VCU’s Cinderella Run Provides Lesson on Belief

March 28, 2011

From a fourth place conference finish and being one of the “last four in” to being in the Final Four, Virginia Commonwealth University’s maddening March run through the NCAA Tournament has captured the biggest headline from college basketball’s biggest event.

While many tend to overplay the sentiment that “sports can teach you lessons about life,” there’s certainly a life lesson to be learned from VCU’s unlikely success through its five-game gauntlet of NCAA Tournament games.

In the hours that followed the release of the NCAA Tournament bracket, the Selection Committee was criticized for its inclusion of VCU, which had lost its last four regular season games and finished just fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association. Pundits, particularly those employed by ESPN, held nothing back in their criticism of VCU’s inclusion.

Commentators said the decision to select VCU was “horrible”, “indefensible”, “failed the laugh test” and one likened VCU and UAB to Rosanne Barr while comparing Colorado, which was left out of the tournament, to Scarlett Johansson.

The sports blog Awful Announcing features a compilation of videos of sports commentators criticizing the Committee’s inclusion of VCU. The Rams used that criticism as motivation, in particular a comment from ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who said of VCU: “They can’t guard me.”

But the Rams didn’t let what others said they couldn’t do affect what they believed they could do.

“When you have a belief in each other and a belief in your coaching staff anything like this can happen,” VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said.

In fact, just prior to tipoff against No. 1 seed Kansas Sunday in the Elite Eight (a game VCU won 71-61), Rodriguez was told by a Kansas player, “You guys have had a good run, but now it’s over.” But the Rams’ confidence and belief didn’t waiver.

“Once again, we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game,” said 33-year-old VCU coach Shaka Smart. “But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. We talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think. That’s our theme throughout the NCAA Tournament since we were selected. Our guys have done a phenomenal job putting all the doubters aside, putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside and going out and doing their job.”


Graduation Rates, Racial Gap Increase

March 17, 2011

When college basketball fans fill out their 2011 NCAA Tournament brackets, they rely on a team’s on-court performance throughout the season to assist them in making their predictions. But what if fans placed greater importance on teams’ academic graduation rates rather than their basketball prowess?

Each year, Inside Higher Education creates a bracket to showcase what the results would be like if schools advanced in the NCAA Tournament based solely on their academic progress rates (APR) with any ties broken using the school’s graduation rate. Based on their findings, Princeton (996), Kansas (1,000, a perfect score), Texas (1,000), and Butler (1,000) would be in this year’s Final Four with Texas and Butler playing in the national championship game.

According to the Graduation Success Rates (GSR), 42 teams in this year’s 68-team field graduated 60% or better of their players and 32 teams graduated at least 70%. However, seven teams had graduation rates of less than 40%, with the lowest being Arizona (20%), the University of Alabama at Birmingham (25%), Connecticut (31%), and Temple (33%).

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida releases the annual study detailing the NCAA Tournament schools’ graduation rates. Their findings for this year’s teams shows that graduation rates are improving overall, with both white and African-American student-athletes graduating at a higher rate than last year. White student-athletes for this year’s NCAA Tournament teams have a 90% graduation rate, while African-Americans have a 58% graduation rate.

Although the graduation rates for both African-American and white college basketball players continues to rise, the disparity of the rates between African-American and white student-athletes increased by 4% since last year. The staggering gap of 32% has increased 10% since 2009.

“For years we have noted the deeply troubling disparity between the GSR of African-American and white men’s basketball student-athletes,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of TIDES. “While the actual graduation rates of African-American basketball student-athletes continue to increase, the gap increased to 32 percentage points! An ESPN poll conducted for Martin Luther King Day this year indicated that the greatest concern of both whites and African-Americans in the general public was this disparity. Hopefully that concern will generate new resources to address this problem.”

While this gap may seem disturbing, compared to African-American men in the general student population, the graduation rate of NCAA Tournament-bound African-American student-athletes is much higher. Despite that widening gap, there are five schools in this year’s NCAA Tournament that have higher graduation rates for African-American players than white players, those schools being Boston University (100%/80%), Northern Colorado (100%/78%), Old Dominion (50%/33%), Pittsburgh (60%/50%), and North Carolina-Ashville (rates n/a).

TIDES also released graduation rates for teams in this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament. As has historically been the case, the 2011 report revealed that women’s basketball teams had a higher overall graduation rate than men’s basketball teams. A graduation rate of 70% or higher was achieved by 91% of women’s teams, compared to 49% of men’s teams who achieved that benchmark. What is the reason for this?

