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Derrick Z. Jackson

College football hypocrisy

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / July 24, 2010

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AS IF college football’s hypocrisies could not become more bizarre, the highest-paid coaches in the land are now complaining about exploitation.

Six weeks before the kickoff to the 2010 season, defending national champion Alabama and former national champion Florida are both in damage control over reports that players received illegal gifts or cash from professional agents. Last month, Southern California was hit by the National Collegiate Athletic Association with a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships for illegal gifts to former star Reggie Bush.

Alabama coach Nick Saban this week blamed greedy agents who are involved in the “entrapment of young people.’’ He said agents who offer illegal gifts to players should have their license suspended for a year. “Agents that do this,’’ Saban said, “I hate to say this, but how are they any better than a pimp? I have no respect for people who do that to young people, none. How would you feel if they did it to your child?’’

Florida coach Urban Meyer called rule-breaking agents “predators’’ and “piranha preying on our kids.’’ He called the situation an “epidemic.’’

It is fascinating to hear this from two coaches from the high-powered Southeastern Conference, who each make $4 million a year, more than the average for National Football League head coaches. It is even more fascinating that they blame everyone except themselves. Saban said the problem “starts with the agent’’ and added that the NFL Players Association, which regulates agents, and the NFL should police agents more thoroughly.

The Players Association has to do something about it, Saban said. “I think they’re the ones that control the situation.’’

But as to the responsibility of the colleges and the coaches to control the situation, Meyer said it was impossible because, “we’ve reached a point where the magnitude of college football is really overwhelming.’’ SEC Commissioner Mike Slive added, “Given the surreptitious nature of these matters, it is difficult, if not impossible, for institutions to know what might have taken place.’’

How convenient. Saban and Meyer, who make far more money than the nation’s top paid college presidents, are the very symbols of football’s overwhelming magnitude. Not mentioned in any of this is how coaches themselves apply so much predatory pressure on high school stars to come to their campus in the first place. Yet, their words are crafted almost as an exit strategy should the NCAA hammer actually come down on them. For instance, the University of Southern California cleaned house this week, firing its athletic director and returning the Heisman Trophy won by Bush. But the coach for those years, Pete Carroll, who achieved the distinction of being the highest-paid private university employee in the nation, escaped completely unscathed. He now owns a $7 million-a-year salary as coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Carroll of course pleads he knew nothing of the transgressions at USC.

If the magnitude of college football is indeed too overwhelming to police, then big-time teams should go professional. Each new scandal widens the ridiculous chasm between amateur restrictions for players and the unrestricted freedom of coaches, universities and the NCAA to profit from this artificially cheap labor for personal and campus millions and television billions. The promise of a college degree and monetary value of athletic scholarships, while no small thing, no longer provide justification when it is so abundantly evident that coaching careers do not hinge on graduation rates.

The whining of Saban and Meyer is particularly illustrative. Both of their programs have some of the better graduation rates in the nation among big-time powers. If they are now telling us that is too overwhelming to produce student-athletes in clean programs, something has to give.

What has to give is the illusion of an amateur sport as adults destroy moral authority by running off with all the loot. Saban is right. Bad agents are pimps. But his sport is structured to pimp the athlete long before agents pop out from behind the bush.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.