Just in time to put a damper over the NCAA Final Four, PBS’ “Frontline” and HBO’s “Real Sports” both weighed in this week on the issue of big-time college athletics and the fact that while the NCAA and universities are raking in money, the players aren’t compensated other than books and tuition.
I devoted my Foxsports.com column to the “Frontline” segment by Lowell Bergman, which aired March 29, and now I’ve had a chance to see “Real Sports'” hour, which premieres March 30. On either front, the take-away doesn’t look good for the NCAA.
Notably, both programs interview Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA All-American who has become the plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, filed by former players seeking compensation for their services. In O’Bannon’s case, the wake-up call came when he saw his likeness used in an NCAA videogame for which he hadn’t received a penny.
Hosted by Bryant Gumbel, “Real Sports” featured two taped pieces — one on the failure to pay players; the other on ways to game and skirt the existing system — as well as a round-table discussion about these issues. (Interestingly, the NCAA president sat for an interview with “Frontline,” but “Real Sports” claims the organization declined an interview request.)
All the usual elements are discussed: Terrible graduation rates. Laughter at the term “student-athlete.” Players getting paid under the table. Recruits being handed cash (Auburn is singled out for its “money handshakes”) and offered sex as inducements to sign. “I knew I was only there to play football,” says one former lineman, while former Texas basketball coach Tom Penders says that the recruiting process is like “walking through a sewer.”
During the discussion, Billy Packer immediately states that the piece misrepresented collegiate athletics, and that paying athletes is simply impossible because you’d have to pay every athlete, including those in non-revenue sports. Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, however, calls the system “corrupt,” saying that kids who often aren’t accomplished students are essentially being compensated with something they can’t really use: Scholarships.
Gumbel doesn’t pretend to be impartial, saying the college presidents are “making money on the backs of these kids.” That said, there’s no simple solution to the problem without completely blowing up the existing template, and HBO’s examination doesn’t really come any closer to providing one.
As I stated in the Fox piece, though, there is one telling aspect to these two reports: Both come from networks that aren’t involved in a massive rights deal with the NCAA, NFL or NBA. It’s hard to imagine CBS News wanted to wade in right before its big party. “The media is in bed with the NCAA, protecting that institution,” Whitlock says.
Typically, when the money is flowing in all directions, there’s little threat of derailing such an elaborate and lucrative industry. But in this case, one key contingent isn’t sharing in the wealth.
Could that result in wholesale change? Doubtful. But if I were at ESPN, CBS or any other network with a big investment in college sports, I’d keep an eye on that O’Bannon lawsuit.