“I think for women athletes and basketball players the emphasis is on balancing academic and athletic performance,” Lapchick said. “Coaches and everybody involved advising the women have pushed positive academic success. That’s become a tradition in women’s sports. But there are some of the same people advising both men’s and women’s teams on these campuses. So there’s a sort of academic challenge there, too. For me the next step is to hold up the women as a model of what we can do.”


Dr. Richard Lapchick is a forerunner in the fight for racial equality in sports and “the racial conscience of sport.” He co-authored the books 100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport, 100 Trailblazers: Great Women Athletes Who Opened the Doors for Future Generations, 100 Campeones: Latino Groundbreakers Who Paved the Way in Sport, and 150 Heroes: People in Sport Who Make This a Better World. All four books are published by Fitness Information Technology and are available at www.fitinfotech.com.


NFL’s 18-game season: 8 reasons to think twice about it

October 8, 2010

Hines Ward has a point. The veteran Steelers’ receiver believes that he might be the “last double-digit guy” to play in the NFL, meaning that once the season is extended to 18 games, most players are going to retire from football before they reach a decade of playing time. Ward, like other NFL athletes, usually has a difficult time finishing out the season—the wear and tear from frequent blocking, tackling, and running can take a mean toll throughout the year for any NFL athlete. ESPN.com mentioned that Ward’s shoulders ache badly with every pass reception, and his legs take heavy wear and tear on artificial turf surfaces, not to mention he gets tackled by some of the world’s biggest and fastest athletes.

Although the proposal for adding two games includes taking away two games from the preseason, there can be no denying the vast differences in pre-season and regular season play when it comes to taking a toll on first-string, first-rate players like Ward.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a large proportion of league owners want the extended season, because, as Goodell says, it “would give fans more games worth watching and eliminate some that are next to meaningless.” Also, it must be noted, the fans aren’t so crazy about the preseason, either.

But let’s call this for what it is: Money. I can guarantee you Goodell isn’t supporting this because of the soft spot in his heart for the fans, and just as well the players certainly want to get paid the most they can get. As the NFL has become more commercialized and organized throughout the years, the seasons have increased in length—in the 1950s, schedules were 12 games long; in the 60s it grew to 14 games. With a longer stretch of 18 games, we’re likely to see a lot of extra money changing hands—through TV channel deals, advertisements, ticket sales, concessions—so far at the expense of the players. But should we care? They, after all, are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, and they are playing to the wishes of the fan base. At least the players don’t seem to be hiding behind the pretense that they are only concerned about injuries and time on the road.

“I might get in trouble, I might get a call, but it’s all about money,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. “If you want guys to play 18 games, there is some ways guys are going to have to be compensated for that.” Clark also made a good observation when he said that the NFL is contradicting itself after levying new rules to protect players from concussions and injuries, yet is now pushing to put players into a new realm of injury threats.

Steelers’ Charlie Batch has the dubious distinction of being the team’s player representative, and he, according to ESPN, is opposed to expansion because of the risk of injury, something injury-prone Batch knows well. But even he, like others, admits the concept of a longer season in the 21st century will be a new beast. But what can we expect to change? What should we look for?

1. Injuries will rise: Yes, there might be an equal amount of games, but seriously folks, preseason football is like watching college lacrosse—mildly entertaining, but in the end nobody outside of the lacrosse community really cares. In the NFL pre-season we get to watch for new talent, unused quarterbacks, and third stringers trying to make the cut, but without the fun and fanfare of a good intercollegiate game. Lackluster performances by the first-tiered starters mar the action, and the heat is dialed way down, compared to the spine-shaking hits and daring passes into double tomahawk coverage that accompanies play later on in the season–when it counts.

2. The hidden talent dynamic will shift: According to technews.com, Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday,the Colts’ quarterback and center, believe an 18-game season could work severely against undrafted rookies that are trying to make the team. Indianapolis is one of the league’s best at discovering overlooked and hidden talent, and could very well suffer from the advantages of pre-season rookie jubilees. Untested and unproven players will have fewer opportunities to showcase their talents in real games, and will therefore miss out on valuable roster positions.

3. The roster size will expand: As players become injured, strained, and fatigued, someone will have to fill the gaps, so we should anticipate larger drafting pools and a deeper dip into the well of new talent.

