Something Rotten in South Bend
I grew up a Notre Dame fan actually. I was raised in a Catholic household in central Indiana; they would have thrown me out of the club if I wasn't one. Why? Well, a.) kids are front-runners, and b.) it was a hell of a lot more fun cheering for the Irish than it was Purdue. I mean, Purdue won no more than five games in a season from 1985 to 1996, and they only won five games twice! Bob Davie made Jim Colletto look like freaking Bill Walsh. I got older, as they say, you can date however many girls you want, but you can only marry one. I married Purdue, and haven't looked back.
When I first heard the news about the academic-related suspensions on Friday I felt an overwhelming sense of self-righteous satisfaction, as if I myself had something to do with the Evil Empire being torn down. I fired off a series of tweet reflective of that attitude, put my phone in Airplane Mode and flew across the country.
I still stand by the content of my tweets, but four hours later, my attitude had shifted slightly. What was I so proud about? How had I earned the right to piss on the grave of Notre Dame football? Were they even dead, or would they dip the shoulder and swirm out of this tackle like an Alabama running back?
The older I get, and the more I follow college sports, the more disillusioned I get with the whole concept of amateurism, at least as defined by the NCAA. The NCAA and their member schools sell the public on college athletics as a higher calling of sort. The picture painted is that of the hard-working student-athlete, walking right out of physics class and onto the practice field. That of the demi-parent coaches, devoting their time to educating the future leaders of America, in sports yes, but also in life. That of the smiling school administrator, laying what becomes the foundation of success of all they oversee.
The NCAA can gild the truth all they want, but it's getting harder and harder to take their version of the facts at face value. Think I'm being dramatic? Just look the money that's floating around college football:
- ESPN paid the BCS $150M a year to broadcast the BCS bowls from 2011-14. Previous TV rights holder Fox paid over $80M annually.
- The "Big Five" conferences received a little over $21M to split every year, and $6M if a second team from their conference made a BCS bowl.
- Notre Dame received $1.7M every year whether they made a bowl or not, plus $6M if they did make a BCS bowl.
- ESPN has the rights to the new football playoff system for the next 12 years. The Big Five conference will take home $50M in the first year of the contract (to grow every year). The TV revenue alone is reported to average around $500M a year. Ticket and merchandise sales will add in another $50M annually. Teams will also receive: $300k for every bowl eligible team that meets the lenient APR standards, $6M for every team that makes the playoffs, $4M for every team that makes certain no-playoff bowls (eg. Peach Bowl), and $2M per team at each level of the playoffs. Oh yeah, and Notre Dame gets $2.3M a year for (reasons unclear).
- In years when the games aren't a part of the playoffs, the specific contracts that some conferences has with some bowls will be honored. For example, whenever the Rose Bowl is not a part of the playoff, the Big 10 and Pac 12 will split approximately $80-90M a year. The ACC will receive just under $30M from the Orange bowl, etc...
- Let's talk TV contracts! The Big 10 will pull in a healthy $45-50M a year as part of their new TV deal. The ACC makes just under $20M a year with their TV contract. The Pac 12's TV deal will yield $25-30M a year on average. And the SEC, with contracts with both CBS and ESPN, get on average nearly $30M a year (note: this number might be low; they haven't released the financial details of their new ESPN deal)
All that money has to go somewhere. A lot of it is spent on facilities, incidentals, and expenses for the football program and the non-revenue generating sports. But a lot of it also goes in the pockets of the coaches and administrators. Brian Kelly made $4M last year; practically a steal, given his opponent in the 2013 BCS Championship Game was Nick Saban, who pulls down a cool $7.3M. Notre Dame's AD, Jack Swarbrick, made just over $1M a year.
Hold up a minute. Read those last two sentences again. Brian Kelly makes 4x as much as his boss. 4x! That's one messed-up power dynamic.
Anyway, I'm not anti-money at all, nor do I want to get into a "should student-athletes get paid?" debate. I use those numbers simply to show what's at stake. Millions of dollars are gained and lost based on what happens on those fields. And we all know the impact of power and money on personal behavior.
Which brings us back to Notre Dame. Perhaps only Alabama can approach the Fighting Irish in terms of significance to the history of college football. There's a reason Notre Dame has fans all over the world, and a reason why they come out of the woodwork to criticize me on Twitter whenever I speak ill of their school. The legend of Notre Dame is Rudy and "win one for the Gipper", 11 national titles and Joe Montana, Lou Holtz and Knute Rockne. I don't need to tell you about it; ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook - a man somehow capable of simultaneously gazing deeply into his own navel and kissing up to the powers that be - will do it for me.
But there's something problematic about raising an individual or institution above all others as an exemplar of "how things should be". Namely, the widening chasm that exists between said pillar and the reality of the situation. Because the reality of the situation is that people are fallible, and institutions are nothing but collections of people. And at some point, the herd mentality that draws people together around a central idea (the moral superiority of a certain school in South Bend, IN, for example) can ultimately become what tears it all apart. Perhaps at one point Notre Dame could be considered a national symbol of what's right about amateur athletics. Even if I concede that point, it just raises other questions: what happens when that moral superiority is threatened? How does a program, and the individuals within that program respond when mistakes are made? What are people willing to sacrifice when it seems that everything is on the line?
