Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What the Fiesta Bowl Scandal Reveals about College Football II

So why did the Fiesta emerge to become one of the four BCS bowls?

Well years of cultivating local and national politicians gave it a very strong political base. Years of lavish gifts and trips and junkets with the BCS elite oiled relations but the piece de resistance grew into the Fiesta Frolics.

Recently renamed the staid sounding “The Fiesta Bowl Spring College Football Seminar,” the Fiesta Frolics grew into a notorious and bloated celebration, networking and sponsorship boondoggle. The Fiesta Bowl for twenty years invited every major AD and staff at all the major football schools, every football coach, all the major Conference Commissioners and staff to meet in Phoenix for a three day orgy, I mean meeting. The attendees paid for transportation, but the Fiesta put them up at the best resorts, paid for two days of golf and gave spa certificates to them and spouses. Nike, ESPN and other “corporate partners” hovered like flies providing endless free food, recreation and networking.  A few meetings occurred—I actually used to attend budget meetings linked to the Frolics—but the key lay in the relentless schmoozing and lobbying that yellow blazered Fiesta Officials did. The Frolics became the unofficial national meeting of Athletic Directors, coaches and Commissioners. More attended the Frolics than the NCAA convention and more business actually occurred there. Last year the Fiesta Frolics cost 1.3 million dollars in nonprofit funds.

Networking, business, free gift bags from NIKE and ESPN at every room, and endless food, entertainments and Fiesta marketing—this won the Fiesta bowl its status.

The Fiesta created the prototype of a corporate city driven device to market the city and bring money into the region. It worked. It at least has a semblance of community connections, more than the Cotton or Sugar now have. It paved the way for the endless number of ESPN inspired TV fodder bowls that proliferate now.

Players enjoy them, as I have written about, and coaches love the two extra week of practice the bowls grant them. Going to a bowl can even be a motive to get players to attend to studies in season because they cannot go now if they are no academically eligible.

The Fiesta Bowl did not stint on to whom it gave money to. Both Arizona US Senators, the Governor, two members of the House of Representatives, the Secretary of State and the President of the Arizona Senate are beneficiaries of the $46,000 in illegal campaign contributions over ten years.

Given the politics of the BCS as a quasi monopoly and its relations to the bowls, it makes sense that the Fiesta would try to figure out a way to influence politicians. To be honest, it probably did not need to give money given how many free gifts and trips and tickets it sumptuously provided civic and political leaders for twenty years.

So the Fiesta lessons expose the slick world of moneyed relations and networking that dominate college football and media right now. I have long disliked the idea of a national championship and view the NCAA March Madness with equal parts horror and wonder, but a football version might be preferable to the insidious moneyed corruption that winds around modern bowl politics.

But besides it success at creating and mastering the modern world of bowl and sponsorship complicity and collusion, the Fiesta Bowl teaches a deeper lesson about corruption and unaccountability.

Remember intercollegiate sports are grounded in nonprofit finances. The Fiesta Bowl really consists of four separate nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits have a privileged and unique status in America. Their status and respect go back to DeToqueville’s characterization of American as a country of associations and joiners.

Many modern nonprofits are not just philanthropic organizations that receive donations and provide services needed by the community. Many now sponsor or launch projects that generates revenue such as film festivals, art festivals, refurbishing, or housing projects.

The nonprofit Fiesta Bowl provides a service and product designed to improve the economic and social welfare and visibility of the state of Arizona. Its constitution touts that it provides maximum payout to provide money for education. The Fiesta Bowl epitomizes a modern profitable nonprofit. The profits are not distributed to shareholders, but often gobbled up by the senior officials and the sleek events associated with creating partnerships and sponsorships. Every contribution, every junket, every fancy meal or golf trip could be defended by Fiesta officials as business related to the building artful relations that sustained the enterprise.

Fiesta’s long-time Director John Junker drove and created the Fiesta Bowl and to achieve his ends helped create the modern bowl world. This world builds on relations and networks that he assiduously cultivated and worked for twenty years. Most of the gifts given at Thanksgiving or the donations from the Fiesta Bowl came from him and were charged on his credit cards. In fact the Fiesta Bowl paid all his credit card bills and then tried to recoup whatever money it thought might be “persona’” versus business. It did not help that he did not keep receipts for many of his questionable activities.

