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SBJ/September 1 - 7, 2003/OpinionPrint All
I've always been a little preoccupied with the relationship between fathers and sons. Perhaps that's why I'm drawn to sports. Whether you sit in bleachers, dugout or front office, sports is pregnant with poignant pop stories. And if you've read this column with regularity, you know I'm a sucker for stories about sons and their fathers.
Perhaps Dick Neuheisel knew that when he called. But more likely, he just wanted an ear for what ails his heart. He's a father in search of "a fair shake" for his son, Rick, the former University of Washington head football coach.
You should know the Neuheisel saga by now. He's the guy who filled out a couple of March Madness brackets in a neighborhood pool and got busted by the NCAA. Come on, we all do it. Isn't that why daily newspapers run blank brackets before the tournament? Isn't it the NCAA and its $6 billion television deal that capitalized on bracketology? OK, Neuheisel staked a lot of loot, a couple of thousand in 2002 and 2003, but comparatively not so much. And he had a get-out-of-jail-free card, a memo from his athletic department saying NCAA bracket pools are jake.
But this isn't Monopoly and the NCAA is no board game. So before passing "Go," Neuheisel, a trained lawyer who won the Rose Bowl as a quarterback, as an assistant coach and as a head coach, lost his $1.5 million job, his friends and his future.
Of course Father Neuheisel has his own take on the scandal, including villains, betrayals, old grudges and leaders without the courage of their convictions. But by and large, the respected Tempe lawyer and former Arizona State professor, who spent a career arguing cases, told much the same account that has been reported in either the original accusations against his son or in the suit Rick Neuheisel filed against the university and the NCAA.
Sure the older man had a spin, and sure it was compelling, especially to one who admits vulnerability. But it wasn't what the senior Neuheisel said that caused this newsman to lose sleep. After 30 years, I've heard all the claims of innocence. No, it wasn't the spin; it was the sap.
It was the way he was willing to tell a complete stranger, whose only recommendation was that he was a straight shooter, about his love for his son. It was the way Dick Neuheisel's voice called up something deep and haunting from his soul when he said, "All his friends have deserted him."
Because he feels betrayed by the press, Rick Neuheisel, who is currently volunteering as an assistant coach at an all-black high school, would only say, "My dad is tired of hearing bad things about his son. I am too." The vilified coach would not comment on specifics.
His father said Rick lives for January 2005, when he expects to be vindicated in a Washington court. But what then? No college will touch him.
The question stunned the father. "They've ruined him."
After a reflective pause, he said, "My boy is a good boy. You'd like him."
Guess I'll have to take his word for it. But I can tell you that I like Rick's father. This man, who for 15 years was the national president of the Sister Cities program, simply has no room for doubting his son. "The law is on his side."
And so is Dick. When everyone else turned against Rick — his friends, his assistants, his boss — his father didn't lose faith. "Rick is troubled. When he's in despair, I try to bolster him."
No, I can't add anything to the dialogue that would result in a fair shake for Rick Neuheisel. But for me there is a little comfort in knowing that you can take a career away from a man, but you can't take a father's love for his son. So for me, it's a renewal when Dick said, "I believe in Rick."
John Genzale (email@example.com) is founding editor of SportsBusiness Journal.
In April 2001, the NCAA Management Council cleared the way for the NCAA to limit a school's participation in exempt basketball tournaments to two within a four-year period while increasing the maximum number of overall games allowed from 28 to 29.
The stated rationale was that exempt tournament games created academic hardship because they required teams to be off campus during critical study periods. NCAA officials also believe that the limit of "two in four" creates more opportunity for smaller schools that otherwise wouldn't be invited to play.
OK, superficially the reasons are laudable, especially in light of the notorious graduation rates of college basketball players.
But wait. Many exempt games and tournaments are promoted by outside groups not associated with the NCAA or the colleges that participate. And while the individual participating schools realize some pecuniary gain, the entrepreneurs, not the NCAA, control the cash flow. TV rights and other revenue opportunities are outside the NCAA grip.
In view of all that, it's not unreasonable to label as pretext all the talk about student welfare.
The NCAA argues that on behalf of its member institutions it, not the promoters, should control college basketball schedules. The NCAA avers that each exempted tournament, usually a preseason event, counts as merely one game against the increased Division I schedule maximum of 29 and that teams usually play several games in these tournaments.
But with only two opportunities to play every four years, the number of marquee teams begins to dwindle. In the years when teams do not play in exempt tournament games, marquee schools must balance large non-conference schedules with non-conference revenue opportunities, most likely home games against inferior opponents.
The schools remaining eligible for an exempt tournament, many of which are in so-called mid-major conferences, are not, by themselves, attractive gate draws. Promoters counter that fans won't pay to see these smaller, less renowned schools, which will kill the promoters' business.
For the college basketball fan and for those mid-major schools, "two in four" presents a deeper issue here.
The exempt tournaments are tremendous opportunities for smaller-conference schools to compete against the big boys. Participation helps smaller programs recruit and build stature. The chance to score early season upsets over Goliath puts some of these smaller schools on the map and enhances their NCAA tournament selection chances.
This point is even more significant when considering that but for the exempt tournaments, most major programs are loath to play their smaller brethren on a neutral court or on the road. Thus, the smaller schools' chances for upset or even competitiveness are greatly reduced.
Moreover, with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's emphasis on playing stronger schedules, many major programs won't or can't afford to bother with the unrecognized and too often disrespected mid-major.
