Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An issue that won't go away

Yesterday, New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush--in one of the greatest you-can't-fire-me-I-quit moments in recent memory--forfeited the 2005 Heisman Trophy that he earned while playing for the USC Trojans. He becomes the first player in history to forfeit his award or have it stripped by the Heisman Trust, which has presented the award to the top collegiate football player since 1935.

Bush forfeited the trophy under extreme pressure from the Trust, which--despite its denials--was clearly on the verge of stripping the award due to Bush's improper receipt of gifts from an agent while he was at USC. There is further speculation that USC will also be forced to vacate its 2004 national title as the NCAA continues its investigation into the matter.

This is only the latest in a long line of recent news items focusing on "improper contact" between players and agents. Alabama coach Nick Saban famously referred to agents as "pimps" in the wake of his program's agent-related controversy this summer, saying:
"I don't think it's anything but greed that's creating it right now on behalf of the agents," Saban said in a rant at the SEC media days. "The agents that do this – and I hate to say this, but how are they any better than a pimp?
"I have no respect for people who do that to young people. None. How would you feel if they did it to your child?"
This, from a man who is scheduled to be paid $4 million per year through 2017 for coaching these same kids. Look in the mirror, Nick.

Former USC coach Pete Carroll, for his part, escaped from USC before it could be sanctioned, in order to sign a 5-year, $33 million contract with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. He will face no punishment for what happened at USC under his watch, in the same way that Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari has twice escaped programs (UMass and Memphis) immediately before they were sanctioned. Coaches, athletic directors, and NCAA officials continue to be all too quick to blame individual agents and players for illicit behavior, without even addressing the possibility that their own policies and conduct may be to blame.

From their actions, the NCAA (and auxiliary organizations, like the Heisman Trust) continue to make it clear that the single worst violation a player can commit is to try to get a piece of collegiate athletics' ever-growing revenue pie. For comparison, recall that another Heisman-winning USC running back is currently serving time in prison for multiple felonies (murder not one of them), but has never been asked to return his award. In the eyes of the NCAA and Heisman Trust, armed robbery is apparently of less concern than gifts from agents.

I think about this issue in much the same way that I think about underage drinking. A rule is put in place that is somewhat arbitrary by its nature, but that engenders strong feelings among certain special interest groups. While nobody actually believes that the rules are particularly effective at preventing the targeted behavior, the rules' existence nevertheless creates a moral battleground that defines the public discourse. This is not healthy, and in fact prevents any informed discussion on the topic.

Player-agent contact, like underage drinking, continues to rage on college campuses across the country. Instead of trying to have an honest conversation as to why, we simply shun Reggie Bush for breaking the rules--and punish current USC players who had nothing to do with the situation--without considering if the rule was just to begin with.

This is just one more example of a reactionary policy creating more problems than it solves. By creating rules and heavily punishing athletes for breaking them, we are not actually doing anything to address the underlying inequities that create the behavior in the first place. All we have accomplished is to delay the broader conversation, which will only become that much more difficult once we are finally forced to have it. In my opinion, it will come sooner rather than later.

[Huffington Post]

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