What happened here in this cocooned world of nonprofit success and privilege happens everywhere unaccountable and secret power and deals flourish. Junker began to treat the Fiesta Bowl as his own fiefdom, and the Board of Trustees, like many boards of large corporations, fed his benefits and never questioned him because of his success.

The portrait is familiar to anyone who followed the Red Cross scandals or the scandals around high living corporate leaders. He and his spouse drove rich cars provided by Fiesta. Fiesta contributed money to his favorite Catholic charities; Fiesta bought several expensive golf memberships and subsidized family trips. It paid for business trips to strip clubs where money was spent on lap dances. It paid tens of thousands of dollars for a special 50th birthday party where the guests were flow to Pebble Beach for three days. I could go on, but unaccountable power, whether nonprofit or for profit, breeds personal and institutional corruption.

The corruption scales to tyrannical coaches in AAU teams creating their own nonprofits to extort money from basketball coaches to athletic directors who lie sleek life styles to coaches who rule mini-kingdoms that no one questions until they get caught or lose.

The Fiesta scandal is swiftly being swept under the rug by the NCAA and BCS because they are all complicit. It reminds us again that the NCAA has no effective control over the bowls and cannot gain it because of restraint of trade issues. So the bowl world will continue, and as long as the BCS continues its quasi-monopoly pretensions the sleaze that infects college bowl life will continue.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What the Fiesta Bowl Scandal Reveals about College Football I

The Fiesta Bowl scandal continues to run its course. The NCAA punted and let them off with a wrist slap. The BCS expressed outrage, fined them a few bucks and let them remain a BCS bowl. Now the politicians who took illegal campaign contributions from a nonprofit refuse to give their money back. Each revelation adds to the report on the Fiesta Bowl commissioned by the Board of Directors and published one month ago. The whole story excavates the sordid modern football bowl landscape.

The Fiesta Bowl is the prototype of modern bowls. For over half a century the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton dominated the bowl landscape. Mythical national championships were fought out in media and only by accident occurred. The bowls were anchored in the conferences, and conference champions played out in the bowls.

The original bowls were not pure creations, what is in the America? They arose from city and trade boosters looking for ways to sell their cities and products and boost local visibility, civic pride and wealth. The truest and longest existing of them remains the Rose Bowl sponsored by Pasadena, not LA. The Rose really does have thousands of volunteers who work year around to put on not only the bowl, but a unique and old spectacle, the Rose Parade.

I have watched hundreds of volunteers painstakingly pasting one petal at a time for the magnificent floats, many from cities, but more and more from corporations and now even countries. The parade still boasts local bands and drum and bugle corps and rodeo groups. It hybridizes a deep American tradition with modern corporate sponsorship run amuck. The Rose Bowl remains the only bowl with deep roots in the community and huge numbers of long-term volunteers who make it happen each year.

The Fiesta Bowl changed the landscape in a big way. As the internal report says it “elbowed” its way into a major bowl and finally became, against all odds, one of the major BCS bows that rotate the national championship. It still rankles the Cotton Bowl folks when it shot past many older and even local anchored bowls to gain that honor.

The scandal arose from the way the Fiesta Bowl fought and bought its way into the top ranks. Make no mistake, the Fiesta success did not happen by accident. If you read the Constitutions of the Fiesta bowl and its Insight Bowl appendage, you find a clear corporate mission to build national recognition and presence for the bowl and the city of Phoenix and Arizona. In  2006-07 the combination of Insight, Fiesta and National Champion bowls brought over 400 million dollars to the city and state.

How did the Fiesta Bowl do this? Well first it is a nonprofit so it escapes many legal constraints and reporting constraints upon private enterprises. Second, it formed deep partnerships with the political and economic development and business establishments of Arizona. It spread the wealth around so everyone had a stake.

In classic style, it regularly subsidized trips for senior politicians to go for “education” purposes to see other teams play in Chicago or Dallas or Boston. A Boston trip ended up costing over 54,000 dollars and putting up senior Arizona politicians in the Ritz Carlton and wining and dining them for three days while watching BC play V-Tech This trip, like many before, “educates” leaders about the role, importance and selection of teams. The Fiesta ensured that every local leader got access to good seats and events.

