Absolute power corrupts

The personal foibles that are costing college coaches their jobs at an alarming rate are only symptoms of a sick system.

Topics: Football, Martha Stewart,

It’s safe to say that Rick Neuheisel, fired Thursday as the University of Washington football coach, knew he shouldn’t have participated in NCAA basketball Tournament pools, a clear violation of a clear rule. He did, he won about $12,000 on a $6,400 bet, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and it cost him his job. So, OK: He’s an idiot.

But how many college coaches have to be caught misbehaving in species-threateningly stupid ways before it’s clear they’re not the problem, they’re a symptom? These guys operate in a sick system.

Neuheisel’s firing comes on the heels of Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy losing his claim to the highest-paying government job in the state after being photographed nuzzling Mizzou undergrads at a frat party, which followed new Alabama football coach Mike Price getting the ax for his misadventures with the Pensacola ecdysiast community. Before that there were the academic and financial scandals that cost Georgia basketball coach Jim Harrick yet another job, and more academic shenanigans at Fresno State and St. Bonaventure. This is just in the last three months.

Never mind that Tournament office pool next March, here’s a pool we can jump in right now: Who’s going to be the next coach caught with his pants, literally or figuratively, down? Something tells me we won’t have to wait long for our winner.

“They’re risk takers,” says Murray Sperber, the Indiana University professor and author of “Beer and Circuses” and other books about college sports. “To go into a kind of coaching where you’ve gotta win, it’s on the line, takes a certain amount of risk taking. And I think you’ve also got to operate in a system where you constantly have to cut corners. Recruiting, for example. Even if you’re honestly recruiting you’re sort of cutting corners.”

The NCAA may be the greatest creator of fiction since Ernest Hemingway. The entire edifice of big-time college sports sits on a foundation of amateurism that’s completely bogus. The only thing amateurish about college sports is the athletes’ salaries, which are nonexistent. The fiction that college sports is all about education is what allows a multibillion-dollar enterprise to pay its principal employees nothing more than room, board and school tuition.

If the very ground you stand on is made up of lies, why tell the truth? If you’re willing to tell the star halfback that yes, you really care about his ambitions to become a veterinarian and will help him with his biology labs if necessary if he’ll just come tote the pigskin for State, where else are you willing to cut ethical, or moral, or even legal corners? Don’t answer. This is a rhetorical conversation.

None of the recently fired trio was exactly drowning babies. These guys weren’t CEOs bilking retirees out of their life savings or anything. Heck, Neuheisel’s toast for doing something you probably do every spring! They were just overpaid ball coaches with faulty superegos. That little voice that most of us have that says, “Hey, this is dumb and doesn’t get me much and it might cost me my job, so maybe it’s not worth it,” went unheard, muffled under a pile of greenbacks and drowned out by the braying of the boosters for more wins — or the coach’s head.

Although the amount Neuheisel bet and won seems staggering for an office pool, it was essentially pocket money to someone with his income, which was something more than his $1.2 million base salary. The equivalent gambling win for someone who makes $50,000 would be about 500 bucks on a $265 bet. Nice, but not worth risking your livelihood over.

You Might Also Like

And neither are a few beer-soaked cheek-kisses with Abercrombie-clad education majors or even whatever one might do with a stripper named Destiny who has custody of your credit card. What makes these guys take outsize risks isn’t that they really need whatever it is they might gain, it’s that they’re too big for rules.

“I think college coaches come to feel that they’re immune to the normal laws of human gravity,” says Sperber, who spent years observing Bob Knight at close range. “We’re talking now about celebrities. Why did Martha Stewart [allegedly] do what she did? It’s chump change, but the only explanation that I kind of like is that she feels that the normal laws didn’t apply to her because she’s special. Well, if you’re Rick Neuheisel and you’re brought to Washington and paid a million bucks, you’re pretty special.”

And that’s the problem. The split personality world of big-time college football and basketball says that while this whole thing is all about the educational experience of the players, you better win now, Mr. Coach, because this is big business. Winning means more donations, more ticket and merchandise sales, more TV money. It also means blue-chip players, who like to win and to play on TV, will be more likely to come and keep the whole thing going. The coach is the guy who brings those blue-chippers in. One who’s good at doing that is a valuable commodity. (And make no mistake, if the Huskies had gone 12-1 instead of 7-6 last year, Neuheisel would not be polishing his résumé right now.)

Of course, without the fiction of amateurism for athletes that keeps them from being paid, the coaches wouldn’t seem so valuable. If players were able to operate in a free market, to go where they could get the best deal — that is, if they were able to make decisions the same way the coaches, not to mention you and I, do — the coach would be less of a demigod.

For one thing, the wealth would be spread around. Instead of making a million bucks each, the football and basketball coach might have to divvy up that loot with 10 football players and three basketball players. The highest-paid public employee in most states might not even work for a college athletic program.

For another, the players would get a little more credit. People respect money, and since the coach gets all the money we all figure the coach deserves all the credit for winning. But we can see at every level of sports that the teams that win tend to be the ones with the best players. Watching schools bid on the services of players would force us to acknowledge their value.

I’m not holding my breath for any of this to happen. The NCAA will lecture sternly about its opposition to gambling — without mentioning all those pools that pump up interest in the basketball Tournament, many of which are run by campus bookies. Some coaches might even mind their P’s and Q’s for a while, chastened a bit by the coaching carnage in Iowa, Alabama and Washington.

And before too long, the next scandal will come skidding down the pike. Another coach will get caught thinking the rules don’t apply to him. I’ll put a dollar on Aug. 17. You?

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>