Even as we approach the Sweet 16, many college athletes can be left bitter

The NCAA tournament is in full swing at the moment as the Sweet 16 will take place at the end of this week. However, it seems the NCAA is never safe from scrutiny. President Obama cast his lot into the conversation regarding the corrupt and questionable practices of college athletics’ governing body. He made a couple of different points but the one that rung out the strongest to me was his criticism of players losing scholarships due to injury. The NCAA allows programs to revoke scholarships from players who are injured or who are cut from their respective teams.

What the NCAA continually does to college athletes is something like this. And yes I am looking at you Mark Emmert:

Let’s say that you want to learn how to cook better, so you decide to take some cooking lessons. Upon signing up for the lessons, you discover that the first four months of classes are free. This is a great deal for you, probably all of the classes you might need, and looking at the price, you probably would not be able to afford the classes otherwise. So, you begin taking classes at this local cooking shop and begin learning all sorts of new skills from a chef acting as your teacher. A week or so in, you begin to make your own dishes. The chef continually tells you that you should be researching recipes and practicing on your own time, but you have a full-time job that is meant to take your priority so this is a difficult task.

About a month into your classes, you hurt yourself during one of the sessions. You cut yourself fairly deep on your hand with a knife after you slip up chopping vegetables. An honest mistake but now you cannot go to the cooking classes for the next month due to the stitches in your hand. You take time and heal properly, just as your doctor and teacher tell you, and then return to the class.

Upon your return, someone who works higher up in the corporation that runs the cooking class approaches you. He tells you that because you missed the past month of classes, you are no longer eligible for the discount and you will need to start paying to take the cooking classes now. You complain that you were injured in one of the classes and that the injury was outside of your control. The man insists that there is no other way for you to continue attending the cooking school and you must find a way to pay.

In that story, you are fundamentally wronged and loose out an opportunity to do something you really enjoy because the school turned its back on you. Everyone recognizes that what happened is morally wrong. Yet, this happens to college athletes over and over again. And the scary thing is that there is very little that the NCAA requires colleges to provide regarding healthcare. In fact, most of the healthcare services are optional for schools to provide. So not only are they at risk of losing their scholarships due to the injury, they are not guaranteed to have any medical costs covered. Schools will occasionally cover the fees of surgeries for students but they are not required to and that they are not is what is concerning.

There are many things fundamentally wrong with the NCAA. The amount of money they make while maintaining they are a non-profit is one. The fact that they are exploiting young, college students is another. But pulling away a kid’s hopes and dreams due to an injury sustained while playing for a university under the NCAA is awful. This issue falls on both the school’s and the NCAA’s shoulders to fix, as they are both equally to blame. Schools are not required to honor scholarships; that does not meant they cannot honor them. And the NCAA, does not require schools to honor scholarships, which is sickening. People can talk all they want about how college athletes should be paid (I’m not saying they should or should not) and how the NCAA is exploiting students. Above all else, the NCAA needs to begin protecting the kids who suffer serious injuries playing collegiate athletics. That has got to be the top priority. If you want to maintain that these kids are student-athletes, with the student part coming first, then do not take away their chance to be a student because they got hurt being an athlete.

When does the risk outweigh the reward?

When you have fame, glory, all of the money you can imagine, admirers and thousands upon thousands of fans cheering your name on a weekly basis, why would you ever give it all up? When the risk outweighs the reward. But the real question is how much risk could you possibly have to overshadow all that the NFL can offer. Chris Borland demonstrated that maybe all of the lavish rewards that come along with being a football player in the U.S. are not all they are cracked up to be. Borland announced on Monday that he would be walking away from football after just one year in the league, citing concern over suffering from extensive head trauma.

What makes Borland’s retirement so surprising is that he was one of the best, young, promising linebackers in the NFL. The 24-year old from the University of Wisconsin-Madison played incredibly well this season, better than just about any linebacker in the league for the second half of the year. Then, just like that, he walked away. I commend Borland in his decision to choose his health over the sport he loves. That had to be a tough decision but it is one that I am not surprised to see him make.

Borland’s concern of injury is a reasonable one, especially with all of the turmoil surrounding the NFL regarding the rising injury toll and residual effects from playing extended years in the league. Hundreds of former players are suing the league for improper care following their playing days while dozens of others have died or committed suicide from adverse health effects linked to the NFL. Borland is not the first to pass up on his prime playing years in order to protect his health; he isn’t even the first this offseason.