The world of bowls and college athletics runs on relations. The Fiesta Bowl raised the bar to levels unseen by other bowls. In a typical year, the bowl would send Thanksgiving gifts, such as exotic flow bouquets, to every BCS AD and Conference Commissioner. Memorial contributions to charities were funneled to commemorate deceased wives or children of major BCS figures such as coaches or athletic directors.

All of this money and effort and contributions was driven by the desire to “stay on the good side” of major actors in college sports.  The Fiesta bowl schmoozed and codoodled and greased relations across the spectrum of college sports.

As the old bowl system collapsed and new bowls grew like weeds, ESPN ensured the death knell of the small oligarchic world of bowls and college conferences. Fiesta wooed TV as powerfully as it wooed the rest of the college sports establishment. It understood before anyone else that bowls now would be product placement opportunities, and their value lay in TV exposure and as TV windows, not being a community tradition. Tradition mattered nothing compared to TV exposure and wealth.

So the Fiesta Bowl elbowed aside the rickety and broke Cotton and ignored the languishing Sugar and erupted as a preeminent bowl with Orange and Rose. The creation of the BCS eliminated the conference connections and essentially doomed the Sugar to irrelevance. The demise of the conferences the made the Cotton matter left more room for the Fiesta to rise in the ranks. The Rose remained true and pure and the P-10 and B-10 tried to keep the tradition and spirit of bowl rivalries and conference connections alive, but they failed. Fiesta barged into this vacuum to become the preeminent TV BCS bowl.

Part II will look at how this happened and how it spawned the scandal.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Business of College Sports versus Student Athletes

“The business of college athletics”  describes how athletic directors and college Presidents refer to the college athletic enterprise. Entire programs and degrees are now dedicated to the business model of sports. My conference, the Pacific 12, one of the few conferences left that can actually count its actual membership, just signed a massive multi-media deal that can be worth 3 billion dollars over the next 12 years. Yes 3 billion dollars! The sheer amount of money involved certainly points to the word business. I distrust the phrase and remember a conversation with Mark Emmert of the NCAA when he talked about how much he dislikes and worries about it when athletic directors talk about "the business" of college athletics. We worry because the business model undervalues education ans students.

Language matters; it sinks in and shapes how we think about and perceive reality. The mania about "paying athletes" is driven not only by ignorance of the economic realities of sports and by the ignorance of what student athlete life is actually like, but by the belief that players are employees of large corporations who are exploited them. “Paying” athletes only makes sense if  business explains and justified the enterprise.

The metaphor and concepts have sunk deep into the consciousness of college sports. For one, college sports is expensive and in this time of budget cuts, programs are being pushed to generate revenue streams and minimize the internal subsidy that central university funds must provide for them. Any athletic director worth his or her salt is obsessed with generating maximum revenue and as they will tell you in business speak, to garner revenue, they must "deliver a good product" or provide "a great customer experience at the games."

The average elite college program employs more marketing and fund raising and ticket folks than non-football coaches. Schools redesign mascots to raise revenue streams from paraphernalia and do focus groups to create children's mascots that might not scare kids. Tradition, community and identity matter far less than consultants and TV and T-shirt friendly logos.

Remember the colleges themselves push this model when they demand that athletic programs become economically self-sufficient. This drives the fund raising; this drives the demand for stadiums; this drives the obsession with recruiting to get winning teams. Winning teams "fill the stands" and generate demand for "eyeballs" for television windows. It also drives much of the dynamic behind expansion or movement among conferences as conferences seek to lock up markets and geographic areas or "trophy" teams that draw national attention.

So athletic directors goaded by Presidents and Boards of Regents and local pride and fund raising and marketing imperatives push coaches to put "great product" on the field to deliver bodies and eyeballs.  I witnessed an athletic director fire a coach who had just returned from the NCAA's for the fifth time in seven years and graduated all her players for seven years. Why? The AD wanted more "sizzle" and a more "entertaining" brand of sports. Winning is not enough, coaches must win and entertain.

The real problem with this set of metaphors and language lies in what it does to student athletes. First, the "business" model has no room for students; the business model downgrades the mission of education. The ideal of a student becomes a "transaction" cost of winning. Schools need to keep the athletes in school and eligible, but only for the purpose of winning to generate revenue.

