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Reflecting on the changing views of NCAA amateurism; more mail

Reflecting on the changing views of NCAA amateurism; more mail Photo:

We begin this week’s Mailbag with a somewhat important announcement.

After 15 wonderful years -- first as an entry-level producer at what was then CNNSI.com, and later as a college football and basketball columnist for SI.com -- I am leaving Sports Illustrated on July 1. I’ll still be doing much of the same thing, only for a sports media entity with a different URL. As long as you have the Internet, it won’t be difficult to find me. I’ll also occasionally appear on television, a huge bonus for any of you currently suffering from insomnia.

Pardon me for channeling every college football coach who has ever changed jobs, but I would not be leaving if it weren’t for a particularly special opportunity.

So, while I’m hardly going away, it’s the end of an era for this column, which I’ve written regularly since 2003. Therefore, I’ll publish one last farewell Mailbag to run on my last day next Tuesday. If there are some special questions you’ve been saving up for 11 years, or even 11 days … well, now is your chance. Ask me anything: about football, life or the Mailbag itself. Be sure to mention how long you’ve been reading and feel free to include links to any old editions that may be relevant. Let’s make the last one a good one.

Now, as for that little trial going on in Oakland …

With all the recent challenges to the status quo, has there been a moment that changed your perception of the pay-for-play debate? For me, hearing that Mark Emmert said in court last week that he “fears” athletes could be used to shill products in the future seemed pretty absurd.
-- Michael M., Chicago

If the O’Bannon case had stuck to its initial, narrow focus -- the use of athletes’ likenesses in EA Sports video games -- my perception would not have required much changing. While I enjoyed the game, I always found it peculiar that EA and the NCAA could get away with such a practice, just as I found it ridiculous that schools could sell players’ replica jerseys without compensating them. But in widening the lawsuit to include television broadcasts, this case has put the entire premise of amateurism on trial. It has been truly eye-opening to watch the most polarizing aspect of college sports move from my insular, everyday world into a federal courtroom in front of a decidedly non-sports fan judge.

I can’t pinpoint a specific Aha! moment, only that in reading motions and expert reports over the past 18 months, and then listening to or reading the various witness testimonies, I started to realize just how unproven the traditional justifications for maintaining the status quo are. Emmert, Jim Delany, Neal Pilson and Chris Plonsky, among others, fear what might become of college sports if the athletes receive compensation beyond tuition, room and board. Yet, in my admittedly novice legal interpretation, none have provided quantifiable evidence that any of these fears might come true. As Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir said on the stand Tuesday: “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. I’m speculating.”

Emmert believes athletes would choose schools based on which can offer the most money rather than based on traditional factors. But since no one has any idea yet what kind of money we’re talking about, how can he really know for sure? Pilson, the TV executive, thinks many fans would stop watching games, but he offers no relevant study to support that claim. And Plonsky, the Texas women’s AD, says athletes would become entitled. All of them? Judge Claudia Wilken’s questions throughout the proceedings have made it clear she’s skeptical that any of this would have a detrimental effect on academics, one of the NCAA’s core defenses.

It has been my anecdotal observation that like those witnesses, the majority of fans don’t want to see a professionalization of college athletes, though some may tolerate a lower threshold than others. (Some might not care if players start getting an extra $3,000 a year in licensing revenue, but $300,000 would be another story.) On Tuesday, the NCAA called Dr. John Dennis, whose survey found that seven out of 10 Americans oppose paying college athletes. But whether the current model is more or less appealing is not the question in this trial; it’s whether the system is legal. I don’t know what Wilken will ultimately decide, but so far the NCAA’s defense has consisted largely of lifelong administrators trotting out talking points about the wonders of intercollegiate athletics -- which, even if you agree with them, do little to answer whether the NCAA is committing an antitrust violation.

I've been excitedly following SI's coverage of the O'Bannon trial (I could not be more anti-NCAA) and I was rather surprised at Andy Staples' report on Jim Delany's testimony. Do you think it's possible he has seen how badly things are going for the NCAA, and, while not openly advocating for the plaintiffs, is kind of positioning himself for the day AFTER the inevitable end of the NCAA as we know it?
-- Greg Pannebaker, Sugar Land, Texas

Delany’s seemingly counterproductive testimony caught many people by surprise, but not me. For one thing, the man is opinionated. If you ask him a question, he is going to answer, politically correct or not. And he was under oath. Most of all, though, almost everything he said he also said before publicly. He has negotiated hundreds of millions worth of TV contracts, spearheaded three rounds of conference expansion and played integral roles in all manner of commercial endeavors. Yet he’d also like to turn back the clock and see freshmen ineligible, and he wishes athletes devoted less time to their sports. He’s not posturing; he believes those things.

