U. of North Carolina panel weighs future of college sports

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Higher education and athletics leaders explore ways to adapt to today’s commercialized environment, with the most controversial suggestion -- turning program management over to ADs -- coming from a university chancellor.

Culture, ignorance, biases all obstacles to preventing head trauma

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In college athletics, the danger of head trauma is clear. Less clear is how prevalent it is or what to do about it.

NCAA defense in likeness lawsuit not tenable, report says

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The NCAA says athletes can't share in the revenue that third parties gain by using their likeness, but its reasoning doesn't hold up, a new report argues.

Basketball coach salaries, bonuses rising faster at non-elite programs

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Basketball coaches at elite programs make millions more, but salaries and bonuses are rising faster at non-elite programs, new research finds.

Rice firing: Are we getting sick of kick-ass coaches? (essay)

Seeing the videotape of the former Rutgers University men’s basketball coach Mike Rice abusing his players reminded me of the footage of Indiana University’s famous basketball coach, Bob Knight, choking one of his players, Neil Reed. Not only reminded me, but brought back unpleasant memories of the incident and the subsequent end of Knight’s career at the university where I taught for many years.

I played a minor role in that drama -- for a long time I was the only faculty member to call for Knight’s firing and I received much public and private abuse for speaking out.  Thus, I was pleased to note that soon after the airing of the tape of Rice’s abusive conduct, more than 50 Rutgers faculty members signed a petition endorsing his firing as well as the dismissal of his boss, the athletics director Tom Pernetti, and some called for the resignation of President Robert Barchi (the former is now gone, along with the university’s lead lawyer, but the president remains, at least for now).

In fact, I see the Mike Rice incident, 13 years after the Bob Knight affair, in historical, rather than personal, terms. The situation reveals a great deal about American sports and social history.   

Before Knight, there was his idol, Woody Hayes, the successful Ohio State football coach -- famous in public for his pounding offensive ground game and, in private, well-known to journalists and many other people for his highly abusive conduct to his players. But no journalist wrote about it and players either accepted it or quietly left the Ohio State team.

Only when Hayes punched an opposing team’s player during the nationally televised 1978 Gator Bowl did the whole world learn of his frequent out-of-control actions toward athletes.   

Ohio State reluctantly fired him. However, many commentators, as well as ordinary Americans, supported him and his treatment of players. They approved of Hayes’s traditional “kick ass” coaching style and its corollary -- parents physically punishing their children.

Knight inherited all of this (he knew and greatly admired Hayes, having played basketball at Ohio State when Hayes was the football coach) and he acted out his own version of harsh physical and mental treatment of his players. Of course, both men imitated military techniques, and not by accident loved military history.  Again, journalists and many people in Indiana knew about Knight’s abusive ways -- and frequently told stories in private about it -- but only when CNN did an investigative report on it in the spring of 2000 did it become public knowledge. Then the videotape clip of Knight choking a player emerged, and the media featured the story.  

But like Hayes, Knight had many defenders, not only Indiana University basketball fans but many national commentators. The latter often held Knight up as a representative of traditional coaching and parenting methods, and quoted such cliches as: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Fast-forward to 2013. This spring, the men’s basketball coach at the University of California at Berkeley, Mike Montgomery, shoved his star player, Allen Crabbe, during a timeout in a game.  The coach pushed him so hard that Crabbe became visibly upset and teammates had to calm him down. The incident was out of character for Montgomery -- he is a very smooth, usually calm coach who worked many years at Stanford and is now at Berkeley -- and he immediately apologized, frequently and profusely. His shove also elicited zero support from the local and national media, nor from any fans.

All this brings us to Rice and the highlight reel of him abusing his players over a number of years. The only support for it that I have seen was in a Jon Stewart compilation clip this month of various Fox News commentators endorsing kick-ass coaching and parenting.

Rice's conduct crossed all current lines of coaching behavior and eventually got him fired. Montgomery saved his job because his conduct was out of character and he apologized quickly and constantly.  Moreover, in an Internet age, it is doubtful that many coaches will use abusive techniques even if they want to. They know that cell phones have cameras and a clip of them abusing a player can go viral before they exit the gym.

Ironically, the media and the public seem ahead of university administrators on this question. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, Rutgers officials knew about Rice’s abusive conduct last fall, and many there saw the full videotape of it. Yet, putting their worries about the legalities of the situation and the image of the university ahead of their concern for the welfare of the athletes, they did not fire the coach until the tape emerged last week.

