Monday, April 4, 2016

Final Four: All I Got for Four Years in College Was This Lousy T-Shirt

If you’re like me, I suspect you had no idea Nike sponsored a dozen teams in this year's NCAA basketball tournament. That tournament wraps up tonight with the championship game at 9:18, Villanova vs. North Carolina. Perhaps you noticed in one recent game that Oklahoma players sported warm-up shirts emblazoned: “Always reppin.” 

Syracuse? Gonzaga? Iowa State? All wore the same shirt with the same slogan, differing only in color, with appropriate university logos underneath.

A Nike spokesman admitted recently that the company came up with the “reppin’” idea after hearing lyrics from a rap song in which the artist Drake sang, “I’m just repping for my town.” 

The shirts, the spokesman claimed, were “inspirational.” Also, did we mention, these fine shirts are available at the Nike store nearest you!

I admit I still love college basketball, but as an educator I find it harder and harder to follow college sports every year. This year’s Final Four featured two teams know more for academic scandal than academic excellence.

Syracuse, for one, imposed a tournament ban on its team in 2015 after evidence showed boosters paid players to come to Syracuse and staff members wrote papers for athletes to insure they remained eligible.

Normally, Coach Jim Boeheim could expect to earn $2 million for leading Syracuse to the 
Final Four. But this season he was suspended for nine games as a result of the scandal, during which his team went 4-5. Sadly, this only seemed to prove his “value,” to the school, if not to student athletes. 

There was added irony knowing Syracuse might not have made the tournament field, save for the fact two teams with superior records, Louisville and Southern Methodist, were banned entirely. Louisville’s particular brand of shame involved using prostitutes to lure top recruits to that institution of…higher learning. As for Southern Methodist, the school found itself on probation after enrolling one star recruit in an online course and helping him get a “good education” by allowing a school employee to attend to tedious chores, such as doing actual course work. Larry Brown, coach of SMU pretended dumb, but this was the third program he led to success on-court, and scandal in the classroom.

Yet, in this case, academic fraud, unlike crime, sis pay—and Brown earned $1.9 million in his first season with SMU.

For various reasons, then, I’m rooting for Villanova. Their opponent tonight, North Carolina, avoided academic probation in 2015 by the hair of their powder blue chin, when the NCAA issued a final report on a massive academic scandal. To put it bluntly, hundreds of UNC student-athletes, over the course of a decade, were carried by coaches, academic advisers and professors. They were enrolled in courses that never met, had papers written for them, and if they still failed, had grades altered.

It was, said one critic, the “plantation mentality” in college sports. Use the players, mostly African-American kids, get what you want out of them, provide little in the way of actual education. Use them up, then send them out to face life in the real world—where only 1% of college athletes go on to play pro sports—arm them with a worthless diploma or no diploma at all. 

But, hey, at least they’ll have plenty of t-shirts.

Or, as Nike might say: “Always reppin!’”

The student-athlete gets free t-shirts. Coaches make millions.

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