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Volume 21 No. 1


Who stood out to me — all in public view — for the right reasons as the NBA progressed through one of the most important weeks in its history.

CHARLES BARKLEY: News of the audio recording of Donald Sterling broke on Saturday, April 26, and TNT’s “Inside the NBA” studio crew had the first opportunity to position the story and its importance to viewers that afternoon. It delivered, especially Barkley. He can be over the top at times, but I hope viewers never take his honest, rooted-in-reality approach for granted. He was serious, articulate and firm in laying out the issues threatening the league and a membership/fan base that is largely African-American. “This is the first test of Adam Silver,” Barkley explained. “[Sterling] has to be suspended. … We can’t have an NBA owner discriminating against a league — we’re a black league. … I’d probably say 80 percent of our players are black.” Kudos as well to host Ernie Johnson, who closed by stating, “There’s no place in the NBA for Donald Sterling, in my mind.” Any viewer watching that immediately understood the importance of the crisis on the league and society.

BILL SIMMONS: After TNT set the agenda, Simmons smartly positioned what was next. Over the weekend on ABC/ESPN, Simmons offered a personal viewpoint as an NBA and Clippers fan who attends games. “We have the best first round of the playoffs ever ruined by this bozo,” he said pointing to an image of Sterling. He then offered the pragmatic voice of an insider who understands the league and the league office. While others were expressing “outrage” or calling to “get rid of Sterling,” Simmons calmly noted the bylaw challenges and Sterling’s legal history. “This is probably the most stubborn owner of any sport and somebody who loves going into courtrooms and fighting battles,” Simmons said, detailing Sterling’s legal issues with former coach Mike Dunleavy and former general manager Elgin Baylor. He noted the difficult steps ahead for Silver and league owners “in trying to push him somehow to sell.” But he didn’t flinch in calling out the league for the Sterling problem. “The league itself [needs to] look in the mirror a little bit; don’t just blame Donald Sterling. This is a guy they kept around for three-plus decades. … They have to take some accountability. … They entitled him,” he said. As a fan and a business follower of the league, Simmons offered viewers a better understanding of the issues that would play out over the next few days.

LeBRON JAMES: An overwhelming number of players took to Twitter with articulate denouncements of Sterling, but James clearly was the most influential and gave the money quote on that Saturday night, while the controversy was less than 24 hours old. “There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league,” James said before that night’s game against the Bobcats in Charlotte. “There is no room for him.” For the game’s most influential voice to speak so forcefully fueled player unity and resolve, and it clearly established to Silver and the owners that the players would not be bystanders, but instead force decisive action.

MICHAEL JORDAN: After James’ comments on Saturday in the home arena of Jordan’s Bobcats, the former player turned owner had no comment on the issue. But that quickly changed. On Sunday morning, Jordan offered an aggressive statement, saying he was “disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. … There is no room in the NBA — or anywhere else — for [that] kind of racism and hatred.” Jordan’s spirited comments startled insiders who are used to him remaining on the sideline on controversial social issues. This time, he was among the first in the league’s ownership circle to go public, and as the only African-American owner in the league, speaking out early and strongly lifted his voice above the noise. Jordan’s stance drove the story into its second-day news cycle, and coming on the heels of James’ statements, it showed an emboldened and rarely seen unified message from the two most popular figures in the game.

KEVIN JOHNSON: Can anyone doubt the influence and force of Johnson, who served as the de facto leader of the National Basketball Players Association? While the NBPA drifts without a voice, he was called in to assist in the search for a new executive director, and during a pivotal period, he served as a strong, clear voice for the players. On Sunday night, he outlined the players’ demands, calling for swift action but also expressing full confidence and trust in Silver. He was firm but not antagonistic or divisive. Later in the week, after Silver’s ruling, he again showed a rare example of unification when he said Silver “is not only the owners’ commissioner, he is the players’ commissioner.”