That morality play is on-going just to our north. Brian Kelly was hired in 2010. Since then, that program has taken numerous public black-eyes. Let's hit the low-lights:
- A 20 year old student manager named Declan Sullivan died during a storm while filming Notre Dame's practice on a 50-foot tall scissor lift. The whole incident was a terrible tragedy. Not only was no one disciplined for what happened to Sullivan, the University successfully argued their Indiana OSHA fine down to just $42,000, from an original fine of $77,500. They sure litigated like a champion that day.
- 19 year old Lizzy Seeberg, attending nearby St. Mary's College, was allegedly raped by a member of Notre Dame's football program. She later took her life. I say allegedly because the local prosecutor declined to press charges, while doing his best to minimize the allegations in his press release. The whole thing was a case study for universities and athletic programs on how not to handle rape and sexual assault allegations. It was so bad that at least one anonymous victim of sexual assault perpetrated by a Notre Dame football player has reportedly refused to contact local authorities, fearing the same response that Seeberg received.
- Let's talk about Tommy Rees. Got wasted at a house party during the off-season and things got a little rowdy. The cops responded, and Rees responded to the cops by kneeing one in the gut, resulting in him getting pepper sprayed and hauled off to jail. Apparently it was less of a "knee to the gut", and more a "simple sign of affection and appreciation for the police", as his felony battery of an officer charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. Fun fact: a felony would have gotten him kicked out of school. Thank goodness assaulting a police offer isn't that big of a deal. I encourage each of you to get stupid drunk and batter a police officer; the two of you will laugh about it later! (ed. please don't do this) Brian Kelly of course took this very seriously, suspending Rees for the first game of the following season. One whole game. We're teaching boys to be men here folks!
- Michael Floyd felt the Glass Joe arm of Notre Dame justice too. He was cited in both 2009 and 2010 for consumption of alcohol by a minor, then arrested and charged with a DUI in 2011. He was suspended indefinitely by the University immediately thereafter. A lot of serious words were read at that press conference, yet Floyd didn't miss a single game. Three alcohol-related run-ins with the law in three years, and all he missed were some practices. Hey, it's hard to catch TD passes from your living room, amirite? Kelly said he made his decision based on a gut feeling (seriously).
- Just this past summer, William Mahone, a running back / slot receiver was arrested for felony intimidation, assault on a police officer, vandalism, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Mahone was not projected as a starter for Notre Dame, so the Irish have asked him to "look at other options" as it relates to where he'll attend school in the fall.
And news just broke about the academic fraud investigation that involves four Notre Dame football players. The players are alleged to have had other students or tutors do their work for them in 2012 (although the current investigation is looking into other years as well). Thus Notre Dame joins the illustrious company of North Carolina, Miami (FL), Florida State, Kansas, and Oklahoma State, all who have faced serious allegations of academic fraud in recent years.
Every year brings a new story of another school caught doing something they shouldn't in the name of getting an advantage. Especially in football, anything that can net you an extra win or two (a recruit who shouldn't qualify but who does; a player who can get just enough lenience to avoid serious jail time; a program that does what it needs to get that APR to the right level) is completely worth it. How do you think the feeling around a 7-5 team differs from than of a 5-7 squad? They are worlds apart. And that in itself is no where near the pressure felt when a potential National Championship is on the line.
Notre Dame has evidently decided that some sacrifice of what they hold dear as core values is necessary to operate a modern day college football program. They can remain in their own eyes special snowflakes, floating above a sea of immorality, but the evidence shows them to be no different than anyone else. Catholics vs. convicts no more, these plaster saints may even be worse; at least those Miami teams were honest about their "convict" status.
For anyone retaining the concept of Notre Dame as the Platonic Ideal of amateur sports, I offer the last five years as evidence to the contrary. But for other sports fans - Purdue included - I also offer the last five years of Notre Dame's history as a cautionary tale as well. I know many people within Purdue's athletic department, and all of them have struck me as good, honest people working hard to maintain Purdue's integrity through compliance, even at the detriment at times of their teams. I've talked to many people associated with basketball recruiting, who go out of their way to comment on Matt Painter and his staff's honesty, integrity, and unwillingness to bend the rules. But having said all that, it would be foolish to think that the culture shift at Notre Dame (if it was even a shift at all) is something that Purdue is impervious to. Integrity demands diligence, and truth be told, Purdue's own history is tainted in parts by unsavory incidents.
What will come of the Notre Dame four? I wouldn't hold my breath at the thought of any of them missing any serious time; and if the NCAA can't act on the obvious, institutional-level abuses going on at UNC, I doubt they will do much acting here (but keep cashing those fat paychecks, Mark Emmert ($1.7M in 2012)) . The games will continue; Notre Dame will be a borderline top-25 team that gets treated like a top-5 powerhouse; we'll have to suffer through more pollyannaish tributes to the honor supposedly embodied by Notre Dame every winter before they get creamed in their bowl game. And almost everyone will exit the year richer than they entered yet. Perhaps some will exit 2014 without a job, left wondering what could have been done different to change the outcome. But the bloom fell of the rose years ago, even if it seems as if we are just starting to notice.