Jason Worilds finished up the 2014 season in Pittsburgh with his contract set to expire. Many expected Worilds to be paid handsomely based on his previous two seasons of production in which he had racked up 122 tackles and 15.5 sacks from his outside linebacker position. Then, in a shocking turn of events, Worilds announced his retirement from football, at the age of 27. He would only have been entering his sixth season in the NFL had he stayed and likely had a couple good years left in him. Instead, Worilds chose to cash in on his five great years in Pittsburgh and hang up his cleats.

While Worilds decision was unexpected, I do not think anyone saw Jake Locker’s announcement coming. In 2011, the Tennessee Titans invested their first round selection in a fleet-footed kid out of the University of Washington named Jake Locker. Locker showed flashes of potential with his slow improvement over his first three seasons in the league. Following his rookie season, Locker was named the starter in Tennessee and that’s where the problems began. Locker missed 23 games over the next three years in the NFL, with notable injuries to his shoulder, hip and foot. Locker was still expected to come back and fight for the starting job this year for the Titans before, at the age of 26, he decided to retire.

All of these players, Borland, Worilds and Locker, represent a growing problem in the NFL: players are beginning to feel that the cons outweigh the pros. These three players were in, or were entering, the prime of their careers. And instead of cashing in on their athletic abilities, they decided to step away in order to protect themselves. The NFL has been making strides in lowering the injury risk for NFL players, but unfortunately, the league is far from eliminating or even reducing the risk by a considerable margin. Football is an extremely dangerous sport to play and for the first time, the NFL is beginning to see some of its talented young players walk away from the money on the table. For so long, the league has simply been able to count on top athletes having an ever-burning desire to play football. Now we are beginning to see that the allure is fading.

I think these three have sent a powerful and important message to the league and its fans. Borland, Worilds and Locker are essentially saying there is more to life than football. To be honest, I think this could be a rising trend in the NFL in the coming years as medical research on former and current players becomes more and more revealing. The risk of playing football is reaching a point where there is no reward to outweigh it. Sure, it will be nice to be a multimillionaire more fame than is conceivable for most people. But if you are unable to comfortably live due to the injuries sustained from your time in the NFL, then what good does all of that do? The league has stressed player safety as being a top priority but clearly not enough to reassure its players that the problem is under control. The players are everything in this league and if they begin to walk away, the consequences could be scary.

NFL proving to be ungracious guest

The NFL has proven that it is not the easiest organization to get along with over the years but a particularly interesting dynamic has arisen over the past couple of seasons. The Super Bowl is one of the league’s busiest times of year. Coordinating between the stadium, the host city, the teams and others can get overwhelming as the preparations are being made. However, through all of this, the league has little sympathy for the host city. The NFL expects full cooperation with very little granted to the city in return. Thankfully, some of the mayors involved have started speaking out.

This year’s host was the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. This was actually the second Super Bowl hosted by this stadium, the other coming back in 2008. In both situations, the NFL has tried playing hard ball with the politicians. In 2008, then Glendale mayor Elaine Scruggs reported that she had been offered Super Bowl tickets from the league. The issue was that they were at face value for $700 per ticket. Scruggs admitted she could not afford it and was planning to miss the game until a local Super Bowl planning committee came up with two free tickets for her. This year saw current Glendale mayor James Weiers forgotten completely. The league did not even offer Weisers a chance to buy a ticket to the game. He instead attend with Mitchell Modell, owner of the sport goods chain Modell’s. It seems a little cruel to put the mayors of the host city through that sort of ordeal. After all of the organization in the scheduling of the game, the league gives the mayor no compensation. That does not seem right to me.