MARK CUBAN: Traditionally the nonconformist voice, Cuban was at first muted, saying over the weekend, “I have plenty of opinions, just not going to share them.” He added, “It’s not my problem.” On Monday, he acknowledged what Sterling said was “abhorrent,” but he was the first and only owner to express concern about the precedent over what was said in private. “You’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do,” he said. “It’s a very, very slippery slope.” After Silver’s announcement on Tuesday, Cuban joined his fellow owners, issuing a public statement of support for the decision (“I agree 100% with Commissioner Silver’s findings and the actions taken against Donald Sterling,” Cuban tweeted), but Cuban’s earlier comments are to be remembered as well. He intelligently laid the foundation of what could be the biggest chasm and concern in the league’s constitution regarding ownership actions for years to come.

ADAM SILVER: Saturday night, I watched at home while Silver spoke to the media in Memphis for the first time since the Sterling story broke. He first announced the death of former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, and in easy familiarity talked of Heisley’s impact on the league as a “friend of the NBA.” But then, Silver seemed to become more uncomfortable and scripted when talking about Sterling’s alleged comments, referencing a prepared statement while making his remarks. A friend in the business instantly texted me, “Not impressed with delivery. Referencing written cue cards didn’t seem natural and he appeared uncomfortable.” While agreeing that Silver seemed not at ease, I suggested he let it play out a bit, that Silver would prove his mettle.

We know how Silver’s final decision was received. I don’t ever recall such unanimous praise of a sports leader’s decisive action. Even a newsroom full of cynics was impressed by his ruling. I admire Silver’s approach in acting on behalf of owners and players, and it was symbolic that for the first time in my memory, players and owners were united. Silver’s smart enough to know this can all change quickly: Maybe a lawsuit by Sterling forces fissures in ownership; surely the next player discipline issue upsets the union. But under this critical and glaring spotlight, Silver proved to be a leader for the entire game and every constituency.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

It started as a text message joke.

“Let’s drive the Sonic to Dallas,” one UConn IMG account representative texted the other.

It was a lark, the kind of comment shot out and quickly forgotten.

But upon further inspection, why not? The Chevy “Road Warriors” had been a hit with fans and the school’s official vehicle partner at appearances throughout Connecticut, and the state’s university, the East’s No. 7 seed, had just beaten Iowa State to rumble into the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s tournament. Coach Kevin Ollie’s surprising, gritty Huskies were turning into a team of March Madness destiny. Was there really any other destination on the map but Dallas, site of the Final Four?

Erik Antico (above left) and Brett Greenfield’s journey to the Final Four in the UConn-branded Chevy Sonic included a stop in Washington, D.C. Tourists, including actor Jeff Goldblum (below), posed for photos at the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. The duo departed after U.S. Park Service rangers asked for their “promotional services” permit. “I explained … ‘Jonathan the Husky can’t talk,’” Antico said. “Brett was using sign language with the park rangers. It was pure comedy.”
Photos by: IMG COLLEGE

IMG account reps Erik Antico and Brett Greenfield sensed the Chevy Sonic was an undeveloped asset. They took the idea of a literal “Road to the Final Four” to UConn IMG Sports Marketing general manager Tom Murphy, cooking up a plan with a heavy social media presence. Brett, dressed as UConn mascot Jonathan the Husky, would hand out UConn gear and pose at landmarks on the way to Texas as social media followers tracked the journey for the national championship.

Murphy was all in, and hours later, so was Chevy. And, so, for about $2,000 in gas, food and lodging, the account duo tore a 1,700-mile path for AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas: 43 hours in the car, punctuated by pit stops at UConn rivals Villanova and St. Joseph’s, and national landmarks, drawing the ire of city and federal law enforcement along with countless Kentucky and Villanova fans; rolling through multiple tornado warnings; making it to

Texas to watch UConn’s men win the national title, and then cruising 10 more hours to see the women follow suit in Nashville. Along the way, the world’s most cost-effective activation team created 1.6 million media impressions for UConn and Chevy.

