When Equality is Unequal

Black football players at Iowa complain they were treated differently---and also the same.

A report by Adam Rittenberg and Michele Steele this morning raises interesting questions about what constitutes racism in modern American society.

ESPN (“Iowa football and Kirk Ferentz see Black players speak out on program’s racial inequities”):

It was spring of 2009. Iowa’s Derrell Johnson-Koulianos had been late for a meeting, and Chris Doyle, the team’s longtime strength and conditioning coach, decided the wide receiver would receive a very public punishment. At practice, Doyle ordered Johnson-Koulianos to jog around the field with a large yellow trash can covering his head. Players, coaches and recruits attending the practice with their parents watched as Johnson-Koulianos circled the field.

“I felt so humiliated for him,” Spievey told ESPN. “I was humiliated. That felt like me running. … It still bothers me.”

[…]

Spievey, a third-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, says he believes the incident reflected something deeper about the program under coach Kirk Ferentz.

“I guarantee if [Johnson-Koulianos] was white, [Doyle] would’ve never done that,” Spievey said. “There have been white players getting in trouble, too. They never had to do what DJK had to do. I wish I spoke up. I regret that.

Doyle was the nation’s highest paid strength and conditioning coach, having been on Ferentz’s staff during his entire 21-year tenure but was let go amidst these protests. I have no idea how he treated white players but I find it quite plausible that he unintentionally gave them more of a pass than the black players, quite possibly having no awareness he was doing so.

More generally, the Black players believe they were held to a different standard:

“We saw a lot of our fellow Black teammates put in a situation where they were one-and-done,” said McNutt, who played at Iowa from 2007 to 2011. “We would talk to Coach Ferentz and say, ‘We need to come up with a better system to handle these incidents.’ … We felt Black guys were leaving or having to transfer, and the white guys are able to stay and figure out community service or something.”

But more than a decade after the meeting, former Iowa players say those issues persisted and Black athletes operated under a double standard. (Iowa denied ESPN’s request to speak to players on the current roster.)

And, certainly, the school wasn’t doing right by its Black players in the most fundamental way they’re charged with:

Big Ten — in graduation rates for Black athletes in all sports between 2014 and 2018. Only 40% of Iowa’s Black athletes graduated, compared to 77% of all athletes, a differential that also ranked last in the conference. Hawkeye Nation also reported that Iowa enrolled 31 Black scholarship football players between 2013 and 2015, but only eight graduate from the school.

So, something is going on at Iowa and it’s not good.

But what most fascinated me about the story was complaints by Black players that they were being held to the same standard as whites.

“There’s always a Black table, a white table. At the Black table, this was the stuff we talked about every single day,” James Daniels in June told “Washed Up Walkons,” a podcast hosted by three former Iowa players. “The main root of the problem is that Black players did not feel like they could be themselves in the facility. It felt like that Black players had to conform to being the white, Iowa try-hard football player.

“When Black people go to the facility, they should feel safe there.”

Being asked to try hard made them feel unsafe?

But Black players who have spoken out often didn’t see the facility as a safe place. In June, junior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin described a walking-on-eggshells environment, calling Iowa’s football facility “an atmosphere where I couldn’t be myself or where you had to look out and kind of watch your back.” Former safety Geno Stone, drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the seventh round of April’s NFL draft, tweeted, “Walking into the facility everyday I felt like we all had to put a mask on and be someone we were not.”

Black players said success within the program hinged on assimilating to The Iowa Way, a reference to the program’s “smart, tough, physical” motto.

“Iowa culture is — and we saw it on the wall every day — smart, tough, physical, disciplined, hard-nosed, put your nose to the grindstone and work, be early, and many more,” said Tyler Kluver, a former Iowa long-snapper who is white and hosts the “Washed Up Walkons” podcast. “Those are the pillars of Iowa culture.”

Surely, “smart, tough, physical, disciplined, hard-nosed, put your nose to the grindstone and work, be early,” are good values? Ones that help players succeed at big-time football and, more importantly, in life?