4. Network TV wars: This depends on how the NFL sorts out the bye weeks. They might altogether lose the bye weeks (in order to ratchet out a more fluid, regular season schedule), and fuse a schedule that lands games on Thursdays and Saturdays, which might cause the divorce rate to skyrocket. Does this mean we’re going to have more regular games going to cable coverage? It’s already a nasty smack against the blue collar Joes and Janes that can’t afford to watch ESPN for some Monday Night Football action. It just ain’t American.

5. The NCAA might get angry: If games are pushed into Saturday, we’ll be watching two bloated, cumbersome, money-hogging juggernauts slapping each other upside the helmet for financial rights to the Saturday piece of football pie. Think about it. Texas/OU’s Red River Rivalry, or the Cowboy/Redskins game? Some fans will probably spontaneously explode, or fantasy football players won’t have enough time to scout players prior to their fantasy drafts.

6. Losing teams will hurt more financially: By the NFL’s statistics, 14 franchises didn’t make money or were in the red last year. Let’s imagine the Raider fans being asked to pick up a hike in revenue to cover the cost of two more games that nobody wants to attend. You tell them the news, because I’m not going to do it.

7. What about the (not so little) linemen?: Getting personal, Sean Bubin, a friend and former NFL lineman, spoke to me about the dregs of being on the line. Bubin was drafted in 2004 by the Jaguars, and he played for the Lions and Vikings before spending time abroad with the Hamburg Sea Devils for NFL Europe—he retired at the ripe old age of 26. “I seized up—I couldn’t bend my limbs anymore,” said Bubin. “It happens to a lot of us.” Medical News Today cites that the average NFL career length in 2008 was 4.6 years, and only 7% of players made it past Hines Ward’s magic double-digit number of 10 seasons in the league. We may say we’re paying NFL players a boatload of money, but when you waste your body away in four or five years, that money better be worth it. According to the Boston Globe, Bubin only made $360,000 in his final, one-year contract with the New England Patriots.

8. DUI incidents will rise: Okay, so I made this one up, but it sounded good. And I’ll probably be right.


Some Schools Use Millions in Student Fees to Supplement Athletic Revenue

October 4, 2010

Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano is making more than $2 million per season, and in recent years the University committed to spending more than $100 million to upgrade its football stadium. Meanwhile, student fees contributed nearly $8 million toward Rutger’s athletic department revenue in 2008-09, which equals more than 13% of the revenue generated by Rutgers’ athletics.

According to a USA Today database on athletic department budgets, Rutgers netted less than $200,000 in 2008-09. Take away the nearly $8 million contributed from student fees and the athletic department would have severely overspent.

Rutgers isn’t alone. A recent report by USA Today outlined in detail how some universities are using escalating student fees to support the multi-million dollar budgets of their athletic departments. The practice has some academicians, students, and parents crying foul.

Transparency, or the lack of it, is what has some up in arms, as many universities go to great lengths to make it difficult to discern just how much their athletic departments are benefitting from receiving student fees.

To some, it seems as if the athletic department is the big, bad bully on the block, stealing lunch money from poor students to pay its coaches millions of dollars and build lavish luxury suites for its millionaire alums.

But as Dr. William Kern, chair of the Department of Economics at Western Michigan University, pointed out to Fitness Information Technology, athletic departments aren’t the only units in a university that receive financial support from general funds. Kern and Donald Alexander, also a professor and economist at Western Michigan University, recently conducted a study on the effect of athletic success on state appropriations to universities. Their research will be published in the November issue of the International Journal of Sport Finance.

“There are a number of activities across the university that are subsidized through one means or another,” Kern said. “For example, there are probably a number of academic departments on every campus that don’t generate revenues sufficient to cover the costs of their operations.

“Philosophy might be such a case and the reader can probably think of others in the fine arts where this might also be the case. But we subsidize them because we think they are a necessary part of the university. That argument is easier to justify in the case of philosophy than in the case of non-revenue sports but some would no doubt argue much the same way that sports are an integral part of the university.”

Perhaps the biggest objection with using general funds and state appropriations to support athletic department budgets is the fact that salaries for coaches in football and men’s basketball, in particular, have escalated at a rapid pace during the past decade. It’s now atypical that a coach in one of those two sports at a large university isn’t earning in the neighborhood of $1 million annually, with a select few football coaches earning $3-4 million per year.

In addition, many universities are spending millions to upgrade athletic facilities, not necessarily because they are structurally unfit, but because their rival schools have enhanced their facilities.

