Sports Outside the Beltway

College Athletics

Editorial Boards of college newspapers, even ones with good J-schools, are not often the place to begin a discussion of the merits and failings of the current revenue centric world of college sports. The University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel took a stab at that topic in today’s edition. And they took issues with a son of Carolina without cause.

Former UNC baseball player Adam Greenberg was beaned in the head by an errant pitch in his first major league at-bat.

Suffering from vertigo and diminished hitting skills, he was sent to the minors in 2005. Greenberg chose UNC for baseball, switched to an easier major to accommodate practices, then turned pro before graduating.

That same year, Georgetown basketball head coach John Thompson III recruited Marc Egerson despite his 1.33 grade point average and an SAT score in the 600s.

Both of these indicate a problem in college athletics: allowing players to drop the “student” from student-athlete.

One problem is that when athletes coast through college, they risk losing it all if they become injured, as Greenberg was.

Adam Greenberg will become a very popular topic of discussion, thanks to the wonderful profile of him in the New York Times Magazine from March 25th. Alas, that profile has been walled off from the world of commentary but not before a few folks commented on it. Most marveled at Greenberg’s determination. Not a single comment on the piece that I found mentioned anything about him “losing it all” as the editorial board of the DTH implies.

In the interest of full disclosure, graduated from UNC-CH in 1997. I found the DTH unbearable then and it seems that even a decade removed, the ability to editorialize has not yet been discovered in the paper’s offices. I posted the point on their website, this morning, that Greenberg is more than just an athlete who sped through his time at Chapel Hill in pursuit of his career of choice – baseball.

There is much that is wrong with college athletics. The fundamentals of games are not taught in the major revenue sports, especially in basketball. And the graduation rates at many major programs have become more humorous than the editorials that attempt to decry them.

If the Editorial Board of the Daily Tar Heel wanted a real example of a player at UNC who gamed the college athletics system, they would have done a little digging to find Joe Forte.

Enters his sophomore season looking to improve on an outstanding freshman campaign • Is a preseason candidate for the Wooden Award and the Naismith Award, which are given to the National Player of the Year • Preseason first-team All-America, as named by Dick Vitale/ESPN • Joins Troy Murphy (Notre Dame), Terrence Morris (Maryland), Jamaal Tinsley (Iowa State) and Shane Battier (Duke) on the first team • Set a number of UNC freshman scoring records and was selected the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA South Regional • Scored 28 points in the regional championship against Tulsa to lead the Tar Heels to the Final Four • Showed remarkable poise and savvy as a young player, leading his team in scoring the entire season • The 2000 Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year

This Joe Forte

After a 2-year college career at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (highlights which included winning the 2000 ACC Rookie of the Year as well as 2001 ACC Men’s Basketball Player of the Year) that was marked by flashes of both brilliance and temper, he was selected by the Boston Celtics with the 21st pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. His most memorable moment with the Celtics came when he wore a Scooby-Doo shirt on the sidelines during the playoffs. In two seasons with the Celtics and the Seattle SuperSonics, Forte averaged 1.2 points and 0.7 assists per game, struggling to convert from his natural shooting guard position, to point guard. He was eventually waived by the Sonics due mostly to attitude and legal problems. While with the Sonics, he was arrested on gun and drug charges in Maryland, as well as an assault charge in which he allegedly punched a man in the face during a pickup game. After being released by the Sonics, Forte could not find a roster spot in the NBA.

Forte played two seasons in Chapel Hill. His failure in the NBA is hardly a surprise. Flashes of brilliance and temper are not the way to garner success in major professional leagues – even the notably dysfunctional NBA. When fusing vast sums of money with raw, immature young men, who have trouble with self-control, chaos is a natural fellow traveler.

A so-called success story is found in the more recent short term Tar Heel, Marvin Williams. His one season in the Southern part of Heaven ended with an NCAA title and a ticket to Atlanta when he declared for the NBA Draft after just one year in college. Marvin Williams, averaging 12.6 points per game in his second professional season. He turns 21 after this season ends in June.

Though his career is more of a success, Marvin Williams exudes the get out of school quick attitude that the Daily Tar Heel decries. Notice they overlook Williams in their list.

It’s problematic when athletes clearly aren’t enrolling in college to get an education. Increasingly the Kevin Durants and Carmello Anthonys of the world are looking to college basketball as a place to show off for NBA scouts instead of a place of learning. Athletes like these are sure to only increase in number with the new NBA rule requiring players to be at least 19 and a year out of high school before entering the draft.

But the problem doesn’t lie only with the athletes. The culture existing in college athletics denotes athletes as sources of entertainment, not as students at a university.

We aren’t suggesting that athletes be required to graduate from college. Clearly that isn’t an option for everyone. The allure of the NBA, NFL and MLB and their million dollar signing bonuses is hard for a poor college kid to turn down. The problem arises when college teams become farm teams.

The reality is that NCAA basketball is an enormous revenue generator. If the Daily Tar Heel wants NCAA basketball to cease to be a developmental farm league, it will require colleges to forego the cash from the heavily marketed and wildly successful tournament. Good luck getting that changed.

Athletics are a means to an end for many college attendees. The players use the universities for exposure. The universities use the players for their talent. Both use each other for the money that their union generates. Fans get the benefit of entertaining rivalries and another entertainment option on a winter’s night or a Saturday afternoon. As such, the fundamental purpose of college basketball and football has become a cog in the world of sports marketing, instead of a part of a university community. The athletes, due to their fame, are isolated from their fellow students, accorded special privileges, and held to a lower standard. Once athletes were students. Many still are.

But for all the failure, there are many successes. In spite of the disparaging comments about Adam Greenberg’s academic achievement, Greenberg has been very smart with his investments and business options outside of baseball. Even if he never gets back to the show, he has much to look forward to going forward with his life, post-baseball. Similarly, Brian Barton, a graduate of the University of Miami and minor leaguer in the Indians farm system, stayed for his entire college career with the University of Miami, earned a degree in Aerospace Engineering and interned at Boeing for good measure. His contract, as an undrafted free agent called for $100,000 in salary and $100,000 for his education.

The success or failure of a team often comes down to abilities of the players and the skill of the coach. So is it with the sports we watch. If teams and leagues and Athletic Associations are eager for short term payout without serious development of their sports, they will suffer in the long run. The NBA has been diminished by an emphasis on talent over character in the game, leading to the dysfunction I alluded to before. One hopes college athletics chooses not to follow that path, but it is their game, their moneymaking venture and their choice. We the fans as always will vote with our wallets and our time.

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