But here’s where the subtext becomes text:

But The Iowa Way, as many Black players describe it, also meant conforming to a white football culture and suppressing their own, whether it be their hairstyle or how they spoke or dressed.

“I’ve talked with guys and they talked about how they were made to conform to what Coach Ferentz wanted or what they expected white players to be like,” former offensive lineman Dace Richardson said. “We had a lot of guys on our team that had personalities and they weren’t allowed to be their natural selves. I never had issues with that because I kind of just conformed to what the team wanted.”

Spievey said Ferentz wanted players to be “robots,” programmed to make the coaches comfortable.

“We couldn’t wear earrings, we couldn’t wear hats, we had to dress a certain way,” Spievey said. “They wanted us to be white Iowa kids. [They] wanted us to fit that mold. We couldn’t be us. We had to be like them.”

The problem isn’t so much that Black players are being held to the Iowa Way in terms of work ethic, although I suspect there are some cultural issues at work there as well. It’s that they’re being held to a 1950s white standard of What It Is to Be a Man. Khakis and polo shirts, jackets and ties, no tattoos, short, parted hair, and the like. That’s probably not a big ask for a white offensive lineman from Davenport but a radical change for a Black kid from inner city Los Angeles or Chicago.

Not long ago, I wouldn’t have really seen a problem here. Ferentz is the coach and a damn good one. And the standards we’re talking about are Old School. Normal. But, of course, that’s because white culture is the default position.

Not long ago, I’d likely have said, if the players don’t like it, they can always go to another school. It’s not like Ferentz is making any of this a secret. But he’s a gatekeeper to one of the biggest programs in college football, which is the pathway to these young men’s dreams of playing in the National Football League and the possibility of generational wealth.

Iowa’s overall lack of diversity likely contributed to those challenges. A four-time Big Ten coach of the year with two league titles and 17 bowl appearances, Ferentz has never had a Black offensive or defensive coordinator in his 21-year tenure and in 11 of those season only had two Black assistants. Thirty percent of Iowa’s current football roster is Black, at a university where Black students represent 3.3% of the student body. (Iowa’s Black population is 4.1% for the entire state.)

“It’s a culture shock,” Spievey said. “There’s only a few Black people there. When Doyle is making comments about our culture and our people, it’s uncomfortable. We’re already uncomfortable.”

Hawkeye Nation also reported that of the 33 players Iowa brought to Big Ten media days from 2009 to 2019, only 10 were Black — the fewest of any school in the conference. There were two years when Iowa only brought white players, while every other Big Ten school always included at least one Black player.

Again, absent more direct evidence to the contrary, I’m not about to accuse Ferentz or Doyle of racism. I’m sure they tell themselves that it’s just hard to recruit inner city Black kids to Iowa. But, whether they admit it to themselves or not, they instinctively view inner city Black culture as inferior to the Iowa Way. And, if I’m being honest, so do I.

But that’s obviously a problem.

They likely think that they’re doing these young men a great service, lifting them up and transforming them into something better. But at what price?

“It was almost like they were trying to portray the perfect white guy that represented Iowa football,” former cornerback Jordan Lomax told the “Washed Up Walkons” podcast. “Guys were like, ‘If I want to go to Big Ten media days … I’ve got to at least dress different or act different or be different, because I’m trying to get to that level.’ We see that. We’re like, ‘Why can’t one of us go? Why can’t more of us go?’

“It’s just a constant theme. And that kills guys psychologically.”

There’s a whole lot more to the piece but that’s the nub.

I’ve been seeing parallel debates in Defense circles lately. Like sports, military service has long been seen as a meritocracy, where race really doesn’t matter and everyone has an equal chance to rise to the levels their talent and work ethic will take them.

In many ways, that’s actually true. We had a Black general officer as early as 1940, a Black four-star as early as 1975, and a Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1989. And professional sports has been integrated roughly as long with Black athletes disproportionately dominating most of the major leagues.

But, in both cases, there’s also enormous pressure to conform to white social mores. While the NBA, in particular, has long embraced hip-hop culture, they’ve also long mandated suits and ties for travel and otherwise taken great pains to ensure that a predominately Black league doesn’t alienate the sensibilities of a mostly white fan and sponsor base.

