Wilstein: Colleges Losing Moral Compass
May. 20, 2003
As crassly as Georgia football players acted in selling their championship rings, it's a two-bit tempest compared with the vulgarity of ACC and Big East bigwigs hatching multimillion-dollar schemes between rounds of golf.
Like the lords of the Olympic rings who indulged themselves in luxury and freebies before reform came crashing down, the marauders of the Atlantic Coast Conference holed up last week at the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla.
Nestled between 18 holes of PGA championship golf and the ocean, it was the perfect spot to plot a raid on the Big East's Miami, Syracuse and Boston College. The ACC believes the schools will enrich its coffers by an extra $30 million to $45 million a year.
The Big East athletic directors, not to be seen as pikers, ensconced themselves for their counterattack at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, also seaside in Florida, on 300 acres of old-world charm with a world-class spa. Oh, to soothe away the worries with milk-and-honey wraps and massages by the waterfall.
All that spending on suites and sweets, not to mention greens fees and banquets, no doubt will trickle down to the athletes at the bottom of the college sports pyramid. They should be grateful for their scholarships and harbor no envy that all those above them _ the coaches, athletic directors, chancellors and presidents _ are living large.
In the modern credo of college sports, greed is good for everyone except athletes.
The nine Georgia players who sold their 10-karat SEC championship rings on eBay, getting up to $2,000 apiece for baubles that might otherwise sit in drawers, clearly broke the NCAA rules.
That the rules defining amateurism are excessively strident and designed to keep the athletes in their place doesn't excuse the players from the fact that they should have known better. As they gobbled their pizzas and thought about an easy way to make a little money, alarms should have gone off.
So the Bulldogs were unsentimental about their rings and foolish about selling them. It was a trashy thing to do and cheapened the success of the season, as coach Mark Richt said, and that's probably what hurt Georgia fans and officials the most.
The players were reprimanded and suspended last week, restitution will be made, and they probably won't miss much playing time, if any.
But there is no escaping the cynicism that underlies the ring scam and is increasingly taking hold in high schools and colleges. Athletes are wising up to just how big a business it all is and how little they get from it.
That's not to diminish the value of a college scholarship, which can be worth from $60,000 to $160,000 over four years at various Division I schools. But the athletes work as hard as professionals for that money _ at practices and in games while juggling their studies _ and it seems overly onerous to crack down on them for even the smallest of rewards.
It would not undermine the whole system if some players sell relatively cheap rings given as gifts. It would not destroy the games if some players made a few bucks at autograph shows or endorsing products as their coaches do. The Olympics survived the transition from strict amateurism and so could colleges.
The ACC and Big East officials in their luxurious digs are as unsentimental and cynical as the players.
``It's about money, power and football in any order,'' says Jim Boeheim, coach of the NCAA champion Syracuse basketball team. ``It's football. It's always football. Football drives everything.''
Boeheim doesn't hide his contempt for the plan, which makes no sense except perhaps in a monetary way for the ACC.
Miami's football team doesn't need to go to the ACC to keep winning and going to bowl games. Syracuse's basketball team doesn't need a new league to make it back to the Final Four. Boston College doesn't need to send its Eagles flying into the deep South every other week to chase extra dollars.
And that's all this is: a ploy for ACC teams to divvy up what they think could be $10 million to $20 million more in a better TV deal; $8 million to $12 million more with a championship game; and $13 million more if a second team gets a major bowl game.
Last year, the nine ACC teams got $9.7 million each. Under the new scheme, a dozen ACC teams could haul in as much as $11 million apiece _ $132 million together.
It's all very clever, perhaps too clever.
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, desperately trying to keep his conference intact, challenged the purported financial benefits for Miami and urged school president Donna Shalala to consider the ``integrity issues'' of a move.
If it doesn't destroy the Big East, or create ripple effects in other conferences from the Big Ten to the Atlantic 10 to the Mountain West, the ACC's attempted raid at least lays out what college sports are all about.
It's money and more money for everyone except the athletes.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein (at) ap.org