Monday, March 31, 2014

A Division I Divide

FatherBlog used to have a rule - no checking mail on the weekends.

This was back when checking the mail was a big deal, as opposed to now, when most important "mail" comes with an "e" in front of it.

Anyway, his basic thinking was that he didn't want to have to deal with anything during his weekend, so he'd wait until Monday to check the mail - and any problems that might come along with it. TigerBlog isn't sure FB still employs this philosophy, though he was pretty adamant about it for a long time.

TigerBlog, on the other hand, probably checked his email 1,000 times over the weekend. So did you, he's guessing.

TB can't help it. How could anyone? It comes at you on the computer, on the phone. It's everywhere.

And, in TB's case, it's work-related.

Still, it does point out that the world has changed a lot since FatherBlog's self-imposed 48-hour information blackout. Life just doesn't seem to black out information anymore.

So there TigerBlog was yesterday, on his laptop, while watching Kentucky-Michigan in the NCAA tournament. And as he checked his emails once again, he couldn't help but think that he was seeing the great divide that is intercollegiate athletics.

On the way hand, there was the flood of emails about postponements and cancellations and reschedules due to the relentless weekend rains, the ones that never stopped, turning the opening Ivy League weekend of baseball and softball scheduled for Saturday and yesterday at Princeton into, well,  a washout.

On the other hand, there was Kentucky basketball and its unapologetic coach, turning another one-and-done group into a trip to the Final Four.

Here was a group of baseball and softball players who were hoping to get their games in. There was a group of basketball players playing on national television in front of a huge crowd in a football stadium and then ultimately heading off to a bigger football stadium and a bigger crowd with a bigger national television audience.

And all of them fall under the same heading - Division I athletes.

Princeton's baseball and softball players took a different path to become a Division I athlete than Kentucky's basketball players. That's for sure.

The baseball and softball players hoped to use their athletic ability to maximize their educational opportunity for college and succeeded by ending up at Princeton, the nation's top University. Along with the men's hockey players, the baseball players can point to a legitimate chance at playing professionally, but that's only for a handful of them, and the odds remain long.

They're not here as a stepping stone for the Major Leagues. They're here for the combination of education and athletics, both of which are extremely important to them. They've committed themselves to both their whole lives, and this is their reward - the chance to play their sport at a high level while getting a world-class undergraduate education.

And they get to play at a school that places a premium on their complete athletic experience. This is defined by the ability to compete for the league championship, to travel, to have proper support from athletic training, communications, faculty fellows, the equipment staff - to reach their fullest potential as individual athletes and as a team. Mostly, it's meant to be an extension of the educational mission of Princeton - Education Through Athletics - with its life lessons about teamwork, self-discipline, hard-work, time management, sacrificing the individual for the greater good of the team.

To do this, Princeton University acknowledges the importance of intercollegiate athletics and agrees to fund it accordingly. The idea that the baseball or softball teams generate revenue? It's non-existent. There's not even an admission charge to see either team play. 

The five freshmen who start for Kentucky are there for one reason - the NBA didn't permit them to join the league straight out of high school. That's it. That's why they're in college.

It doesn't make them bad people. Or bad students. It doesn't make them good people or good students either. None of that is the issue. They're there to play basketball.

Their student-athlete experience is defined by first-class travel, hotels before home games, many million dollar facilities, locker rooms, weight rooms, etc. 

And the money pours in. From ticket sales at 20,000-seat Rupp Arena. From NCAA tournament revenue, which is derived from what really matters, TV money.

And yet they're both groups of Division I athletes.

So what do you do about all of this, now that the first step towards unionizing college athletes cleared the hurdle last week in Chicago, when a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players can be considered employees of the school.

If the ruling stands, it opens up a huge can of worms that intercollegiate athletics will be forced to deal with, though this is probably years away with all the legalities that are coming up.

TigerBlog won't pretend to be an expert in labor law, and nor will be pretend to be an expert on the specifics of the Northwestern case.

What he does know is that there exists this great divide in college athletics, between big-time football and basketball and everything else. The problem is that big-time football and basketball involve a tiny percent of the Division I athletes but brings in all of the money, while the everything else in Division I athletics brings in no money.

It would be an oversimplification to say that the first group is there solely to try to get to the pros while the second group is legitimate student-athletes. Still, follow the money, as in, where the money comes from so do the majority of the off-field issues.

So what do you do? Unionize everyone? Are they all employees? If athletes are going to be paid, does everyone get the same? Does Johnny Manziel get the same as the nameless center who snaps him the ball? Do Kentucky's basketball players get the same as Princeton's baseball and softball players?

And what about athletic scholarships, which don't impact Ivy athletes, of course? If you're on employee, does the scholarship money become imputed income, and therefore subject to taxation?

These are questions TB has asked before.

They all became a bit more urgent this past week, with one ruling in Chicago. Who knows what impact it will ultimately have on college sports, but it could be hugely significant. How? Because it could force schools to make decisions that they don't want to, such as how much money can they possibly pay out to "employees" while also putting teams that generate no money at all on the field? And, of course, there's the whole gender equity piece.

The nature of college athletics may be shifting forever. TB has read many doomsday stories in the last few days, and while he doesn't think that the end is near, it's possible it could all look a lot different than it does now once it all gets sorted out.

The current system has a lot of flaws, but the best part is that broad-based participation is allowed to flourish.

TB would hate to see that no longer be the case.

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