The military is still very much mired in 1950s sensibilities in terms of style and presentation. The Marine Corps, in particular—and especially on the East Coast—is still very much khakis and polos off duty, particularly for officers.

Over the last few years, there have been complaints that, for example, Army hairstyle regulations discriminate against Blacks, and particularly Black women. Cornrows, for example, are considered an “extreme” hairstyle, prohibited by the regulations. Senior leadership has indicated in recent weeks that this policy is under review.

As long as I can remember—and we’re talking nearly half a century now—the focus of racial and other justice movements has been on equality of treatment. But we’re slowly coming to an understanding that sometimes, at least, equality isn’t really equal.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    James, I just wanted to praise this essay and the self-reflection that it contains. Bravo.

    I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially from the subheadline. And I have to confess, I was expecting you to go in the opposite direction when you addressed the topic of being held to “white standards.” I was wrong and appreciate everything you wrote above.

    One note on the topics of “equality,” most racial justice movements have moved away from talking about things in terms of “equality” and towards “equity” for some of the reasons you address here (as well as the longer historic impacts of racism). Mainstream discourse is slowly catching up to that.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    There is a long time meme that blacks see racism in too often and that whites don’t see racism often enough. Your essay is getting at the core that in raising the question as to what is the default “normal,” and who should impose it.

    A lot of what minority groups, and not just blacks, are reacting to is denial of their cultural legitimacy by white arbiters.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    Wow, our James is learning.

    Khakis and polo shirts

    Has anyone ever looked good in a polo shirt? Forcing people to wear polo shirts really is an affront.

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  4. wr says:

    “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the street, and to steal bread.”

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  5. SKI says:

    Bravo, James. I give you enough crap for when I feel you don’t get it so I want to publicly call out when I think you do. 🙂

    To the underlying issue: this has long been an issue in the judicial system too. As the classic line from the mid 1840s goes:

    The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

    University of Iowa, and many other parts of society welcome everyone – so long as they conform to a particular cultural norm/image. If you aren’t born into/raised in that norm, whether it is racial, religious or cultural, it is tremendously hurtful and damaging – especially to kids.

    I just had to change service providers for my son. She didn’t understand why I didn’t want him getting christian bible messages from her, a respected authority figure and reacted poorly when I respectfully asked her not to.

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  6. SKI says:

    Dammit, wr.
    lol

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  7. ptfe says:

    This is a fascinating essay, and especially the recognition of how much you’ve personally changed in the last decade. @mattbernius is right – this ended up in a very different – and much more interesting – place than expected.

    Interesting to think how much of this is an issue because of the layers separating players from ownership. A structure built on white coaches perpetuates the ideals of those coaches, which are a reflection of the ownership, who care a lot about the apparent national perception – that is, sponsors and media and fans, who are assumed to be culturally White.

    We saw that directly with Cam Newton when he was drafted, and it comes up every time an unapologetically Black player has an emotional outbursts on the field or sidelines. Historically repressed minorities still need to exceed the expectation of their majority peers just to achieve parity. But ultimately a shift in mindset isn’t going to be achieved with more Mike Tomlins, it’s going to require more Dan Rooneys. (And, you know, more than 0 minority owners.)

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  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: I happen to like wearing polo shirts, but I don’t tuck them in. Ever. But for comfort and breathability, it’s hard to beat a good polo.

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  9. Monala says:

    Over the last few years, there have been complaints that, for example, Army hairstyle regulations discriminate against Blacks, and particularly Black women. Cornrows, for example, are considered an “extreme” hairstyle, prohibited by the regulations. Senior leadership has indicated in recent weeks that this policy is under review.

    What’s frustrating about this attitude is that cornrows are an excellent way to keep black hair neat and tidy, which is what the Army wants. If a black woman tries to conform to white hair standards and straightens her hair, either with tools or chemicals, and then encounters rain or sweats excessively (which is likely to happen given the physical exertions of Army life), the result will be the farthest thing from neat and tidy.

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    Iowa denied ESPN’s request to speak to players on the current roster.

