Leaving the announcer’s booth: one analyst’s unusual but justified reason for quitting

A recent Daily Wire story details the somewhat sudden resignation of ABC/ESPN commentator Ed Cunningham. In essence, it became a question of ethics and conscience, quoting him as quoted in the article:

I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport. I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot. In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear. But the real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.

I can understand Ed’s decision. I have, in recent years, questioned whether or not I should remain an NFL fan in light of what we are finding out regarding the injuries to players, brain injuries in particular. It could be said that Ed making this decision a high-profile decision, and not simply retiring quietly, is a way of raising awareness about injuries in football, in particular chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). For that, he should be commended.

The thing that really gets me, though, is that the same people who will criticize the hell out of Ed’s decision to quit announcing football games in light of injury risks will also criticize NFL players for asking for what they feel are ridiculous salaries. The reality is that most NFL careers are short: the average NFL career is just under 7 years (6.86 years to be exact per this Houston Chronicle article). Contrast this with most white-collar or even blue-collar careers which usually last an entire lifetime (for the sake of argument, we’ll call it an average of 35 years) and have much lower injury risk. There is also the unknown of a future career-ending injury particularly for NFL players, and it could be said the high salaries cover that risk as well as the first few years after the end of a given player’s NFL career. Of course, some players do last well over a decade, particularly at positions like quarterback, kicker, and punter which have specific protections written into them in the game rules.

It’s easy to watch a football game and just lose oneself in the action until a player gets hurt. It’s even easier to forget the injury risks from playing football become occupational hazards for players at the professional level. I’ve written about college football in the past–and it was college football games for which Ed Cunningham was a color commentator for ABC and ESPN

College players, in general, are particularly vulnerable. Their younger age is a factor, of course, but it’s also due to the fact they make tons of money for their respective schools, none of which they can ever see a penny of outside of a scholarship thanks to the crazy rules the NCAA has come up with to classify these de facto professional players as amateur athletes. The term “student-athlete”, which the NCAA invented and still loves to use, is interpreted by many as an implication that studies come first–and that’s not at all where it comes from, as I have written about previously.

Here’s hoping Ed’s conscience is a bit clearer and that he continues to prosper in his other efforts. And, yes, there are other efforts; this is the same Ed Cunningham who was one of the co-producers of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a film about the world record high score on the arcade version of Donkey Kong. I have yet to see this film, though I was a bit more active in the video arcade gaming scene around the time of (and thus heard about) the death of Doris Self, who is featured in this film.

Will the real amateur golfer status, please stand up?

How I missed this when it was relatively recent news is beyond me. But, better late than never. And it happens to fit in very well with the Pac Pro league post that just went up. I don’t usually write about golf, but this was too good not to pass up.

Golf Digest published this story back in 2011 October about the recent change to amateur status by the USGA (US Golf Association) and R&A (which originally stood for the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, but which is now a separate agency responsible for just the golf rules outside of the US and Mexico). The crux of the change is that amateur golfers can enter into a relationship with a sponsor or agent in relation to their future status as a professional golfer without losing their amateur status, provided the golfer receives no financial gain while still an amateur. Quoting the article:

In a move that surprised some purists but appeared to be a nod to the current realities facing elite amateur golfers, the gameʼs two governing bodies changed Rule 2-2 of the RAS, effective Jan. 1, 2012, to allow amateurs to enter into a contract and/or an agreement with a third party—which can include a professional agent or sponsor—solely in relation to the golferʼs future as a professional, provided the golfer does not obtain any financial gain, directly or indirectly, while still an amateur. This was accompanied by a similar allowance to amateurs to sign contracts with national golf unions and associations.

And here’s where it gets hairy. Quoting the article again:

However, NCAA Bylaw 12.3, titled “Use of Agents,” states the following:

12.3.1 General Rule. An individual shall be ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport if he or she ever has agreed (orally or in writing) to be represented by an agent for the purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability or reputation in that sport. Further, an agency contract not specifically limited in writing to a sport or particular sports shall be deemed applicable to all sports, and the individual shall be ineligible to participate in any sport.

12.3.1.1 Representation for Future Negotiations. An individual shall be ineligible per Bylaw 12.3.1 if he or she enters into a verbal or written
agreement with an agent for representation in future professional sports negotiations that are to take place after the individual has completed his or her eligibility in that sport.

(Rough translation: “We don’t give a damn what the USGA or R&A say, our rule is: get an agent, lose your eligibility.”)

The story goes on to say that this rule change basically legitimizes what has already been happening, and puts it out of the open instead of making it a back-room, under-the-table affair. It was originally an R&A rule change, but again quoting the story:

It might not have been what USGA officials desired, but to be a good partner they went along with it.

