Human Element in Athletes Hard to Ignore

By Chris Sprow
Updated: January 20, 2006

CHICAGO—If regular access to professional athletes is one of the supposed “thrilling” aspects of being paid to write about sports, perhaps the most certain thing a scribe could relay to any fan when the barstool conversations take place is this: They are a lot like you and me.

Bode Miller drinks beer. Ozzie Guillen makes statements he immediately regrets,and my tape recorder occasionally forgets. Antonio Davis would leave his “job” to aid his wife, even if it meant he could get in trouble with the boss. Jamal Lewis – and many others – has a tendency to hang out with the wrong crowd. This isn’t a short list… Substitute your first name where I just wrote theirs, and it doesn’t seem so inhuman at all.

And because they are occasionally fools like us, perhaps we need to sometimes consider their actions that way. Very, very, human.

They are prone to emotional outbursts, statements of idiocy, moments of irresponsible spending, a need to feel understood, love for their families, angst toward their families, and on occasion, they might even have a few too many beers while out on the slopes.


That said, they also make their living through your participation, and to a degree, it’s necessary that fans demand accountability. Sometimes however, as we continue to read and write the headlines, you have to wonder, how much?

Sure, you’re right, it’s their fault for making bad decisions.

We should know. We’ve made them too.

Rooney Rule? I recently wrote that the NAACP is an “ignorantly titled organization” because it treats the plight of an entire race as if it was a politically solvent scenario.

This week, I might apply the same title of “ignorance” to those making hiring decisions in the annual NFL coaching search circus, or at least the people doing their public relations. Where are the black coaches? Or, at the least, where are the interviews of potential black coaches? Why am I not even hearing the speculation? What happened to the Rooney Rule?

It’s no secret that in the boy’s club society of professional sports, there is a tendency towards cronyism that would make a politician blush. But a year after Romeo Crennel latched on in Cleveland after being passed over numerous times, and Dennis Green started a comeback, and two years after current COTY Lovie Smith was granted the opportunity to man the sidelines here in Chicago, there seems to have been a drop-off.

Not just in hires, but even in rumors.

It’s like the league owners said, “We’ve done our black coaching public relations hires for the half-decade, now we can get onto our own people.”

Sure, this is partly due to a dearth of top black assistant coaches, and is also the result of the simple organizational tendency to hire people you know and trust. If top NFL circles are predominantly white (psst! they are) it’s hardly tantamount to racism for an executive to hire someone they trust.

We all know this is how it works in every profession.

But…can we seriously continue to believe that a league dominated by black athletes is unable to produce even the occasional whisper about a black coach?

It’s strange, but this off-season, that’s all we can believe.

It’s not racist. But, to paraphrase the man currently known as Big Momma, it’s racist-ish.

Opportunity Cost Last month I sat in a New York City hotel and listened to Myles Brand extol the virtues of college athletics. Did you know that college athletes graduate at a far higher rate than the regular student who enrolls in college? Bet ya’ didn’t. But do the math, how many drop-out friends did you have? Or stated more accurately, how many drink-out friends did you have?

And at lunch, there was the Assistant Athletic Director from Texas, sitting to my left, gleefully counting the ways in which their programs are doing wonderfully, with the Rose Bowl just weeks away.

And it was at this Rose Bowl where you did see a veritable Pro Bowl, as in, between two teams, there were conceivably twenty future NFL players on the field. So call it a professional bowl. NFL careers, we know, tend to have the success rate of sperm, but nonetheless, the level of talent was amazing.

But I still couldn’t help but wonder, how much money are those guys worth now? As in, right now, right there on the field.

Add it up. Just off the top of your head.

I know the pay-outs for the game were well over 13 million dollars for each school, with some of that money distributed throughout their respective conferences. And I know the TV rights to the game were sold to ABC for a contract that was worth nine figures. And I know the tickets to the game – there was a crowd estimated at just under six figures – were going for well over a grand for some of the best individual seats. And I know Mack Brown and Pete Carroll, the head coaches of Texas and USC respectively, both signed contract extensions recently that will go a long way to making sure their families maintain wealth for the next few generations. And I know that to buy an advertisement that could break up those moments between heroic efforts by Vince Young, Matt Leinart, and Reggie Bush, it would cost millions of dollars for spots that would typically be broken down into 30-second slots.

But we all know this, right?

So I just wondered, how much is Vince Young worth to Texas? How much is Reggie Bush worth to USC? Seriously, try to do the math.

According to their working contracts (which thankfully, they’ve voided now to enter the draft) they are worth merely the price of a scholarship, which includes tuition, sometimes housing, books, often tutors, and all those other little things that go into being a great college athlete.

You could probably think of a few.

I just hope that someday the players will start to ask this more and more, until their voices get louder, and the NCAA has to take notice. Because for all the opportunities the NCAA “creates” for these athletes, (as if the NFL couldn’t find a player like Reggie Bush with their resources without him having a scholarship to USC) it mostly creates opportunities for itself….To make money to subsidize women’s programs because they lose money. To make money that most men’s programs can’t create, because, other than basketball, they mostly lose money. To create money to pay coaches. To make money through donors that love seeing a good team on the field. To make Nike and Adidas sign exclusive licensing deals with colleges that are measured in the millions.

To make money.

In economic terms, what these players do to pay for everyone else’s opportunities would be called socialism.

To the NCAA, and as it is presented to Vince Young or Reggie Bush, it’s called simply, an “opportunity to get an education.”

And in some ways, it is.

I just wonder if the players can see the difference.