    No, ESPN. What you meant to say was “The University threatened reprisals against any current players (and against ESPN) if they were to speak with ESPN on this subject.” The University has no legal (or moral) authority to forbid any student from speaking with any journalist. They only have the power to punish.

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  11. EddieInCA says:

    This hits home for me… Forgive the longish post, but the post triggered me.

    My senior year in high schoool, I was the Los Angeles times LA City Football Player of the week. Twice. Not bad for a 5-10, 175lb wide receiver and kick returner. I got offered two football scholarships when I graduated; Cal State – Chico, and Cal Poly Pomona. Now even though I wanted to go to college, and with two free rides on the table, I turned them both down because I wanted to study film and TV and those two colleges were agricultural schools. I had no desire to study any of that curriculum. As the LA City Player of the year, I was awarded $500 scholarship for each award. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up poor, but my mom did such a good job of hiding it that I didn’t realize how poor until I got to junior college. But that $1000 I received from the LA Times, paid for classes and books for two years at a community college nearby (Glendale). I was recruited by the coach to play football, and did that while taking a full schedule of 20 credits of classes.

    My junior college football team was a refuge of last resort for D-1 players that either didn’t have the grades, discipline, or attitude for D-1 Football. Our team was amazing my freshman year. We ended the season the #3 ranked JC team in the nation. This single Jr. College team sent 18 guys to D-1, and 6 guys to the NFL. The guy I played behind in JC went on to play for the Falcons and Jets. Anyway, I saw, firsthand how badly black players were treated compared to white players. Our quarterback was a notorious stoner. Loved being stoned on pot. But damn, he was amazing as a QB, even stoned. I’m not going to mention his name here, but he led Iowa to the Rose Bowl in 1981, where they lost. Anyhoo, he got busted for weed several times, yet never lost his starting berth, nor was he reprimanded. A black wide receiver was with guys who got arrested, didn’t get arrested himself, and was kicked off the team. A black offensive lineman got drunk at a frat party and got into a fight – no arrests were made – and was kicked off the team. White teammates who got into a fight a week later and were arrested, were suspended for one game, and allowed back into their starting positions. It was wrong. It was unfair. It was the norm.

    I remember talking to our best defensive back (a guy from South Central LA, who went on to play at U of Washington, and then played for the Steelers and Broncos) at length about the racism he encountered on a daily basis with football coaches. He was by far, the smartest guy on the defensive side of the ball, but the coaches didn’t allow him to call defensive signals, because “some of the other guys won’t take instructions for a black guy”. He had been denied offered scholarships to D-1 schools because of his SAT Score. He was bitter. He had a right to be. He was smart. But he didn’t test well. He ended up getting a degree in business from the U of Washington, fyi.

    Ultimately, I stopped playing football because I was no longer enjoying it, and realizing, when I walked on a UCLA to play football,, that I was nowhere, NOWHERE good enough to play at the D-1 level. But when I left the team at UCLA, I had a coach tell me, to my face “You’re a quitter. But I expect that from Mexicans”. I told him I was Dominican, not Mexican. “Same thing. You’re all quitters.” That coach died of a heart attack two years later. That was the first time in my life I was happy to hear about someone dying.

    That sort of racism stays with you for a long time.

    Dr. Joyner, good for you for exploring and writing about your own struggles. Thank you.

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  12. mattbernius says:

    @EddieInCA:
    Thank you for sharing your experiences. That was powerful to read.

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  13. de stijl says:

    Ferentz wants black guys from Florida to behave like white guys from Cedar Rapids.

    Is it blatantly racist? No. Kinda yes, too.

    If you have different standards of acceptable monkey-shines allowable by color, then yes.

    I had one glorious Friday. Two interceptions. Eight solo tackles. Six assists. Metro defensive player of the week. That was totally on stats; they were a pushover.

    Still, too slow and too small too make my Div 3 team.

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  14. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I don’t know if it’s written into the scholarship agreement or what but many (most?) schools have these practices. Hell, Nick Saban won’t let his assistant coaches talk to the press.