Since this story broke (or possibly before), the USGA has prepared a chart detailing the differences. The rule change appears to still be current as of 2017 according to this chart. The chart does help in understanding exactly what the NCAA allows versus what the USGA allows, and it is interesting to note that the NCAA policy is not always the more restrictive one.

Anyway, I don’t blame the USGA for this. The story as written criticizes the USGA and R&A for relaxing the rules. I really don’t think the blame belongs on the USGA and R&A though. I would blame the NCAA for not keeping its rules up to what is currently considered amateur status by a higher authority (the USGA and/or R&A in this case). Of course, the whole reason they are so strict goes back to the reason the NCAA started the “student-athlete” classification to begin with: not wanting to pay worker’s compensation for players injured while playing college sports. This despite the multi-billion-dollar revenue total from college athletics. The schools, either with the NCAA’s help or individually, should be able to afford the medical expenses of injured players. If it’s that expensive to pay for hurt football players that bring the schools millions of dollars, maybe it’s too expensive to even have a football program to begin with.

Do college golfers get hurt often enough that they should get caught up in this awful dragnet? I would hope not. Maybe we need something like Pac Pro for golf as well. Or at the very least, some kind of an amateur golfing program aimed at college-age players separate from the schools so the NCAA can’t get their gooey fingers all over it and mess it up, and do things strictly by the USGA’s definition of amateur status.

(Note: the story may not display correctly in Firefox, for reasons I am unable to figure out.)

Too radical of a concept? Professional football for college kids

In case you missed it, USA Today recently reported on a new football league, designed for developing players less than four years removed from high school who are currently ineligible to compete in the NFL. The Pacific Pro Football League offers experience in a professional football league while not interfering with college for those who still want to go to college. Key quotes from the article:

The plan: Four teams based in Southern California, each playing an eight-game schedule on Sundays during the sports dead zone of July and August. Roughly 50 players per team making an average salary and benefits package of $50,000 a year, which they’d be free to supplement with endorsements. Rules tweaked to enhance safety and give NFL scouts matchups they want to see. Coaches with NFL experience, who would teach pro-style schemes in an immersive environment unbound by rules regarding classroom time. Any player four years or fewer removed from high school would be eligible, including college underclassmen who’d entered the NFL draft.

[…]

If players want to attend school, the summer schedule wouldn’t interfere and there’d be an option to receive one year’s tuition and books at a community college. Training would continue year-round on a similar calendar to that used in the NFL. There also would be development opportunities for coaches and officials, who could come from a program started for military veterans by another advisory board member, former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira.

[…]

There are no plans to have traditional roster cuts, Yee said, but for some, taking the new option would mean giving up another. Any player signing a Pac Pro contract would forfeit NCAA eligibility, so the decision would need to be well-informed.

I have been a vocal but infrequent critic of the NCAA, particularly in how they handle football. I wrote a post critical of the NCAA back in 2013 April, in particular its use of the term “student-athlete” and how it came to be. I’m not going to rehash all of that here, but there does need to be at least one viable alternative to NCAA football for developing players in the 18 to 22 age bracket.

I don’t know if Pac Pro (as it’s apparently going to be referred to in short) will be the answer. But it’s encouraging to see this type of alternative being proposed. As far as I know, in the era of widespread college football, we have never had a professional league specifically designed to bridge the gap between high school football and the NFL. I certainly hope this takes off, and grows big enough to take a huge chunk out of the billion-dollar-plus college football industry.

And I do say “industry” on purpose. It shouldn’t be an industry. The college players are essentially unpaid professionals–or at best, paid only in scholarships. The idea that these kids can bring in so much money for their schools, and not only get barely any of it (a scholarship, if that) in order to retain their eligibility and “amateur” status–it’s crazy, and it turns common sense on its head.

What does the NCAA really stand for?

I haven’t done a good sports-related post in forever. Apparently, it takes a broken leg to get me interested in college sports. I’ve learned more about how the NCAA started than most college fans probably want to know, and I’m shocked by what I’ve found out.

This ThinkProgress article on Kevin Ware’s broken leg takes a pretty big swipe at the NCAA. It quotes a story from the 2011 October issue of The Atlantic at length, which while being over a year old, is still quite timely and relevant:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed … to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”

…The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. …

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

Now, think about this last paragraph in the light of such things as the Texas “No Pass No Play” rule, which came into effect in 1985–and has had unintended deleterious consequences, I might add. (Without going off on too much of a tangent, let’s just say youth gangs don’t care what’s on the last report card.)

