Bumptious: The Plague

The actions of the Atlantic-10 conference and the administration of St. Bonaventure University are disgusting when taken in context. The coach of that basketball team made the apparently fatal error of playing an ineligible player over the course of the current season, and in consequence forfeited several games and made his team ineligible for the Atlantic-10 tournament.

In response, four underclassmen quit the team and left for spring break instead of playing the final two games of the season, leaving the team undermanned and forcing the school to forfeit the final two games. As a result, on Sunday the president of the school resigned and the head coach of the basketball team was placed on administrative leave. Furthermore, school presidents of the Atlantic-10 conference have discussed expelling St. Bonaventure from the conference after twenty years of membership. A mediocre program is facing the end of the line merely because four of its players felt manipulated and disrespected by a coach.

If four players on Williams’ basketball team quit the team and Coach Dave Paulsen was forced to forfeit several games, then it is hard to imagine that Morty would resign as president and Paulsen would face administrative leave. That is the result of the fact that at Williams, as one would hope at most Div. III schools, athletics plays a second role to academics. Why does that hope seem implausible when applied to the Div. I level? Why is it that Div. I programs have forgotten the academic institution they represent?

The situation at St. Bonaventure is symptomatic of the disease plaguing large-market sports at the Div. I level. The commercial impact of television and its financial benefits have led to increasingly disgusting examples of the destruction of the student in the student-athlete. LeBron James weighs a multi-million dollar Nike offer during his calculus class while Jim Harrick fixes his players’ grades at the University of Georgia. At the University of Iowa, as at most Div. I football powerhouses, football head coach Kirk Ferentz is the college’s highest paid employee.

In Nebraska, Governor Mike Johanns is supporting legislation that would require that Nebraska’s football players be paid an annual stipend. ESPN reported that Johanns is supporting the idea because those athletes are continually exploited in that they are “unable to capitalize on work that generates millions of dollars.” Johanns most likely blames this exploitation and frustration for the Huskers’ pitiful football season this fall and sees a salary as the best way to motivate those players.

It is not an original idea – several institutions have tried it, notably the NFL, the NBA and MLB. It is even often contended that such an insane scheme worked for those sports.

The infection, though, is beginning to destroy the athletic programs it purports to benefit. Men’s wrestling and swimming programs are often cut from athletic programs, not, as representatives of those sports might contend, because of the financial restrictions of Title IX, but rather by the growing salaries of football and basketball coaches. According to the Arizona Wildcat, the football coaches at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University are the state’s highest paid employees. Colleges are creating an imbalance on men’s athletic programs by financially doting on the large-market sports and cutting the small-market sports.

It is no surprise, then, when we read about the situation at St. Bonaventure. The school’s alumni are livid at the Bonnies’ season. The coach was irresponsible, they claim, by not controlling his athletes. They are not slaves; they are students who happen to play basketball for a mediocre program. They can choose to leave when they want, and all the coach should be able to do is kick them off the team and drop their scholarships. If a coach had tried to do more, as the school expects him to, then the NCAA would investigate fervently and deal severe penalties to the program.

In turn, the NCAA should investigate the actions of the school administration, as well as the school presidents throughout the Atlantic-10 conference, so as to determine whether or not each actor’s actions have contributed to the overall detriment of the academic experience for these athletes, as they undoubtedly have.

The NCAA should take a stand now, before more administrations at large-market schools forget the students among the athletes, before coaches are forced to pervert the spirit of their position and before more governors get ideas like that of Mike Johanns.