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  15. JohnMcC says:

    Thank you for this wonderful OP. And possibly not off topic to mention that the faculty of the University of Kentucky has spoken out for the re-naming of Rupp Arena.

    And wouldn’t it be amazing if UK allowed their women’s basketball team to play in the ‘real, adult’ arena!

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: Thanks, Eddie. And, while I think there was more According to Hoyle racism in your day, I think we’ve mostly shifted to something harder to identify. Kirk Ferentz is a widely respected man who has spent decades leading Black men. I’m guessing I’d like him, aside from the single-minded focus almost everyone successful in his endeavor has. But there’s clearly a problem at Iowa.

    I don’t know what the standard should be. I’m not happy when ‘student-athletes’ at Alabama go on television and speak in a way that marks them as not educated. I have no idea how to square a desire that they speak and write in a manner I associate with being college-educated and forcing them to ‘act white.’ I simultaneously want them to have the markers that allow them to swim successfully in a culture dominated by whites (even at Alabama, most don’t go on to play professional football and most who do don’t stick) and yet not require them to sacrifice their identity, much less their dignity.

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  17. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl: It’s really so hard to say. As with @EddieInCA‘S experience, its nearly impossible to separate racial hostility from cultural blindness. A white QB who smokes a lot of weed is just a stoner from California who’s a good kid. A Black receiver or halfback caught in a bad situation has a ‘posse’ of ‘thugs’ who he needs to separate himself from to make it. He needs ‘tough love.’ It may be more paternalistic than racist in terms of motivation. And still hurtful.

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  18. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t know what the standard should be. I’m not happy when ‘student-athletes’ at Alabama go on television and speak in a way that marks them as not educated. I have no idea how to square a desire that they speak and write in a manner I associate with being college-educated and forcing them to ‘act white.’ I simultaneously want them to have the markers that allow them to swim successfully in a culture dominated by whites (even at Alabama, most don’t go on to play professional football and most who do don’t stick) and yet not require them to sacrifice their identity, much less their dignity.

    Anyone who was living in Los Angeles during the Pete Carroll era of USC football knows that other than Kobe Bryant and Shaq, there was no bigger stars in the city than the USC football players. Stores all over the city had jerseys and t shirts of Carson Palmer, Mike Williams, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, LenDale White, Lota Tatutu and many others, for sale. Stores and the university made MILLIONS of dollars on USC Football players.

    That the players, mostly black, could not do a deal to profit from their own likenesses, their own names, without losing their eligibility has always seemed morally wrong to me. As Dr. Joyner rightly states, even some of the biggest players in college don’t make the NFL. But they could make life changing money if allowed to monetize their college fame. Instead, the universities make that money.

    I’ve always believed that if you aren’t going to pay a D-1 Football player at Alabama, or a D-1 Basketball player at Kentucky or Louisville or UCLA, or a D-1 baseball player at Florida or Arizona, you should allow them to stay in school – as long as it takes – until they get a degree. At minimum.

    Football at places like Alabama and LSU and Ohio State fund most other sports, yet the star players get nothing but an education – but only while they’re eligible to play. It’s not right.

    Lastly, most inner city kids who dream of the NFL won’t make it. But many of them well, and they’ll end up handsomely rewarded for their athletic prowess. But that won’t make them smart or educated. Listen to Tyrann “Honey Badger” Matthieu speak. He’s barely literate. People would write him off as stupid, or lacking in intelligence. But you don’t get to be a starting safety on a Super Bowl Championship winning team – and integral part of the team – without knowing how to read a defensive playbook, knowing assignments, breaking down film and studying tendencies, and understanding where your other 10 teammates are supposed to be on EVERY PLAY. He’s not well spoken, that’s for damn sure. But he ain’t dumb.

    Oh… and he’ll make 50 million in his next NFL contract, when his current, 3 year, $42M contract expires in 2022. The contract includes a $14.8 million signing bonus and his 2020 base salary of $11.1 million is also guaranteed. Over the three years, Mathieu’s deal includes $26.8 million in guaranteed money. Not bad for a guy kicked off the team at LSU for multiple infractions.