The rule was originally intended to decrease failing grades by eliminating “distracting” sports, mainly for students in football, and mainly those who failed two or more courses. (If memory serves me correctly, the news exposé at the time brought to light students who failed four or more courses.) Instead of a rule focused strictly on the biggest part of the problem, the Texas version of the rule lets any teacher who can find a way to flunk a student have complete control of whether or not that student is in any extracurricular activities. Yes, there are (or at least were) teachers who will get “creative” and round down a 69.9 average so the student gets an “F” instead of a “D”. Bam! Game over. No sports, no band, no choir, no part in the school play for the next six weeks. I was stuck in “cadet band” one semester because of this, and I got a failing grade in band (68) during a grading period as a result due to the ridiculous number of demerits that being in “cadet band” set me up for. The school counselor, not surprisingly, didn’t believe me. (This is why I quit school band after that year.)

So, back on topic… any way you slice it, the bit about not meeting the academic standards of their peers is definitely hogwash today. Being on the football or basketball teams is not an excuse for having lower grades and honestly, I don’t realistically think it ever was.

The article from The Atlantic goes into detail about just how the NCAA has resorted to selling game broadcast videos and made other merchandising deals in apparent exploitation of the athletic students it should be protecting. A small portion of this:

All of this money ultimately derives from the college athletes whose
likenesses are shown in the films or video games. But none of the profits go to them. … Naturally, as they have become more of a profit center for the NCAA, some of the vaunted “student-athletes” have begun to clamor that they deserve a share of those profits. You “see everybody getting richer and richer,” Desmond Howard, who won the 1991 Heisman Trophy while playing for the Michigan Wolverines, told USA Today recently. “And you walk around and you can’t put gas in your car? You can’t even fly home to see your parents?”

… “Once you leave your university,” says [Ed] O’Bannon, who won the John Wooden Award for player of the year in 1995 on UCLA’s national-championship basketball team, “one would think your likeness belongs to you.”

Later on in the article comes a huge indictment of how the NCAA defines amateur status. I obviously can’t quote the entire article here but this should give you some idea what’s at stake. We have, on one hand, the NCAA, which has gone from its original mission to what is in effect a near-monopoly on college sports, using this flimsy excuse that college athletes are amateurs to first, exclude them from worker’s compensation claims, and second, to keep them from even negotiating with professional sports teams at all without risking their supposed amateur status.

The idea that (most) college athletes are amateurs is absurd. College athletes are paid when they get an athletic scholarship. (The walk-ons might be true amateurs, thus the “most” above.) The NCAA is truly treating college athletes like professionals by licensing their likenesses and, worse, not paying them for the privilege. The Olympics abandoned amateur status requirements back in 1986, for better or for worse. On top of this, it strikes me as just plain silly to rule players ineligible just for testing the market by negotiating with a professional team–even if no money changes hands.

This would be less of an issue if not combined with the most utterly short-sighted and galactically stupid limit of one year on scholarship commitments. Add this all up and you have the following: college athletes are at the mercy of their coaches and pretty much commit to playing their sport of choice for all four years to have a chance to graduate, if their coaches will let them. If the coach decides to cut an athlete the following year–boom! It’s either don’t graduate, hope to qualify for a Pell grant, or take out student loans.

I will probably revisit this topic at a later date. It will take me time to find suggestions on ways to fix the problems, because there are simply too many. But it’s clear to me that the NCAA as it stands today, stands for what is wrong with college athletics. We, the sports fans of the US (and the world), deserve better.

A truly dumb question for Charlie Coles

I haven’t done any sports-related stuff for a while. So much so, that I did a double take when I saw the scores, not fully realizing it was about a basketball game.

Gary Parrish’s blog at CBS Sports discusses a post-game interview with Charlie Coles, basketball coach at Miami University. The Kentucky Wildcats won the game against Miami when John Wall hit a jumper at the buzzer.

Now, Kentucky is one of the best teams in the country at this point, a popular pick to make the Final Four. (Quick lesson for those of you who do not follow college basketball, the NCAA tournament starts with 65 teams, reduced to 64 after one play-in game between the 64th and 65th seeds, then is a standard single elimination tournament after that. The Final Four is the group of teams remaining after the pool has been reduced to that number.)

Enter Dick Hall, who has the guts to ask poor Charlie “How did this one get away from you?”

Which, if you’ve been following along so far, is a question which really makes zero sense. Coles’s reply is priceless:

“I can’t believe you asked that question; I really can’t believe it,” Coles said. “Let me see here. Kentucky Wildcats. No. 4 in the country. I’m hearing four first-round draft choices. And you’re asking me how that got away from me ? Why don’t you ask John why it was so close?”

It gets even better when Charlie finds out he’s talking to a reporter from Lexington. But don’t take my word for it: listen to the audio for yourself (this is the uncut interview; the interesting part starts from 1:42, and the entire answer to the question ends at about 4:12).

Let this be a lesson to anyone who wants to ask Charlie Coles a rather dumb question like this.