“There seems to be an arms race with regard to improvement in facilities and coaches’ salaries, at least in the major sports at large state universities,” Kern said. “This spending is not likely to decline as any individual university that stops spending finds itself at a competitive disadvantage against its rivals. What is really needed to stop this is some sort of rule that constrains spending that applies to all schools. Robert Frank has a nice analysis of this issue in his Knight Commission report of collegiate athletics.”

Frank, an economist at Cornell University, concluded in his 2004 Knight Commission Report that after extensive research, “The empirical literature seems to say that if the overall net effect of athletic success on alumni giving is positive, it is likely to be small.”

Still, while Frank and other economists profess that athletic success has little effect on donations, it should be noted that athletic success is believed to contribute to school loyalty and a student’s enjoyment while on campus.

“Students seem to be demanding more and more amenities associated with their college experience and sports in both participant and spectator forms appear to be a part of that,” Kern said. “Most students don’t seem to want to attend ‘no-frills’ universities that would eliminate these sorts of things and just stick to the basics of instruction.”


Do NCAA Licensing Deals Exploit Student-Athletes?

September 9, 2010

It’s a debate this isn’t likely to end anytime soon, but a recent event once again stirred up questions about whether collegiate student-athletes should be paid.

Talented University of Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green violated NCAA rules by selling his game jersey from last year’s bowl game to a person the NCAA recognizes as an agent. As a result, Green has been suspended for the first four games of this season.

For those on the “pay the players” side of the argument, a column by Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated made some strong arguments that players such as Green are being exploited by their universities, apparel corporations, and the NCAA.

Green reportedly sold his jersey for less than $150, but the violation of NCAA rules cost him four of the Bulldogs’ 12 regular-season games. As Staples points out, the University of Georgia sells Green’s No. 8 jersey (see image) for between $60 and $150, of which Green receives nothing.

Staples argues that it’s a double standard that the NCAA preaches about amateurism, maintains a tax-exempt status, and then earns millions of dollars courtesy of the athletic achievements of its “student-athletes,” who are punished for the slightest overstep of the NCAA’s Britannica-like rulebook.

The sale of jerseys adorning popular players’ numbers is just a small portion of the licensing revenue the NCAA reaps from the performances of its amateur athletes. A more recent phenomenon has been the use of players’ “likenesses” in video games, which produces millions of dollars of additional revenue for the NCAA and video game creators such as EA Sports.

Some of these issues have moved into legal battles, as described in a column in the September 2009 issue of Sport Marketing Quarterly (Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 160-164) by Anita Moorman and Marion Hambrick. In their column titled “To License or Not to License: That is the Question for Professional Sport Leagues and the NCAA,” Moorman and Hambrick describe how three recent court cases are intertwined with regard to licensing. Two of those cases directly involve the NCAA.

In Keller v. Electronic Arts, Inc., former football player Sam Keller filed a lawsuit against EA Sports, the NCAA, and the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) for the video game maker’s use of players’ likenesses, mannerisms, and distinctive appearances without the players’ permission. In O’Bannon v. NCAA, former basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit against the NCAA and CLC on behalf of himself and former student-athletes, who he claims, since their eligibility has expired, should no longer be bound to the amateur status form (Form 08-3a) that the NCAA requires all student-athletes to sign.

“As these cases wind their way through the legal system, the NCAA must revisit the delicate balance it has achieved between preserving amateurism, and avoiding exploitation and over-commercialization of student-athletes and maintaining its vital revenue-producing activities, including licensing student-athletes’ names, image, likeness, or other aspects of identity.” (p. 163)

While there is currently no clear-cut answer to the question of whether collegiate athletes should be paid, things are slowly trending toward the point in time when deeper discussions among decision makers must take place.


Examining the Economic Effects of Conference Realignment

June 21, 2010

Even though the creation of “super” conferences appears to no longer be imminent, the realignment of the Big Ten and Pac-10 certainly created some ripples in the sea of college athletics. But if the pair of leagues had expanded to 16 teams as many speculated, those ripples of change would have become waves that would have washed away the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) setup.

Sport economist and University of Alberta professor Brad Humphreys believes the formation of four “super” conferences could have signaled the end of the current BCS setup.

“If you are a fan of the current bowl/poll system, traditional rivalries, and the rest of that, then the current outcome—with only Nebraska, Colorado, and (Utah) moving—and the same basic BCS conference configuration is a good thing,” Humphreys said. “If you want a playoff, then a 16-team ‘super’ conference configuration is better, as the BCS is probably untenable under that configuration.”

