Andy Schwarz neatly skewers the “we’re doing it for the kids” argument Emmert and Sankey continue to make about Jim Harbaugh’s Florida spring break excursion.
Anyway, that’s not the outrage. No, the public reason people like National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert have expressed deep Concern over Harbaugh’s plan can be summarized as such: college athletes shouldn’t have to devote their Spring Breaks to practicing football. At least not when they could be doing what other college students do during Spring Break, which we can only assume involves violating the alcohol laws of Florida, California and Texas, though probably not Mexico.
“There is a big debate going on among administrators right now about how to provide more time off for student-athletes so the use of Spring Break for practices caused a lot of people to be concerned about it, and that’s an appropriate concern. … We are trying to find ways to dial back the demands on student-athletes, not ramp them up. … There’s a difference between not being prohibited and being OK.”
Are college sports power brokers actually concerned that Michigan’s football players will be working on out patterns instead of holding down the business end of beer bongs? I doubt it. To the contrary, I think their supposed reservations are basically a tell—you know, the subtle tip-off a bad gambler does when he’s bluffing—that lets the rest of us know just what actually matters in major college sports…
…Let me explain. Let’s start with the NCAA rulebook, and its description of our old friend amateurism:
2.9 The Principle of Amateurism.
Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.
What’s an avocation? A hobby, basically. The literal opposite of vocation, which means job. This is where things get weird. Why would Emmert (or anyone else) be upset because college athletes are being asked to participate in their chosen hobbies during their free time? Isn’t that pretty normal?
Sure, it would make sense to be deeply concerned if Harbaugh was asking players to work during their vacations. Especially without getting paid overtime. Most of us would want to punch our bosses—and/or the nearest available union card—if asked to do the same. Who wants to give up their vacation for a vocation? That’s just wrong…
… To put things another way: nobody is expressing concern that kids pursuing Model United Nations or College Bowl trivia or Dance Squad or any of a hundred other geeky hobbies over Spring Break needs to be “dialed back.” Why? Because those things really are avocations. By contrast, football practice is work. Emmert can’t say that out loud, because then he’d be admitting that amateurism is a sham; on the other hand, he can’t really hide the fact, because even colluding college sports administrators know that punching the clock during what’s supposed to be a vacation really, truly sucks.
There’s an irony here: if the complaint about Harbaugh’s plan is that is it further distances college athletes from their student-ness, well, that has things upside-down. Football is a full-time job. Being a student—at least, being a competent one—is also more or less a full-time job. Both pursuits take lots of time and energy, and as such, finding ways to prevent sports and academics from overlapping should be encouraged by the NCAA and other people who proclaim that the purpose of major college football is, ahem, education.
Boy, that’s what hoisted on one’s own petard looks like.
The longer the NCAA, the SEC and any other P5 conference go along with this fiction, the weaker they’re going to appear. Everyone on both sides of this debate is a prick; Emmert’s and Sankey’s problem is that, unlike them, Jim Harbaugh is a clever prick.
The smart thing to do here is to change the terrain by abandoning the nonsensical insistence of a concern about student-athlete’s time, focusing instead on the reality that this is about recruiting, and then trying to outflank Harbaugh by proposing something equally clever that neutralizes the advantage he seeks at IMG. Gee, I wonder if anybody has any ideas like that.
Reality check: I’m losing sight of who I’m writing about here. With bated breath, I await the report from the NCAA’s yet-to-be-announced executive study group on the subject of time demands on student-athletes. It should be a real page turner.