While Delany, like the NCAA’s other witnesses, does not believe student-athletes should be compensated beyond their scholarships, I do wonder whether the organization could have staved off many of its current headaches if it had ceded more control to power-conference commissioners earlier. Delany, Mike Slive, Larry Scott, Bob Bowlsby and John Swofford would have pushed through cost of attendance, four-year scholarships and other progressive measures a long time ago. The Big Ten's presidents issued a statement on Tuesday painting themselves as reformers. They wouldn’t have done that without Delany’s urging.

But it’s not like he or they have changed sides in the larger debate. “Compensating the student-athletes who compete in these sports will skew the overall academic endeavor,” they wrote.

No one of power in college athletics will change their opinion on that matter until they're forced to by a court. Still, in the meantime, they want you to know they grasp the urgency of the situation.

Is there a less enjoyable job for a sportswriter than being stuck in a courtroom for a week?
-- Eric L., St. Joseph, Mich.

Actually, other than the 6 a.m. alarms and the 75-minute drives to and from Oakland, I’ve enjoyed covering the trial. It’s an interesting change of pace and certainly a historic event. Then again, I might feel differently if I covered the full three weeks without interruption. A hearty thanks to Andy Staples and Michael McCann for the middle-innings relief.

Stewart, Urban Meyer recently called his 2008 Florida Gators the best college football team to ever play. They definitely had a lot of star power, but in terms of statistical and visual dominance, does any team in history even come close to the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers?
-- Jake Dawson, Reynolds, Ill.

Having heard Meyer make references like that before, I can assure you that A) he actually believes it and B) he was referring almost entirely to that Florida team’s star power, not as much to its on-field production. To that end, he has a valid point. Other than the early 2000s Miami teams, you’d be hard-pressed to find a recent college squad that boasted more pro-caliber talent than those '08 Gators, who produced more than a dozen future NFL starters. It’s astonishing, really, and that’s not even taking into account that their most important player, Tim Tebow, is already out of the league.

But greatest college team? Florida in 2008 is not even in the discussion. For one thing, it lost a game, at home to 9-4 Ole Miss that September. Furthermore, as dominant as the Gators were the rest of the way, I don’t think you can definitively say they were the best team that year. They didn’t face 12-1 USC, with arguably the best defense of Pete Carroll’s tenure, or 12-1 Texas, which should have played in the BCS title game instead of Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma. I do generally give the “greatest” nod to 1995 Nebraska, with the caveats that I don’t feel qualified assessing teams that played much earlier, and that there are plenty of other candidates that “come close.” It’s college football, after all. No one was playing with superheroes.

Your NFL comparison for postseason rematches is flawed. The difference is NFL teams EARN the right to make the playoffs by a defined set of rules. It is NOT based on someone's opinion. That was the problem with the BCS, and it is still the problem with the College Football Playoff if the committee doesn't stick to selecting conference champions. Football is not figure skating.
-- Glenn Boyland, Johns Creek, Ga.

Tell you what: If you find a palatable way to slot five major-conference champions into a four-team playoff field without involving an ounce of opinion, I’ll rethink my stance on rematches. I can only think of one way: Draw straws.

Photo:

Vince Young has retired from the NFL. I remain surprised at how little success he had at the highest level. He is hardly the first quarterback to star in college and fail to experience similar success in the NFL. However, do you think he's the most surprising? If not, who was more of a bust?
-- Foster, Howard, Pa.

For me, at least, he wasn’t the most surprising bust in his 2006 draft class. That would be USC’s Matt Leinart. Young was exceptionally talented, but you knew he'd have a learning curve in the NFL. For one thing, his most innate talent, running with the football, was rendered far less valuable at the next level. Maybe that’d be less true if he were coming into the league in '14, with the zone-read finally an NFL staple. But even then, he ran the simplest offense imaginable at Texas. Granted, he ran it very well and was by no means a substandard passer -- in fact, he led the country in pass efficiency his final season -- but the Tennessee Titans’ playbook must have seemed like a foreign language by comparison.

Leinart, by contrast, ran a full-blown West Coast offense at USC. His offensive coordinator of four years, Norm Chow, wound up as Young’s first coordinator in Tennessee. And Leinart was extremely adept. Anyone who suggests otherwise is exercising revisionist history. His fourth-and-nine pass to Dwayne Jarrett in the 2005 "Bush Push" game against Notre Dame remains one of the most clutch plays I’ve ever witnessed in person. He wasn’t an Andrew Luck-caliber sure thing, and NFL teams were already expressing doubts on draft day when he slipped from potential No. 1 overall pick to No. 10. But I would have bet good money on Leinart becoming a long-term starter and enjoying a 10-plus-year career.