Year after year there have been exciting seasonal runs by a few mid-major schools that have captivated the national audience. Many of these runs were launched by an early season upset of a highly ranked team representing a major program.
Schools like Gonzaga, Pepperdine, Ball State, Richmond — to name just a few on a long list — have pulled some terrific upsets in the NCAA tournament, fueled by early season success against a power team.
On July 28, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. ordered the NCAA to end the "two in four" imposition. He didn't buy the NCAA student welfare arguments, citing the increase in the number of games.
I strongly agree. If promoting academics is the real objective of "two in four," then there are more effective ways to increase class time. Don't resort to half measures; go the whole hog.
I offer a modest proposal: Do away with conference tournaments. Or better yet, reduce the number of at-large berths in the NCAA tournament and keep March Madness in the month of March without spilling over into April.
Extreme? Of course. But the extremist nature of my suggestion magnifies the weakness of the NCAA's academic argument because there are more effective methods out there to improve the academic experiences for college-basketball-playing students.
Sargus also rejected the NCAA argument that the NCAA was trying to level the playing field. Instead he recognized that without the exempt tournaments the big boys would only play at home vs. the little guys, with little interest and little revenue for the latter.
Most telling, the judge ignored NCAA pleas about controlling its schedules and found the "two in four" rule as anti-competitive without any redeeming interest or "countervailing beneficial participation."
But despite Sargus' well-reasoned opinion, on Aug. 20 the NCAA won a stay from execution of his order pending appeal from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
I'm concerned that the NCAA will exercise its considerable influence and lobbying clout to reverse the District Court ruling. The stay also places several preseason tournaments in jeopardy for 2003.
Like most powerful litigants, the NCAA can wage and can win this type of economic warfare.
College sports are under more pressure than I can remember in my 33 years' experience as a student athlete, television broadcaster and University of Maryland trustee. NCAA President Myles Brand recently lamented the creeping shadow of scandal and disrepute over the college sports landscape. He equated the problems of coaches, student athletes and programs to a "crime wave."
When under siege, one should pick carefully the battles to fight and fight the battles that can be won. Having acknowledged the problems, Brand and the NCAA should step back a moment and assess the strategy.
The NCAA should now understand that it went too far in litigating this issue and has placed itself in a position where a federal judge has opined that the NCAA acted anti-competitively, a characterization that will surely haunt the association in future legal contests.
Member institutions want to play these games every year. Fans like the system the way it was. And it's OK to leave some money on the table for a few promoters.
Now is the time to marshal the resources necessary to solve the academic and ethical woes besieging college sports. The NCAA may come from behind and win the legal contest.
But for the sake of fans who revel in the unpredictability that parity begets in college sports, and for some much-needed goodwill amidst the NCAA's acknowledged moral bankruptcy among too many of its member institutions, I hope the NCAA decides to let this one go.
Len Elmore is an analyst for ESPN and CEO of online educational services firm Test University.
The NFL kicks off its 84th season Thursday night in the nation's capital, and by all measures, the business of the National Football League is strong, perhaps stronger than ever. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue acknowledges as much in our pages this week, but he is mindful to point out the cyclical nature of economic conditions, human behavior and cultural trends. Tagliabue is smart to be cognizant of fluctuations in the marketplace, because he will be shepherding the league through some of its most challenging issues over the next few years. He must continue to be a modern commissioner for modern times — and be bold when making the necessary changes to a business structure that has enriched many and served the league, owners and partners so well.
There is plenty on Tagliabue's plate. With the expiration of the NFL Trust in seven months, the league has undergone an internal reorganization and developed a new sponsorship model that will turn over a majority of the inventory to its franchises. The teams seem eager to adopt this radically new (for the NFL) business model, but are looking to the league to lead the process and continue to oversee areas where the value of the aggregate marks exceeds the local brand. That's one challenge.
Like many in the industry, Tagliabue is bullish on the November launch of the NFL Network, and having the extremely capable Steve Bornstein at the helm has only heightened anticipation. But the league will face a juggling act in not over-leveraging such an asset in the years prior to renegotiating its television contracts. As the NFL Network takes shape, the league's television partners and advertisers will keep a watchful eye on the programming, pricing and positioning of the start-up, and teams will gauge whether it intrudes on its valuable preseason and shoulder programming.
While filling the open Los Angeles market is high on Tagliabue's list, the process continues to be marred with delays, new studies and alternative locations, while select owners publicly discuss it as an option for relocation of their teams. Tagliabue has yet to make a convincing argument to his peers or to residents and leaders in Los Angeles for the league's return to the marketplace.
The commissioner also is hearing concerns from owners about the growing economic disparity among teams, and some franchises are hoping he acts to level the playing field before the NFL follows the path to the wide economic gulf that exists in Major League Baseball.
And as we begin the regular season, a thoughtful re-examination of the preseason schedule is likely to be debated by ownership. Football is a physical game, and players get hurt. But owners will not sit still if they continue to lose their marquee players for long periods of time because of hits occurring in meaningless games in August. With the injuries to Michael Vick and Chad Pennington, both of whom will miss major portions of the regular season, it's clear that the owners, players and league business partners will study alternatives.
Finally, there is the paramount challenge of continued labor peace, which has been the foundation of Tagliabue's successful tenure and a major cornerstone of the NFL's popularity and economic vitality.
The NFL is the most successful sports league in the world, and Paul Tagliabue certainly deserves much of the credit for the growth and strength of an estimated $5 billion entertainment property. His lasting legacy will be judged not only on his current success, but also on these critical issues he will tackle in the days ahead.LET US HEAR FROM YOU
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