Thursday, August 4, 2011

Decorated Journalist Frank Deford calls Auburn a “serial cheat,” then completely misses the point

image In a segment heard yesterday on NPR’s Morning Edition, sports commentator Frank Deford referred to Auburn University as a “serial cheat.”

Deford isn’t your wet-behind-the-ears wannabe from Bleacher Report, nor is he a TMZ-style gossip reporter. He is a member of the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. He is a six-time US Sportswriter of The Year. The American Journalism Review cited him as the nation's finest sportswriter, and twice he was voted Magazine Writer of The Year by the Washington Journalism Review.

He is also the author of 16 books, two of which have been made into movies. He’s also the author of two original screenplays: Trading Hearts and Four Minutes. By all reasonable accounts, the man is a sportswriting legend.

Here are excerpts of his comments:

Emmert should certainly know. Both colleges whose presidential mansions he graced, LSU and the University of Washington, have been punished by the NCAA. But, of course, so will many of the presidents be coming from athletically-convicted campuses. It's certainly worth highlighting that the two prime incumbent NCAA champions Auburn in football, UConn in basketball are both current offenders. UConn convicted; Auburn, already a serial cheat, under investigation once again.

If the retreat would only admit that the reason integrity has flown the coop is because it is impossible to maintain the fiction that billion-dollar entertainment industries, which is what ticket sales, concessions and TV contracts make college football and basketball to be simply cannot logically exist when everybody is making money but the entertainers themselves. Never mind fairness; it is against human nature. The system obliges hypocrisy and mandates deceit.

I can’t think of a more caustic preview of NCAA President Mark Emmert’s upcoming Presidential Retreat. I share Deford’s skepticism about having anything game-changing emerge from the retreat, but Deford gets some of the key facts wrong and in doing so, he blows an opportunity to leverage his gravitas and drive the narrative.

Auburn is tied for the most instances of NCAA sanctions imposed since the league started smacking behinds in 1957, but hasn’t been hit with anything since the 2004 episode covering Basketball. UConn did indeed run afoul of NCAA bylaws in Basketball, but no one in the media likes Jim Calhoun anyway and maybe Deford just couldn’t resist the bandwagon.

However, LSU was never penalized by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions while Emmert was in Baton Rouge. From 1987 through 2010, LSU and Vanderbilt were the only two Southeastern Conference schools to have avoided NCAA sanctions. The school most recently received a one-year probation—the shortest timeframe that can be imposed—for Football recruiting violations committed by a rogue assistant coach. The school discovered, investigated and self-reported the violations and was praised by the Committee for its cooperation and forthrightness. Sounds like Emmert may have left them in good shape, doesn’t it? At Washington, the school was placed on probation for recruiting violations in Men’s Basketball.and cleared its former Football coach, Rick Neuheisel of any wrongdoing. Washington’s probation period ended in 2007 and the school hasn’t been investigated or sanctioned since. Laying these two instances at Emmert’s feet and suggesting that he hasn’t the integrity to convene a summit to begin addressing the problems in college athletics is just plain wrong.

Playing loosely with the facts is one thing. But completely missing the boat on what’s broken in college athletics is another, and even for a man with Deford’s credentials, it’s inexcusable. In the second paragraph quoted above, Deford says that integrity in college athletics has been lost because it’s a billion dollar industry and athletes are the only ones not rewarded.

Paying the players, again?

Auburn—Deford’s “serial cheat”—is being investigated over last fall’s bombshell revelation that it’s former quarterback was shopped by his father for $180,000; and last spring’s HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel episode, where four former Auburn Football players claimed to have been paid for their services. It bears noting that Deford contributes frequently to that show. But the fact is, pay-for-play violations are a rarity in college sports. Indeed, most impermissible benefit cases involve non-cash benefits or benefits consisting of piddly sums of money.

The real wolves threatening the flock are coaches and administrators who appear to be making calculated decisions of risk vs. reward in gaining a competitive advantage in recruiting and then deciding that the rewards for getting away with it exceed the risks of being caught and punished. Once that calculation is made, the programs come up with new and interesting ways of bending, evading or breaking the rules. Clandestinely paying the players isn’t new and interesting at all.

In Oregon’s ongoing investigation, none of the players involved were believed to have collected a single penny. In Tennessee’s recently concluded case, not one cent changed hands. At Georgia Tech, an entire athletics department made a conscious decision to cover up a $300 secondary violation—carried out from the AD to the Head Coach and right through the compliance department. Deford’s suggestion that the amateurism model is broken because the players don’t reap the benefits of the billions is just wrong.  Which one of the two cases Deford tried to lay at Emmert’s feet consisted of players getting paid illicitly for their services?

While it’s true that the current system “obliges hypocrisy and mandates deceit,” what’s broken is that the risk reward calculation favors the cheaters. Even if you came up with a fair and equitable system of player compensation, it wouldn’t change the risk-reward calculation at all.

Change the calculus and you’ll fix the problem.

Exit Question: Does Frank Deford join Paul Finebaum on the Never to Yield Foundation “Hit List?”

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