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College athletics could learn from losing

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

Sometime this summer — when we are drifting into 90-degree lethargy — the Supreme Court will take up (again) the question of college football compensation.

Several years ago the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the National Collegiate Athletic Association had a legitimate interest in preserving “amateurism” in its effort to distinguish its brand — a brand that is different from the NFL’s professional brand.

However this same Court said the NCAA can’t put arbitrary restrictions on the kinds of perks it does permit. In particular it can’t restrict colleges from granting educational benefits like “post eligibility internships”.

Post eligibility internships?

The NCAA thereafter appealed the Ninth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court saying a post eligibility internship could actually be a $500,000 job at Nike — a huge cash bonanza that it would shred the notion of amateurism.

This morning the Wall Street Journal tells us the Justice Department will take the side of college athletes — athletes who disagree with the NCAA’s restrictions. Who say post eligibility internships at Nike, or wherever, are necessary for equity and fairness.

How, one may ask, did we get here?

Long ago colleges had a deal for those young men who played varsity football.

The deal was, “Come and play ball for us and we will give you a really nice place to live; a degree in Accounting; topped off by a dollop of Saturday afternoon celebrity.” A few schools, like Ohio State, could also promise an all expenses paid, post season weekend in Pasadena.

The promise worked because most of the players were actually students — few were bound for the NFL. And most of the players could not say that they, individually, had anything to do with a multi-million dollar television contract being negotiated by their alma mater.

In years past there were actually student-athletes who were electrical engineering majors; who aspired to work for General Electric; who understood that designing capacitors was their future.

Then the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference upped the ante. The new deal involved carpeted dormitories; attractive, mostly female tutors; and cafeterias featuring multi-station, Golden Corral-styled food choices. Importantly, it did not feature compulsory courses like calculus, organic chemistry or electrical engineering.

Things began to change when winning a post season bowl game — like the Cotton Bowl — became a non-negotiable requirement for postseason job security. It began to change when otherwise normal, well-adjusted alumni began to insist on a winning season. And it changed when a winning season became a fire-hose of cash for the University of Alabama.

Before you label me a Leon Trotsky-styled socialist, let me say that I love the idea of college athletics. I love the notion of Saturday afternoon competition where young men, and women, measure their athletic ability by running very fast, or jumping very high, or out-thinking a long time rival from the agricultural college from across the state.

But I don’t love the notion that winning — consistent winning — is essential.

In 2002 Pat Conroy published a non-fiction book titled “My Losing Season.” Pat gave me an advanced reading copy that I devoured while I was at St Lawrence University watching my son get his right eye blackened and his nose bloodied in a Rugby match.

“My Losing Season” told the story of Citadel’s 1966-67 basketball season — a season that began with promise but ended with defeat and ignominy. And it took Pat 35 years to sort through that season and to write something positive about that process.

“Losing prepares you for the heartbreak, setback, and tragedy that you will encounter in the world more than winning ever can. By licking your wounds you learn how to avoid getting wounded the next time. The American military learned more by its defeat in South Vietnam than it did in all the victories ever fought under the Stars and Stripes. Loss invites reflection and reformulating a change of strategies. Loss hurts, bleeds and aches. Loss is always ready to call your name in the night. Loss follows you home and taunts you at the breakfast table …”

Although there may be nobility in losing, it is no fun whether or not it is virtual or involves contusion, avulsion or fracture. But winning should not be the only reason for living.

Money has made winning non-negotiable. The Supreme Court will soon determine if sharing that money — indirectly to be sure — is essential.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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