One anonymous University of Miami player told Yahoo Sports about University running back Tyrone Moss, who took $1,000 from Shapiro. “The guy had a kid while he was in college, a little Tyrone Jr.,” the player said. “He comes in poor as [expletive] from Pompano and he’s got a little kid to feed. I could barely feed myself. I can’t imagine having to feed a kid, too. Of course he’s going to take it when someone offers him $1,000. Who wouldn’t in that situation?”
The solution lies in paying the players but it also lies in driving a stake through the heart of the NCAA as an instrument of enforcement. Having the NCAA shut down the program only reinforces the illusion that they are the motor of morality, compliance and justice, when in fact they are the corrupters of these concepts. Already, NCAA President Mark Emmert, he of the seven figure salary, has been across the national media, preaching about protecting, “The integrity of intercollegiate athletics.” Emmert and his 14 assistants, each who make at least $400,000 a year, will stand on their soapbox and quarantine the bad boys of Miami just in time to save the Golden Goose: the billion dollar television contracts, and the $135 million from the Bowl Championship Series used to crown a fake national champion.
They defend amateurism as an end unto itself, but this is also complete nonsense. As Patrick Hruby wrote at espn.com last year, “Philosophically speaking, amateurism is malarkey, about as credible as the Tooth Fairy. The Victorian-era English aristocrats who came up with the concept ascribed it to the ancient Greeks, who supposedly competed for nothing more than glory, honor and olive wreaths. The only problem? History and the legend don't match. Modern archeology suggests that the ancient Olympics were rife with spoils. Think prize money, prime amphitheater seats, generous pensions and civic appointments. According to Olympic historian Tony Perottet, one Games winner even parlayed his victory into a senatorial seat in Athens. Indeed, the ancient Greeks didn't even have a word for amateur, and the closest term --idiotes -- needs no translation."
Let what has happened at Miami be a wakeup call: the NCAA has about as much moral authority to give “the death penalty” as Rick Perry. If this ends with the NCAA giving Miami the death penalty, then the “gutter economy” survives and we are all the worse for it. If you listen closely, you can hear King Leopold’s chains rattling in the NCAA’s halls, haunting and guiding the daily maneuvers of this “non-profit” that enriches itself by paying its laborers nothing. Shut it down and end the culture of corruption once and for all.
Dave Zirin just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.