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  19. An Interested Party says:

    This is what thoughtful, reasonable conservatism looks like…a pity there isn’t more of it in Republican circles and on the Right…

    I have no idea how to square a desire that they speak and write in a manner I associate with being college-educated and forcing them to ‘act white.’

    Also a pity that, so often, speaking and writing in an educated manner is considered “acting white” rather than simply being educated…of course, Eddie also makes a good point in that there are many kinds of intelligence and it is foolish to assume (even though we often do it) someone isn’t intelligent simply because of how he speaks…

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  20. Jim Brown 32 says:

    The overall concept the Coaching staff is trying to apply is similar to the military in that you need to break down the individual’s identity in order to forge it anew into a team identity. It has been aptly noted that the new identity doesn’t necessary have to be styled around Iowan cultural sensibilities. Young men, especially in today’s culture require discipline–particularly in a physical game with many moving points as Football. That said, the young man has to voluntarily surrender his individuality to the team ethos if the team is truly to bond as brothers. That can not and will not happen if young men feel they are being made to deny their own culture and accept more foreign-feeling integration while others aren’t being made to surrender anything at all.

    I also suspect some of disparity in treatment stems from the white mythology that 70% of black men come from homes without Fathers and need tough-love after being babied through childhood by their single mothers. Some truth to that but the overwhelming majority of black men (especially if they don’t live in high density areas) have multiple familial male influences in their lives. I played a couple of years of JUCO basketball at a JC similar to what EddieinCA attended–a program for D1 caliber players that didn’t test well. The majority of them were from single parent homes, however, they all were pretty squared away (except the cat from New Orleans…he was crazy) and didn’t need a white father figure to discipline them. Luckily we had a great coach and he kept the identity forming part of team building to the court–outside of a few general rules for travel it wasn’t very strict on dress code.

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  21. Bill says:

    @Gustopher:

    Has anyone ever looked good in a polo shirt?

    A polo player.

    I wear polo shirts about 75% of the time. Then again, I make the Frankenstein monster look handsome. Before my wife, almost any girl or woman I’d ask for a date would decline saying they had some urgent vacuuming to do.

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  22. Kathy says:

    @EddieInCA:

    That the players, mostly black, could not do a deal to profit from their own likenesses, their own names, without losing their eligibility has always seemed morally wrong to me.

    I read a book in the late 80s or early 90s called “The Hundred Yard Lie,” by a sportswriter, then at SI, named Rick Telander. It was about the exploitation of athletes at the college level, mostly in Football.

    Not much has changed since then.

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  23. de stijl says:

    @Bill:

    A polo shirt is a perfectly fine shirt. It covers your torso.

    As does a tee shirt, or a button down. Whatever.

    If you feel good, wear it. The fashion industry is built on judgey bullshit. Reject it.

    If you like it and it covers your private bits, wear whatever you want.

    On hot humid summer days I envy girls in skirts. If I had more chutzpah I would sport a man skirt. Seems very practical. Needs pockets though.

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  24. de stijl says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    You have a good take / critique on coaching.

    They want a player to do x, y, and z per the requisites of that position.

    They know what they want and the player they envision looks like them but superpowered.

    Ferentz is not racist. But he prefers people that respond to the world just like him. He wants fast, smart, agile receivers.

    Then he wants them to behave and respond like white guys from Mason City who say ” Yes, coach” after every interaction.

    This shit is pernicious.

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  25. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA:

    I’ve always believed that if you aren’t going to pay a D-1 Football player at Alabama, or a D-1 Basketball player at Kentucky or Louisville or UCLA, or a D-1 baseball player at Florida or Arizona, you should allow them to stay in school – as long as it takes – until they get a degree. At minimum.

    I’m pretty sure Alabama does that. Nick Saban gives the players incredible academic support, as well, such that many actually earn their degree and start graduate school while still playing.

    Football at places like Alabama and LSU and Ohio State fund most other sports, yet the star players get nothing but an education – but only while they’re eligible to play. It’s not right.

    The NCAA is being forced to concede “name and likeness” rights. And, on balance, I think that’s right. But they resisted so long because it’s a back door—and a huge one—to pay for play.

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