“These two guys really did it all as ambassadors for the UConn brand,” Murphy said. “They made a split-second decision to take the road trip of a lifetime, and it paid off for them and our client, Chevy.”

“UConn has always had a knack for innovative activation programs involving their loyal legions of supporters,” said Joe Favorito, a communications and marketing consultant who

teaches sports management at the graduate school of business at Columbia University. “This was a new, easy and fun digital promotion created on the fly with very little lead time and very limited hard costs.”

Indeed, the Road Warriors posted 13 official photos, averaging 1,300 likes per photo and more than 17,000 total likes.

“Overall owed and earned content performed very well, garnering a total of 1.65 million impressions,” said Katelyn Clinton, account executive, consumer engagement for FleishmanHillard, which supports Chevrolet. “These results certainly make the case for another Road Trip in the future.”

Andrew Giangola ( is vice president of strategic communications for IMG College.

Packing several hundred Chevy T-shirts and hats, along with the Jonathan costume, Antico and Greenfield left UConn at 5:15 a.m. on Thursday, April 3. Rolling up to the George Washington Bridge for Jonathan’s first photo op, they found an open gate onto a pier and drove the car through. The perfect shot, they thought. New York’s Finest didn’t share that sentiment “We had to high-tail it out of there,” Antico said. “Less than two hours into the trip, we almost had the car confiscated!”

Antico handled most of the driving duties, allowing Greenfield, who was recovering from strep throat, some rest between the swag giveaways and photo shoots. For Greenfield, it wasn’t always easy to sleep in the car with the relentless honking of delirious UConn fans (the Sonic sported a “Honk if You Love UConn” sign). “The adrenaline of being a Road Warrior, combined with the antibiotics, helped me get through it,” Greenfield said. “It was pretty cool to look out the window and notice people’s faces as they saw the car.” “On the way down, this created a lot of fun. On the way home, it got a bit aggressive,” Antico said. “A group of Kentucky fans in a blue painted minivan, flags and all, were not in the greatest mood. They tailgated us pretty good for a few miles. At one point, I was worried we’d be run off the road.”

After nearly 1,700 miles, the Road Warriors arrived in Dallas Friday night at 11 p.m., six hours later than planned. “We had grossly underestimated the time it would take to hit all the landmarks, get Brett in costume, and do things like fill the gas tank six times,” Antico said. “But we still made it on Friday, our goal.” This was marketed as a two-day road trip. The Road Warriors weren’t about to let their fans down.

The most basic problem with college sports is that the NCAA and a small percentage of its 1,200 or so members have commercialized college sports to the tune of billions of dollars a year. This is not a Division I, II, or III problem. This is a problem with the NCAA, the major conferences and the bowls (which are licensed or controlled by the NCAA and conferences), and the top third, at most, of Division I members that make significant profits on men’s football and basketball programs.

The sooner we realize that this is a discrete versus global problem, the better we will be able to frame a discussion that so far is largely unfocused and scattershot, mostly revolving around whether schools should pay players in the top third or so, while largely ignoring the universal problems in college sports, such as due process, graduation rates, insurance and safety issues, representation, and student welfare.

The answer to these problems is for Congress to regulate college sports. The NCAA and its members — colleges and universities, conferences, and the bowl games — have admitted to the Knight Commission that they are incapable of changing the system. So, if we want any — let alone real — change, there is one and only one place it will come from, and that is Congress, although some incremental changes may occur over the next five to 10 years through litigation and unionization efforts.

Why should Congress care?

College sports generate $12 billion in annual revenue, $10 billion of which comes from Division I — and within that division, $6 billion is generated by the major conferences and their member schools. Neither the states nor the federal government have delegated the regulation of college sports to the NCAA, but by historical accident and congressional apathy, the NCAA presumes to regulate close to a half-million college athletes every year, not to mention athletic department employees, while not allowing those athletes or employees membership in the NCAA or any say in how they are governed. Adding insult to injury, the NCAA disclaims any legal relationship with college athletes and employees.