Glendale is not the only one with these concerns either. The mayor of East Rutherford, New Jersey, James Casella had his own criticism for the league. East Rutherford is the home of MetLife Stadium and the site of last year’s Super Bowl. In addition to never being offered a ticket, Casella was infuriated by the NFL’s advertising of the game. I interviewed the East Rutherford mayor last year around the time of the game. He felt that the league was overlooking his city. He said, “Even Terry Bradshaw [Fox broadcaster] has called it the New York Super Bowl. The NFL has acted that our gift was hosting the Super Bowl and that was enough. It appears the NFL doesn’t want anyone else to make money from their game.” Casella had every right to be angry. While it is difficult to calculate, it is likely that New York got the bigger cut of the revenue generated by the Super Bowl.
While the NFL seems to be largely conceited, the cities that host the game do tend to pull in a lot of money from tourists. Rockport Analytics published research conducted on the 2012 game held in Indianapolis. The group found that Indy received $264 million from visitors and game attendees. The city of New Orleans, which hosted the 2013 edition of the Super Bowl, reported that the big game had brought in a similar amount of money from direct spending, $262.8 million. However, I have also seen conflicting numbers that are much closer to $200 million. This underlines the major problem of how difficult it is to track how much of an economic impact these games bring to a specific city. On average though, the host city is estimated to generate roughly $200 million in direct spending, according to Pricewaterhousecoopers LLP.

The debate is still open for how beneficial it is for a city to host the big game though. The reality is that the game does bring in a lot of extra income but it also leads to plenty of other costs and offsetting detractors that make it a neutral effect on the economy. I have read in just about every article about the Super Bowl’s economic impact that economists view the projections as overblown and the net gain is for the most part minimal. To that end, I haven’t exact seen huge increasing trends in economies that had the Super Bowl, nor have I seen any major drop offs. I think it is fair to reason that the overall impact of the big game is negligible at best.

If we are assuming that, the economic impact is relatively neutral then the NFL really has to start offering these mayors free Super Bowl tickets. That seems to be the only really compensation these politicians could be in line for after all of the work they put in organizing the hosting efforts. If this continues to be a trend though where the league not only provides minimal returns on the city’s investment and less than generous accommodations, we could start to see the pool of Super Bowl host cities begin to shrink. Until then though, I doubt the NFL will change it’s ways.

Nothing is sacred in football

In a week where we have seen the world of football surrounded by talk of the Patriots’ legacy being tainted for underinflated footballs and Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank admitting to the use of fake crowd noise, cheating in the NFL has been on everyone’s mind. The legitimacy of the game so loved in the US sure takes a hit but at least it was not a single player at the heart of the controversy. However, we have a new story coming to light about the man many say is the single greatest player in league history.

ESPN released a video a few weeks ago about the evolution of receiving gloves in the NFL. A little over a minute in, Jerry Rice admits that he used to put a little stickum, a banned substance by the league, on his gloves to make sure they had that extra bit of grip. The NFL officially outlawed the substance in 1981. Rice joined the league in 1985. At no point could the Hall of Fame receiver have played using stickum without violating NFL rules. Rice would have been great regardless but once again, this is a matter of going to any length for a competitive edge.

For some context, Hall of Fame receiver Andre Reed explains in the video that using stickum would allow you to completely control a football. It did not require you to grip it so much as simply touch it for the ball to stick to your hand. It made hanging on to the football both when catching it and when running with it much easier. Receiver gloves nowadays act in a similar manner but not to the point where players can palm a ball without gripping. Not to mention that gloves are not illegal to use in the NFL.

Back to Rice, he holds just about every meaningful record for a receiver in NFL history. A few have fallen but not many. The question now raised is does this taint what Rice did at all? He acknowledged that what he was doing was unfair, saying, “I know this might be a little illegal guys, I just put a little spray, a little stickum on ’em, to make sure that texture is a little sticky.” It is not the biggest thing in the world for a receiver to have used stickum but it is illegal. What makes it worse is that Rice knew he was breaking the rules. It was something the league did not heavily enforce at the time. However, using stickum is not all that different from having underinflated footballs or fabricated crowd noise. It gives you a slight edge that may not affect the outcome of a game but will go down as an unfair advantage.

This all boils down to the culture of the NFL. It is a win at all costs league. It seems that every era has some sort of scandal and they almost never seem to be the same. Players and teams are continually finding new ways around the rules all the time. It really tears down the integrity of the NFL if you ask me. This league has more scandals than any other in the United States and likely the world. It is disappointing to me as a fan to see the sport that I love more than any other tarnished over and over again by a list of infractions that is slowly building each year.