Second, the business model not only degrades the student ideal and reality, it transforms the student-athlete’s life. Students spend thirty hours a week on athletics when not in season. Second seasons flourish and 40,000 people fill spring football stadiums for intra-squad scrimmages. Athletic demands now fill their entire year and studying is devalued even as it is marketed and trumpeted.

Third, the business model transforms student athletes into commodities. The athletes and their teams are products produced to generate revenue. In most elite programs the football and basketball programs consume everyone’s time and focus because they generate the revenue; the Olympic sports become an afterthought or the only place where the ideal of student athletes can still exist. Student athletes reduce to commodities produced and marketed and sold to generate revenue and reputation and visibility for the university. No wonder some elite athletes in revenue sport mutter about being paid leaving aside the rather good life they have. No wonder these athletes wonder why the continued use of their likeness after they graduate should be the “property” of the school.

But this is the point, isn't it. College sports should be about student athletes, it should have student athlete welfare at its moral core. The ideal of college athletics and the reality for the vast majority of college student athletes, including the 99 percent of elite football and basketball athletes, who will not be professional athletes, should celebrate and attend to their achievement, welfare, teams, health and competition.

If you go to banquets of college teams, you experience this reality, not the business outcomes. Win or lose, the players remember and celebrate each other, "I luv you guys" gets repeated by men and women's teams. They give awards to each other and coaches tell stories of victory and defeat and honor the young men and women. The good teams celebrate the students who will graduate. The parents and students cry remembering that college athletes are students, not commodities.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Beauties of Athletics

I am frequently asked why athletics belongs in a university. I often explain the moral worth of athletics as an expression of human excellence of athletics. But I believe another justification exists and it accounts for one reason why athletics is watched and admired by so many persons. Athletics exhibits and embodies beauty.

As an academic and closet Platonist, I reflect on the beauty of athletics and sports with ancient Greek sensibilities. The discus thrower statue here on the blog distills that ideal. Great and even bad athletics can exhibit precision of form, line and function that brings pleasure to the eye and resonates harmony and admiration for many of us who watch and play sport. Different cultures might admire different aspects of the beauty of sport such as the Egyptian gymnasts here on the blog or the ancient Mayan stone etchings of beautiful athletes playing for the gods and the winners will be sacrificed as a gift to the gods.

Recently I was reminded that sports and athletic competition reveal another aspect of beauty that my emphasis upon the Greek ideal missed. I asked my class in Intercollegiate Leadership to identify the three most beautiful moments in individual sport and in team sports. The class met in groups to discuss this, and I assumed they would come up with Platonic moments fusing form and function, power and grace, like a perfectly executed double play (my candidate) or the serene power of a fully extended eight or a perfect jump shot. Not to be.

When the class started their presentations, I knew immediately I had lost control of it, and that my students were teaching me. One group spoke of the unity of feeling and commitment for a team when the team lost!! They talked about the beauty and memory of that feeling of total emotional support and feeling that they all shared.

Another group talked about the occurrence in 2008 year at an NCAA softball game. A senior at Western Oregon University hit her first ever home run ever and while rounding first base, he knee gave out. She collapses in pain and could not even crawl back to touch first base.  A senior member of the Central Michigan team came over and with a a fellow teammate lifted her up. Together they carried her around the bases making sure she touched each base and got credited with her home run. Central lost the game, but it did not matter.

Another group found the video of Jesse Owens winning 4 gold medals the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler's Aryan superiority Olympics. They spoke not of the power and grace of his wins, but of the courage and symbolism that a black male from America could disprove the Aryan racist theories before the world and on the home grounds of Nazism. Even the German spectators applauded the magnificence of Owen’s accomplishments.

