Alabama Scene

The buying of college sports

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at:

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at:

“We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes, and the best way to do that is to buy your school… or buy your coach.” Those were the words in 2001 of Sonny Vaccaro, who, since signing his pioneering shoe contract with Michael Jordan in 1984, had built sponsorship empires.

Not all of the audience (members of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics) could hide their scorn for Vaccaro, often called the “sneaker pimp,” who boasted of writing checks for millions to everybody in higher education.

The opening paragraphs above are a paraphrased version of a recent article in October’s edition of The Atlantic by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch titled “The Shame of College Sports.”

Sitting among the 87,000-plus screaming fans packed like sardines into Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night, I couldn’t help but think that many of the players out there virtually sacrificing their bodies would never graduate or make it to the pros. Was I participating in a potent example of the article’s title?

“Why,” asked a former president of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?” Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them, and there’s not one of you in this room who’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.” The author points to many examples of how colleges and universities profit off their star players.

Here are two of many that Branch cites.

At the start of the 2010 football season, A. J. Green, a wide receiver at Georgia, confessed that he’d sold his own jersey from the Independence Bowl the year before to raise cash for a spring-break vacation. The NCAA sentenced Green to a four-game suspension for violating his amateur status with the illicit profit generated by selling the shirt off his own back. While he served the suspension, the Georgia Bulldogs store continued legally selling replicas of Green’s No. 8 jersey for $39.95 and up.

Last season, while the NCAA investigated him and his father for the recruiting fees the father allegedly sought from Mississippi State, Cam Newton compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos – one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet – as part of Auburn’s $10.6-million deal with Under Armour.

Branch writes that last June at a news conference, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier proposed that coaches start paying players $300 a game out of their own pockets. The coaches at six other SEC schools (Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU, and Tennessee) all endorsed Spurrier’s proposal.

In 1951, Branch says, the NCAA seized upon a serendipitous set of events to gain control of intercollegiate sports. Since that time scandals made the corruption of college sports constant front-page news. “We profess outrage each time we learn that yet another student-athlete has been taking money under the table. But the real scandal is the very structure of college sports, wherein studentathletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves,” Branch writes.

Threats to NCAA domination also percolate in Congress. Aggrieved legislators have sponsored numerous bills. Senator Orrin Hatch, citing mistreatment of his Utah Utes, has called witnesses to discuss possible antitrust remedies for the Bowl Championship Series.

“It almost seems impossible that in the freest country in the world, we have tolerated an organization like the NCAA,” said Dale Brown, LSU basketball coach for 25 years, after reading the article. GOP leaders plan pension cut for state workers, teachers

Two leaders of the Republican majority in the Legislature want to reduce pension benefits for newly hired teachers and other public employees, plans that could save the state billions of dollars in coming decades, they say.

“I think everything has to be on the table,” said Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, leader of the state House of Representatives.

Hubbard said he and Sen. Del Marsh, RAnniston, the top-ranking state senator, several months ago asked Retirement Systems of Alabama chief executive David Bronner to provide options for reducing future state pension costs. They recently received the report.

The two said any new pension plans that reduced benefits and cut the state’s costs would apply only to new hires to state service.