The Pac-10 made a serious run at reconfiguring its league membership from 10 to 16 institutions, but was ultimately turned down by Texas and a collection of Big XII members. It was also being speculated that the Big Ten would consider growing to a 14- or 16-team league. But for now, the Big XII will have 10 members and the Big Ten and Pac-10 will each have 12 members.

The Big Ten (which despite its name had 11 members) got to 12 teams by plucking Nebraska from the Big XII, while the Pac-10 grew by adding Colorado from the Big XII and Utah from the Mountain West. Now both those conferences are able to host a conference championship game in football, which they were previously unable to do since the NCAA mandates a membership of at least 12 schools in order to have a conference championship contest.

But just how beneficial financially is the coveted conference championship game in football? It depends on the TV deal and fan turnout, according to Humphreys.

“While the lure of holding a conference championship game in football is what started all this moving, I think the overall profitability of those games is uncertain,” said Humphreys, an associate editor of the International Journal of Sport Finance. “Sure, the SEC championship game is a huge financial success, but I don’t think the ACC championship game has produced the kind of revenue that was expected.” Read the rest of this entry »


Are Nike Shoes Leading to Injuries?

April 6, 2010

Is a new line of Nike basketball shoes to blame for what seems to be an abundance of injuries? Perhaps there is just more media attention given to the injuries, but it seems that this season, more than others, there have been more foot and knee injuries to key players in college basketball.

Two Final Four teams were limited due to foot injuries, and both teams failed to advance to the national championship game. Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury during the NCAA Tournament that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Spartan guard Chris Allen played sparingly after suffering a sprained arch in his right foot earlier in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans, playing without Lucas, were defeated by two points by Butler in the national semifinals.

West Virginia had to finish its tournament run without its point guard after Truck Bryant broke a bone in his foot during practice. Then in the second half of their loss to Duke, the Mountaineers saw All-American Da’Sean Butler go down with an ACL tear and MCL sprain to his left knee after he planted while dribbling toward the baseline.

Duke was also the beneficiary of a less-than-healthy squad in the Sweet 16, when it beat Purdue minus its top player, Robbie Hummel. The Boilermakers were widely regarded as a Final Four contender before Hummel tore the ACL in his right knee in the last month of the season after planting on a drive similar to the way Butler was injured. The Boilermakers also played the first half of the season without starting point guard Lewis Jackson, who had surgery after sustaining cartilage damage in his foot, and freshman Sandi Marcius missed the entire season because of a broken bone in his foot.

The list of key players sustaining injuries to their feet or knees could go on and on. But the one thing the above-mentioned players have in common is that they were all at Nike-sponsored basketball programs and had the option of wearing a new lightweight line of Nike basketball shoes—the Nike Hyperize or Hyperdunk.

And the connection between the shoes and injuries hasn’t just been Internet message board speculation by fans frustrated to see top players from their favorite teams sidelined. Detroit Pistons strength and conditioning coach Arnie Kander reportedly tried to ban the Pistons from wearing the Nike Hyperize shoe earlier this season after he saw an unusual number of ankle injuries to his players. Kander has been with the Pistons for 18 years.

“I’m not going to name the brand of shoe it was, but it has been banned from our locker room and the guys aren’t allowed to wear it,” Kander was quoted as saying. “These shoes had taken most of the support out of the sides and it was a lighter shoe. Most basketball shoes weigh between 1.4 and 1.7 pounds. These shoes were weighing 0.8 pounds, which was way too light as far as side support. Since we’ve banned the shoe, knock on wood, we haven’t had any ankle sprains.”

Randy Meador, West Virginia University’s coordinator of athletic training services, said Mountaineer players have four different options of Nike shoes they can wear. He said he has not seen an increase of foot injuries this season, citing Bryant as the only player to sustain a foot injury. “We really did not notice a problem with shoes this year,” Meador said.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and his players take a similar stance, although Allen still switched to an older, heavier Nike shoe after his injury in order to provide more support.

After Allen and then Lucas went down with injuries, Michigan State director of sports medicine Jeff Kovan told the Detroit Free Press he would look into any possible correlation between the injuries and the Nike Hyperdunk shoes that the Spartans wear.

“Is there a problem with that shoe?” Kovan asked. “Well, obviously Arnie Kander has had a lot of problems, and I respect [his] decision. For us, we haven’t really seen a lot of problems. We’ve had sprains we’ve had every year. Therefore, yeah, we’re going to look at that, because if we don’t look at it, we’re not doing a service to the kids to make sure we’re protecting them.”