I could go on, but my class taught me that the beauties of sport transcend my obsession with the Greek statue approach. The beauties lie deep in the moral community of commitment and shared joy and pain of a team dedicated to a goal. The beauties reside in the ability of athletic competition to evoke true sportsmanship in its players. They can compete fiercely, but respect the game and each other. Rather then cheat or demean each other, in the midst of the heat of competition, players can respect and recognize and support other's achievement, joy and pain. Finally the reminded me that the narrative power of sport and its symbolism create stories that become myth, that embody valor and value that lie at the core of the best of our humanity.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Resilience and Attrition Regression

A radio commentator I respect recently mentioned "attrition regression" as he talked about how important depth is to a football team as the predictable progression of a season lead to injuries to major players but also a systematic aggravation or deterioration of skill and achievement over a season. I liked the term, sounds very sophisticated, and it  highlights how important resilience is in the design and creation of a sport team and its culture. Watching the NFL draft which is driven so much by considerations of depth and resilience or watching 40 baseball players end up on the injured reserve list before the season is one month old illuminate how critical resilience is. 

Resilience defines the ability of an organization to respond to external or internal shocks. A resilient organization expects and prepares for a range of problems that will arise and threaten performance or survival. Stress and shocks pervade sport life and  good and high reliability organizations build in redundancy, cross training or depth. If an organization is not designed to be reliant, the normal or sudden stresses or shocks of life will destroy it. 

Athletics involves physical risk and required physical performance under stress, often with contact with others. At the same time the fine-grained requirements of strength and skill require very high and sustainable levels of micro skills and talent. At the very thin margins of elite competition, minuscule differences in speed, strength, quickness, time or technique have immense consequences. Teams must accommodate these razor thing margins and work to generate durability and competence to fight off the surprises and costs of the daily demands of consistent physical play. 

In sport this contact and engagement occurs not just in games but in practice and preseason and sometimes off season where many young male athletes play other sports or engage in high risk (ie stupid) behavior. Last year the Superbowl champions had fifteen of their projected season starters on the injured list during the course of the year. This year in baseball with the season less than one month old has already seen 40 players go on the disabled list. Last year the Seattle Seahawks had 284 roster transactions during the year and had churned 53 percent of their roster by opening day. So preseason, practices, games, even conditioning exact incessant wear, tear and cost to the athletes.  On many teams internal competition for playing time amplifies the intensity of competing and physical wear and tear. 
Every team faces  continuous attrition over the course of a season. A cumulative exhaustion creeps as endless games mount up. The exhaustion can be physical with players having lower energy levels and lower endurance levels in games where they cannot play as long at their highest level of performance. But the exhaustion can be mental as well. Players need to bring focus to their games and practice to refine skills and address weaknesses. Nonstop stress and decision make take their toll in missed cues, sloppy plays and mental mistakes.

Team resilience builds upon quality of individual judgement and toughness. The toughness plays out day to day where individuals assess the seriousness of their accumulating injuries or their attrition of skills. They monitor that but also calibrate how much they can play and play through injuries or play with a certain level of pain. This requires them to compensate or work or rehab to keep an elite level of performance or play at the level they can. Teams need players who are resilient who can play, but not play to the point where they destroy their ability to contribute.

But team resilience is more than the sum of the mental toughness of their individuals. Additive health costs slowly degrade performance at the micro level across a team. The accretion of wraps, tapes, braces bear witness to the rising level of internal pain that each player must manage. Minute gradations in speed or quickness change with each injury or "ding" and at elite levels of competition, micro-second changes can result in performance threshold declines. Teams need to rest players, find space for them to recover or when asking them to play adapt to lower or limited performance levels. This requires backup players of comparable skill or at least able to fit into the demands of the system played. The team must do this resting while maintaining a competitive level of play even with their best players out.

Beyond resting, renewing and managing performance limitations, teams need depth to address injuries at any position but especially key positions. So the creation of depth matters, but depth is not enough. The depth in personnel must also fit the system and style of play. Teams do not just need stockpiles of players, but they need players of  a certain style and competence. At the same time managing backup depth of players who fit is hard. Quality costs money. Many players who could be starters prefer to be on other teams starting rather than waiting for potential injuries. The costs of waiting for someone to get injured or getting very limited playing time can anger or degrade a player's performance and attitude; it can poison a team. The money spent on depth often means money not spent upon starters or the limits on money mean severe drop offs in quality from starters to backups. While resilience matters for the long long run, I am focusing just upon the need for resilience to get through a season. So teams need pipelines for one season but also for the long developmental arc.

This requirement to anticipate and address regression attrition over the course of a season accounts for why coaches manically stockpile players. Drafting may be as much about building numbers of potential talent as grappling for the perfect superstar.  In college ranks, the stockpile seems a zero sum game, if a team gets a play, another team does not have them. Pro teams develop very different ways to manage depth and fit. 