But the fact remains that for an increasing segment of the media and public, abusive coaching conduct is no longer acceptable. In addition, many studies show that “kick-ass” coaching is mainly ineffective and often counterproductive. A group of social science researchers in New Zealand have worked out an opposite set of coaching techniques -- call them “counter kick-ass” -- and have persuaded the New Zealand national rugby team (the world champion All-Blacks) to use them.  

Finally and most importantly, the decline of Coach Kick-Ass is important for parents and children. Too often in the past, sometimes in the present, parents have justified physical and mental abuse of children by invoking sports coaches. If the Mike Rice tape can convince one parent not to hit one child, then it had a salutary effect.

Murray Sperber is a visiting professor in the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education program at the University of California at Berkeley.

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Rutgers says it didn't have cause to fire Rice. Contract suggests otherwise

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Rutgers officials say they previously lacked legal justification to fire now-dismissed men's basketball coach, but multiple clauses in his contract -- and the findings of an independent investigation -- suggest otherwise.

2013 March Madness academic bracket, women's edition

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On day two of the annual Academic Performance Tournament, we reveal which women's team would win March Madness if victories were based on classroom progress.

Georgia university system requires greater athletics oversight

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The University System of Georgia is the second this academic year to adopt a policy granting it more oversight of its institutions' athletic programs.

New Jersey colleges can temporarily host NCAA events after betting law stalls

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After court blocks new sports betting law, NCAA temporarily lifts its ban on New Jersey colleges hosting athletic tournaments, but some teams have already felt the pain.

The NCAA is flawed but politically invulnerable (essay)

Recently, my old friend, Alex Wolff, had an op-ed piece in Sports Illustrated in which he predicted that a metaphoric meteor would hit the National Collegiate Athletic Association. His meteor consisted of the lawsuit by various ex-players, led by Ed O’Bannon, that challenges the NCAA’s right to use their likenesses in video games and other profitable enterprises without any compensation whatsoever. Adding velocity to Alex’s meteor are the regular op-ed columns by Joe Nocera of The New York Times pointing out the hypocrisy and unethical behavior of the NCAA.

All this led to the article’s subhead: “Reviled and legally besieged, the NCAA faces the stiffest challenge yet to its power.”

All of Alex's assertions are true -- especially the hypocrisy and unethical behavior -- and yet strangely irrelevant, even the lawsuit which the plaintiffs might win in the lower courts. One of my advantages and disadvantages of having studied college sports for over 30 years, and also having tilted full blast against the NCAA’s windmills during that time, is that I have seen it all before and, therefore, hold in abeyance all judgments as to the NCAA losing its grip on college sports. 

Since 1980, The New York Times has had a stream of editorials, articles, and even investigative reports attacking the NCAA. In addition, its best sports columnists, especially Ira Berkow and Robert Lipsyte, regularly pummeled the NCAA and, on occasion, George Vecsey and others joined in. Nothing changed.

Moreover, Sports Illustrated has hardly been silent -- in fact, one of Alex’s best pieces was done in the early 1990s and called for the death penalty for the out-of-control University of Miami football program. Miami and the NCAA played on.

Now, Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit is a nice twist on an old legal story -- the NCAA has been sued before, sometimes paid millions to settle, and grows in power. There is no question that the O’Bannon suit has logic, ethics and justice on its side. 

But many cases with similar attributes die in the courts. If O’Bannon wins in the present court, the NCAA will appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. Because the case could set the precedent of turning college athletes into professionals and thus forever overturn the nature and history of college sports, the conservative majority may back away from finding for O’Bannon.

But if they did -- and the media never discusses this possibility -- the plaintiffs’ victory could be short-lived. The NCAA has close friends in Congress -- all those representatives sitting in the skyboxes of their local schools for football and basketball game -- and the association would immediately ask its political friends to write a new law to nullify the Supreme Court’s judgment, possibly to give the NCAA special status similar to Major League Baseball’s.

Ironically, congressional support for the NCAA transcends partisan politics. Members from both sides of the aisle would rally behind the association because the NCAA is the keeper of college sports, and the vast majority of Americans love college sports and politicians have no appetite for going against this love.

So, Alex, good try. As always, your heart is in the right place. It is important to keep fighting the NCAA and to point out its hypocrisy and cant. I would love you to be right about the NCAA’s decline but, sadly, all my years of observing college sports tell me otherwise.

Murray Sperber is a visiting professor in the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education program at the University of California at Berkeley.

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