Annually, federal student grants are $49 billion, federally guaranteed student loans now stand at $105 billion, and federal research grants add another $40 billion to higher education. State spending on higher education is $170 billion annually, and it averages about 10 percent of the states’ budgets, with a majority of the major revenue programs being state funded.

What do we get for this exorbitant support for higher education that looks socialistic? Abysmal graduation rates for the major revenue-producing programs. When one looks at the mythology of amateurism, one would expect participation in sports to increase the academic experience, but at the top programs, it does not. According to the College Sports Research Institute’s 2013 report, 18 percent fewer men graduated in the FBS than their full-time student counterparts. For black men, the number fell to 24 percent fewer; for white men, the number was 7 percent fewer. If you compare that to the less-lucrative FCS, the gaps lower to 9 percent, 10 percent, and 6 percent fewer, respectively — which makes sense, because those men have much less hope of being drafted, and that’s with the draft rate in the FBS at only about 1 percent.

Former Northwestern QB Kain Colter (right) and Ramogi Huma of the National College Players Association sought allies on Capitol Hill for college athlete unionization efforts.
Photo by: AP IMAGES

If you look at men’s basketball, the numbers get even worse. And these are graduation rates over six years.

Legal questions

In the recent Northwestern University unionization effort, the football players would be “employees” rather than students, but if we accept that conclusion, then we’re accepting that educational institutions exist to exploit rather than educate some young men, and in the major revenue programs, this is true.

The solutions are many. Congress should amend the National Labor Relations Act to allow all students to unionize; imagine what will happen to the cost of college if parents and students could negotiate rates through a union. We shouldn’t have to reach the “employee” question, and all students should have this right, not just the few in the major revenue programs who want a cut of the pie.

So can the legal system bring about the systemic changes that are needed absent congressional intervention? Certainly, the current onslaught of major lawsuits threatens the NCAA’s very existence, and with more proposed class actions recently being filed against the NCAA and the major conferences, the pile-on has begun.

Regarding the licensing of broadcast rights, which represents a large percentage of the money at the center of these lawsuits, nobody can explain how the NCAA or its members have the exclusive right to be paid for recording or televising college athletes at play since they do not receive releases from, or pay any consideration to, any of them for this.

Assuming that the money dispute is resolved by paying college athletes at the top, how does this solve all of the other problems affecting college sports, from the concussion issue to the insurance issue to the student welfare issue and so on? And more importantly, do we want for-profit college sports within a government-subsidized higher education environment that taxpayers pay for?

It is time for Congress to step up to the plate, take control of the money and public policy issues in college sports, and set up an independent agency to regulate college sports with a commissioner at the helm to protect the “best interests of college sports.” It would operate as any other independent agency, with the president appointing a commissioner who would be approved by the Senate.

The current system at the major revenue programs does not work for anyone but the moneyed interests, and it certainly does not serve the public’s interest in supporting higher education, which is vital to our national security and world competitiveness. Higher education exists primarily because the public funds it at more than $350 billion a year, combining federal and state support. The public has a right to expect that it gets a return on its investment, and right now, the entire higher educational system is essentially unaudited from a learning perspective — yet we know, when we look at the graduation gaps cited above, there are huge chunks of the system that simply aren’t producing, and that is unacceptable.

An independent commissioner of college sports would be a good and logical first step to reforming the madness that is the tail wagging the dog.

Richard G. Johnson ( was plaintiff’s counsel in Oliver v. NCAA, which established college athletes’ right to counsel, and he is the author of “Submarining Due Process: How the NCAA Uses its Restitution Rule to Deprive College Athletes of their Right of Access to the Courts … Until Oliver v. NCAA” from the Florida Coastal Law Review.

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