On a different level, it is really unfortunate to find out that an NFL legend like Rice was using stickum. It does not change his credibility as an elite player because Rice was still one of the most cerebral and dedicated football players of all time. It does make you think a little thought about the level of his success. It also makes you think of this year’s Patriots. There was no doubting that New England would have been good because of its talent and preparation. But the controversy leaves you wondering what if. The issue is that the Patriots have caught a lot more flack for this. In my eyes, if you want to put an asterisk next to the 2015 Super Bowl champions go ahead. But you better be putting one next to Jerry Rice’s records then. Cheating is cheating, no matter who does it, when it happens or how strongly it is enforced. Holding one example accountable means that you must hold all other accountable as well. That is just the culture of the NFL now. Find a way to get an edge, and do the best you can to make sure you don’t get caught.

The NFL versus Marshawn Lynch

The NFL has a reputation for being overly serious and unnecessarily strict about very peculiar things. Chad Johnson (or Ochocinco depending on the year) was constantly being fined by the NFL for his antics after scoring touchdowns. They viewed it as unsportsmanlike conduct, something that usually just results in a penalty. However, they fined Johnson over and over again. It got to the point where no one took the league seriously and fans began looking forward to Johnson scoring because they knew he would do something to incense the NFL.

The situation with Marshawn Lynch though, is not that. The NFL is repeatedly targeting a player for one of the most innocent objects to the league’s rules. The Seahawks’ running back has been fined repeatedly by the league for not talking to the media. Lynch is not doing it to prove a point or be defiant at all. He simply does not enjoy meeting with the press. The NFL has not consented to accept that Lynch is opposed to being interviewed. Instead, they continually threaten to fine him with exorbitant amounts of money, unprecedented fines as well, until he finally agrees to talk. It is not far from extortion at this point. The NFL is delivering an ultimatum where it cannot lose. Either the league shows its power in levying a massive fine against a player, or it demonstrates that it always gets what it wants, one way or another.

The amounts of money are starting to get out of hand as well. The league apparently held a half million dollar fine over Lynch’s head if he did speak to reporters at the annual NFL Media Day. That is a lot of money in general, but just how does it compare to some of the other fines levied by the NFL. According to a New York Daily News article, it would not have been the most but it would’ve been tied for the fourth most. Those joining him at fourth? Bill Belichick for his role his the Spygate scandal, the San Francisco 49ers organization for violating the salary cap and Jim Irsay for violating the code of conduct policy when he landed a DWI. Granted Irsay was also suspended for six games but he did receive the same fine. Lynch’s refusal to talk to the media apparently was more severe though than Shaun Rodgers carrying a semiautomatic handgun in a carry-on bag at a Cleveland airport or Ray Lewis being charged with obstruction of justice in a murder trial. They were fined $400,000 and $250,000 respectively. Apparently, bringing a semiautomatic weapon and helping cover up a murder results in a lesser penalty than telling a couple of reporters you are not interested in answering their questions.

Maybe that is a little extreme to make that comparison and obviously the NFL would never say that, but that is how it appears. If you fine a player more for avoiding the media than a gun issue or the obstruction of justice charge, it seems like avoiding the media is the bigger problem. The one upside for Lynch is that he showed up and did what he had to so he could leave as quickly as possible. However, he did taunt the media a bit with his resistance to answer questions, repeating, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” to every reporter who asked him something. So what did the NFL do in response? They announced that they were mulling fining Lynch anyway, for wearing a hat provided by a brand that the NFL had not approved. Seriously? This is just getting to be a little pathetic. It was not offensive in anyway. It was a “Beast Mode” hat, Lynch’s nickname. It was a harmless gesture and fans I have talked to found it interesting because it was the former Cal player expressing himself a little.

The one thing that the league clearly has not realized is that it is alienating fans with its treatment of Lynch. The fans are absolutely siding with the introverted 28-year old. We all know that he has not done anything wrong and the NFL is making itself look foolish for continuing to pretend that he has. It seems like the league is intent on having a certain type of player whose personality is outlined and determined by NFL executives. Simply stated: just leave the guy alone. He clearly does not have any interest in complying with the media’s questioning. You are antagonizing a man who is one of your employees, and likely one of the more profitable ones as well. The league needs to stop trying to act as if it controls every aspect of player’s lives. The NFL has managed to overlook issues of domestic violence and sexism this year but cannot seem to accept one of its players is uncomfortable in front of the press. I sincerely hope Lynch continues to stay strong in the coming days as his publicity reaches an all-time high. It might just be enough to get the NFL to change its ways.