It just goes to show how difficult it is to project quarterbacks in the NFL. Both guys had the physical tools to make it. Both were lacking in other areas.

Why are you giving the Big Ten getting credit for the Washington, D.C. area? I can assure you that if there was a game at FedEx Field between Maryland and Virginia Tech, that stadium would be filled with at least 70 percent Hokies fans. The Big Ten will have the Baltimore market by adding Maryland, but the Terps will remain secondary to Virginia Tech and the ACC in the D.C. market.
-- Rickie Hodges, Norfolk, Va.

More than one school or conference can occupy a market. Both the Big 12 (with Texas) and SEC (Texas A&M) can claim Dallas and San Antonio. St. Louis is both an SEC (Missouri) and Big Ten (Illinois) town. Both the ACC (Florida State) and SEC (Florida) reach into Orlando and Tampa. These things don’t have to be either/or situations. No question, Virginia Tech has strong representation in D.C. and northern Virginia. I’ve seen it firsthand at Hokies games against USC (2004) and Boise State ('10) in Landover, Md. But there are just as many, if not more, Maryland alums in the D.C. market. Whether they care about Terps football is another matter.

Ultimately, we’ll find out whether the Big Ten Network can successfully get on basic cable in the area like it has in New York and New Jersey for Rutgers. Meanwhile, D.C. is crawling with alums from other Big Ten schools. In reporting for my story, I was surprised to learn that among the top 30 markets, the nation’s capital boasts Ohio State’s second-largest alumni base behind Cleveland. So, while your FedEx Field statement may be accurate, I’m guessing the split would be much closer to 50-50 if the Hokies' opponent was Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan. As I wrote in the article, much of the Big Ten’s strategy is based on the fact that all those alums can now see their teams play without flying back to the Midwest. That’s especially true in basketball, as 17,000 fans -- not 70,000 -- fill a venue.

Miami recently signed quarterback Jake Heaps, a fifth-year senior previously benched by BYU and Kansas. Have things gotten that bad at The U? What can we expect from the ‘Canes this year, and does Al Golden survive another 7-5 or 8-4 campaign?
-- Joe, Miami

First of all, Golden did win nine games last year, albeit with lopsided losses to the four best teams on Miami’s schedule (Florida State, Virginia Tech, Duke and Louisville). Still, he’s feeling good enough about life to pose for the current issue of Cigar Aficionado.

The Heaps transfer news definitely garnered some eye-rolls. But I don’t think it’s a reflection of anything other than that the Hurricanes lack an experienced quarterback following the underrated Stephen Morris’ graduation and Ryan Williams’ spring ACL injury. Williams, a fifth-year senior who started at Memphis in 2010, may return at some point this season. In the event that he doesn't, Golden’s options before signing Heaps consisted of redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen and two incoming true freshmen.

So, if Miami had the scholarship available, why not sign Heaps? Lest we forget, this guy was the top-rated quarterback recruit in the country coming out of high school and was talented enough to start for a respectable BYU program as a true freshman. Yes, he flamed out at Kansas, but it’s hard to gauge how much of his struggles should be pinned on him and how much should be blamed on the dearth of talent surrounding him. I wouldn’t expect a miracle turnaround in Coral Gables, but there are worse in-case-of-emergency options. If Heaps or one of the other quarterbacks happens to blossom, watch out. The ‘Canes are well stocked at nearly every other position.

Stewart, couldn’t the NFL and NBA do the NCAA a huge favor by just letting teams draft the rights to players, like in baseball and hockey? Then players could get a signing bonus and stay in college until they’re “ready,” while colleges could resume throwing money down the toilet and telling everyone toilet cash is integral to the amateur experience.
-- Dan Smith, San Diego

Believe me, colleges would love nothing more than for pro leagues to take this entire headache off their hands. But what’s the incentive for the NFL or NBA? Why would they voluntarily start spending more money on payroll, with the majority of it going to guys who never end up reaching the highest level? Those leagues have their respective age minimums in place for a reason; college football and basketball provide free de facto farm systems. The NFL doesn’t have a developmental branch, and while the NBA has the D-League, its prospects generally receive better coaching from the likes of Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari than they do in basketball's version of the minors.

This, too, has come up in the O’Bannon trial. Emmert has said many times that if an athlete wants to get paid to play football, he should go to the CFL or its equivalent. The plaintiffs would argue that the NCAA has a monopoly on feasible paths to the NFL.

You are a dimwit, and I could not read past the first few sentences of your "The real reason the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers" article. You have no comprehension of what Maryland is.
-- Scott, Frederick, Md.

It has been far too long since someone sent me a “You are a dimwit” email. Thanks for sneaking it in under the wire.

And now, here’s hoping you’ve all saved your best for last.

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