Resilience is as important as talent in winning. Resilience is not just about one player at a time but a culture and system of talent acquisition, training and management that builds up the necessary flexibility and mental and cognitive toughness for groups of players to adapt to the adversity, injuries, pain and attrition any season brings. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Lying in College Sports Violates Heart of University

The NCAA indicted Ohio State and coach Jim Tressel for multiple counts of lying and hiding violations. The NCAA concludes that Tressel’s lying conveniently permitted Ohio State to play ineligible players on the way to a 12-1 season. This means Ohio State gained a significant illegal competitive advantage similar to if it had been covering up academic ineligibility of players. If Ohio State is guilty, the NCAA could justly vacate Ohio State's record and season. I will leave the NCAA to pursue its justice, but want to continue my earlier discussion of why lying is so deeply wrong in sports and especially college sport.

If we leave aside Ohio State's President Gordon Gee’s concern about being fired by his football coach, if we leave aside Ohio State’s absurd wrist slap on Tressel for his lying, we need to remember that honesty and truth telling lie at the heart of the university's mission. We teach honesty as a bedrock virtue to professors, students and scholarship. No university is perfect, but honesty remains a bedrock virtue in the pursuit of knowledge. Our coaches are expected to teach honesty to their student athletes.

The expression "to live a lie" hints at the fundamental moral problem with lying, it violates a person's integrity. The person pretends to be a person other than the person they are. A person lives a "secret" life that he or she hides from others. “Living a lie" besmirches all the accomplishments because they are not really earned; they are misbegotten by cheating.

Lying in sports, as Tressel, Bruce Pearl, Marion Jones or Barry Bonds demonstrate, not only perpetuates a living lie, it encourages others to lie. Lying is like Gresham’s law in sport; lying drives out honesty. As more competitors win by cheating and lying about it, the honest competitors lose. They not only lose races or game, they lose their jobs and livelihood. The good ones are tempted to cheat by the success of the liars and cheaters. The norm and excuse become "everyone does it." When the honest ones defect to lying, the norms of the sport reach a tipping point where cheating and lying become the new norm, much like the dark mirror world of AAU basketball. Little by little the moral quality of the entire sport declines as happened to baseball when more and more false sluggers living a collective lie made baseball the sport of drug enhanced behemoths.

Lying starts at the top. In baseball it meant coaches simply looked the other way and owners handed out high salaries to cheaters they all knew were cheating. In college sports lying coaches who win get rewarded with contracts or hired by other schools. Sport like all life can be subject to denial. When we live in denial, we have all the evidence before us, but we do not put the dots together; we do not push to ask the harder questions behind the surface. Denial is not about not knowing, it is about having the information but refusing to acknowledge it and make sense of it, much like a parent sees all the symptoms that their child is abusing drugs, but never puts it all together. The USC athletic department specialized in this approach for years. Gee seems to be working on the same principle.

In college sports, this means that the coaches teach their student athletes, let me repeat, they teach their students (athletes) that lying is OK, not only OK but it is the way to get ahead. Tressel's players listened to his sermons on integrity and virtue, they might even read his books (remember I taught one of his book chapters)  but they KNEW HE LIED. The players learn about how hypocrisy is rewarded and lying to win is condoned.

A couple years ago I watched a coach at UW ask a player to lie. The player had injured himself, and the coach convinced the 20 year old to lie to the media and everyone else about how the injury occurred. This was an obscene moral act for a university official to suborn a young player under their charge to lie. Tressel acted by omission, the UW coach by commission, but both taught their players that the man who controlled their destiny and who preached virtue to them, believed in lying when they needed to.

The NCAA needs to act aggressively against Tressel and Ohio State's twitterpated  President. The only way to protect honesty as a value and integrity as a lived reality is to draw powerful and strongly enforced boundaries around lying. Transgressions must be punished, wins must be vacated and coaches should lose their jobs. If the boundary is not clear and enforced, the NCAA simply encourages other coaches to defect in order to keep their jobs. If the boundary is not clear, the University collaborates in teaching its students and its public that truth only matters if it does not get in the way of winning.