The Disappointment Zone

Musings from a Cleveland sports fan

Notes on amateur athletics

Posted by disappointmentzone on 30 November 2006

ESPN.com is reporting that The Ohio State University has set aside roughly 1,100 tickets for the national championship game for students. So far 6,000 students have entered a lottery for the right to buy one ticket at the $185 dollar price. The game will be played in the University of Phoenix Stadium, which has a seating capacity of about 72,000 people. It is possible that the OSU student population will represent less than 2% of the fans in attendance. This number does not include the football players, also students, also in attendance (presumably. I mean, I hope…).

Here are a few more numbers to consider: The University received 16,000 tickets for the game. These tickets have to cover alumni, media, the student band, faculty, staff, administrators, trustees, season ticket holders, and boosters, among other groups. That’s a lot of interested people and not a lot of actual tickets. There is no fair way to distribute the tickets evenly. The number of ticket requests far exceeds the number of available tickets, and setting ticket priority among the various competing groups is a tricky proposition. Is a faculty member more worth of a ticket than a member of the staff? It’s hard to see how any University-affiliated fan is more entitled to a ticket than any other University-affiliated fan. The fact is, most fans will not receive tickets. Most fans will be disappointed.

Like many things, ticket allotment is a political issue. One way to dull the political edge would be to allot tickets based on the size of the populations interested in buying tickets, so that the chances of any member of a given population receiving a ticket would be the same irrespective of which group he or she belonged to. If there were 10 faculty and 100 staff the school could allot five tickets for faculty and fifty tickets for staff, for instance. This would eliminate the more-deserving problem, and is probably one of the fairest ways to allot tickets. So how did the University decide to allot the tickets?

The largest portion of tickets — about 5,000 — have been set aside for donors and sponsors. Let’s put that number in perspective. In the entire Ohio State University system there are approximately 52,000 students. For this population the school has set aside 1,100 tickets, or roughly 7% of the available tickets to satisfy 2% of the total population. I do not know how many donors and sponsors there are, but they have been allotted 31% of the total tickets. If the school allotted tickets according to population size, then there are roughly 240,000 donors and sponsors. I do not know how many donors and sponsors there are, but I would venture a guess that 240,000 is probably off by — oh, let’s be conservative — about 200,000, and probably a lot more. In the ticket-allotment game, the deck is stacked in favor of the sponsors and donors.

Whichever school OSU plays will also receive 16,000 tickets. The most likely opponent is USC. USC’s ticketing director is quoted in the ESPN.com story as saying that only about 1,000 students from USC will be able to attend the game with tickets purchased from the school. When you factor in the USC student population buying tickets from the school, the total population of such students in the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 8th rises to a staggering 3%, or roughly 3% of the combined population of both schools.

Needless to say, a lot of students are upset over how few tickets are available for purchase through the university. What’s more, it is very possible that the ticket price might limit the number of students who could attend the game even more so than the volume of tickets available for purchase. $185 is a lot to drop on a ticket to see a football game two time zones over. These are college students, after all. How can they afford to spend so much money on a ticket to a football game in Arizona of they live in Columbus?

Which brings me to the larger point of this post. The NCAA is a ruthless, irresponsible, specious governing body. (Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense shortly, I hope)

Consider the case of Ramon McElrathbey. McElrathbey is a cornerback for Clemson. Last summer he gained custody of his younger brother because his parents, one a drug addict and the other missing, were unable to take care of him. The two were living in his cramped apartment, struggling to get by, until local paper published a story about their plight. Soon after McElrathbey was overwhelmed with donations and gifts from readers, and for a while it appeared as though some of the burden of raising a younger brother without the benefit of an income would be lifted. But things changed quickly. Clemson wouldn’t allow McEltrathbey to be the recipient of any gifts, and because he had initially accepted gifts he came close to being kicked off the football team. Why? McElrathbey is a student-athlete. As such his life is regulated by the NCAA, which prevents any student-athlete from being the benefactor of any financial (pecuniary or material) assistance. College athletes are supposed to be amateurs. To accept gifts is to compromise that status. Not being paid is what it means to be an amateur. The NCAA ensures amateur athletes remain amateurs.

(A few weeks after the story broke — the story about the NCAA preventing McElrathbey from accepting assistance from his neighbors, not the story published in the local paper about McElrathbey raising his brother — the NCAA did an about-face and allowed him to receive some of the donations and gifts.)

So the NCAA is in the business of ensuring that collegiate athletics maintain the essence amateurism.

Except, that’s not what the NCAA is in the business of, and the gross politics of the OSU championship game ticket allotment is just one manifestation of the maleficence of the NCAA. The NCAA isn’t in the business of amateur athletics; it’s in the business of amateur athletes. And in the case of McElrathbey, the NCAA is literally in the business of amateur athletes.

The notion that collegiate sports are somehow “amateur” is tenuous at best. As Peter King reported (from an article in USA Today), in 2007 Jim Tressel will earn $200,000 when OSU plays in the national championship game, $400,000 if he still is the coach on Jan. 31, $500,000 in salary, $625,000 as a “consultant” for Nike, $675,000 in coaches’ show and promotion income, along with $10,000 per personal appearance at Coca-Cola-related events. He also gets to use a private jet for 10 hours each year, as well as for his recruiting. Tressel is not even the highest paid coach in the Big Ten. That honor belongs to Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. OSU will earn a few million dollars for playing in a BCS game this season. The Fiesta Bowl will earn a ton of money from advertising. The companies running their advertisements during the game will probably earn considerable profits.

The donors and sponsors are getting the lion’s share of OSU’s allotment of tickets because the donors and sponsors are the ones giving money to the school, and the amount of money each donor or sponsor gives is certainly much more than $185. The school has a financial incentive to allot a lot of tickets to the people who give them money. In that regard, the school is bucking any notion of “amateur” in the interst of getting paid.

Which is completely fine with me. If people want to gives large sums of money to a school on the promise that if that school’s football team makes a major bowl game then they’ll be in an ideal position to secure tickets to that bowl game — that’s fine. It’s the exact sort of practice that happens in the professional world. Even though I’ve been a Cavs fan for as long as I remember, I don’t think they owe me a chance to get playoff tickets (although I’m thankful that they do). They are a private enterprise and they can do whatever they please. When you are a school and you are allotted 16,000 tickets to a game and you give 5,000 of those tickets to people who gave you money and only 1,100 to the people who constitute your school (I mean, what’s a college without students?), then you are participating in something that looks identical to what goes on in the professional world. Which, as I said, I’m fine with. If those are the terms, so be it.

But if those are the terms, then college sports aren’t amateur and the NCAA ought to reconfigure itself in light of this. You can’t have it both ways. Doing so is called hypocrisy. As Malcolm Gladwell put it: “To be an amateur is like being a virgin. It’s not situational. It’s absolute. Surely if you want to defend an absolute ethic, you have to defend it absolutely.” That means preserving amateurism across the board. It’s not enough to be for amateur athletes. You must also be for amateur athletics. And when you “protect” (that is, exploit) these athletes under the guise of amateurism while others are making money while operating in the same venue, it undermines the whole project you ostensibly exist to embody. When you allow for coaches to be paid; when you allow for coaches to trade on their celebrity for money from companies; when you sell advertising time to companies; etc.; etc.; etc., then it doesn’t make much sense to prevent athletes from, say, getting help from friendly neighbors in times of great person crisis.

The OSU students are pretty outraged that of the 16,000 tickets their school has been allotted, they are only going to receive 1,100. And they should be. It’s all one big joke, and the punchline is the student.

[Jumping off the soapbox....now.]

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