Melanie Maxwell / / Landov

For profit or 4.0? Athletes debate academic cost of college sports

Some critics allege TV networks such as ESPN are lording over school scheduling while maximizing broadcast revenue

ATLANTA — Sean Bedford was an aerospace engineering major at Georgia Tech and the starting center on the football team. When the Yellow Jackets had a Thursday night game during one season, Bedford received a letter from the school’s registrar that is given to all football players when they need to be excused from class the day of a game.

The letter typically says that the student is representing the school in an official capacity and requests that the student be excused from class. Bedford handed the letter to one of his professors. The man — who was not American — had not had much interaction with Division I athletes and did not pay attention to college football.

“He looked at the letter,” Bedford said, “and asked if ESPN could change the time of the game so I could still attend his class.”

Bedford smiled and said, “He should be commended for the stance he took. If the mission of the NCAA is really about academics first and athletics second, I should have still attended the class.”

The professor excused Bedford from the class. Bedford was not on campus the day of the nationally televised game because the night before all games, Georgia Tech’s coaches sequester their players in a hotel and keep them there the next day until game time, even if it is in the middle of a school week. The players use the whole day to study for the game off campus, not doing coursework on campus.

Bedford, an All-Atlantic Coast Conference center who graduated in 2010, did just fine with the interruptions to his academics as a rocket scientist during his Tech career. He attended law school and is currently studying for the bar. He navigated successfully between athletics and academics.

But what of other football and basketball players?

ESPN, in some ways, rules over academics. This has created a universal complaint of the tail wagging the dog — a major conundrum as college sports grow ever more lucrative and popular. Television can dictate to student athletes when they go to class and which classes they miss. The flexibility given ESPN to schedule football games most any day of the week fills up programming for the 24/7 sports property, which cannot make enough money with old-fashioned Saturday afternoon games.

On the other side of the debate are the shining weight training facilities, mammoth stadiums and scholarships, which are paid for with the help of television money. Georgia Tech plays its share of Thursday night games, along with other teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and in return, athletic department bank accounts are filled. When ACC teams go on the road for Thursday night games, they leave campus Wednesday and do not return until early morning Friday. TV pays well for that privilege, and it helps fund entire athletic programs on campus, not just football.

ESPN did not respond to questions about its programming’s impact on academics.

If the mission of the NCAA is really about academics first and athletics second, I should have still attended the [engineering] class.

Sean Bedford

former football player, Georgia Tech

Many Division I football players want to be paid for the network’s flexibility and the monetizing of their image and likeness. Their lawyers have been in court in Oakland, California, for the past month in the so-called O’Bannon trial, trying to gain back athletes’ image rights, which schools have handed over to TV.

The schools typically send academic advisers on the road with teams to assist with studying, but Bedford said that does not help with all the issues created by TV. He remembers having one Thursday night game when he had to block a 300-pound nose tackle for three hours and then take a test the next day.

“It is not an easy thing,” he said. “My body was sore. I was tired. The last thing I wanted to be doing was taking a test. I’m not sure how I did on it.”

Before television was made lord over schedules, players could use Sundays to recuperate from the grueling games. Now they could be recuperating on Monday from a Sunday night game or on Tuesday from a Monday night game, and they still have to handle the next day’s academic schedule, sore or not. Other students might be hungover from the previous night’s revelry, but the college football player has a more serious physical hangover that is rarely discussed on air.

“There are always balances that have to be struck, and student athlete welfare comes first. And recognizing the impact playing on days other than Saturday means the institutional CEO has to make a decision,” said Len Elmore, an ESPN college basketball analyst and a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “The CEO of the school has to ask, ‘Does this adversely affect the study habits and academic capabilities of our student athletes?’ I don’t think anybody would argue with that, even television. It requires a bit of fortitude to make that decision. Many times, money is highly seductive. You just have to step back and put the student athlete’s welfare first.”

The problem has been brewing for a long time. Some have sought to resist. In 2005 the Mountain West Conference Board of Directors and its commissioner, Craig Thompson, rebuffed ESPN and said it would not play football games on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. The league then signed a TV deal with CSTV, which is now the CBS Sports Network.

Others have gone along with television’s demands. In 2009 the University of Colorado’s football team played five games on days other than Saturday to accommodate TV. Stuck in a downturn, the program was trying to get exposure and market itself to attract better players. But it did not do much good. The Buffaloes were 3-9 that season, and head coach Dan Hawkins was eventually fired.

“I mean, as big as college football is getting now, people are trying to get national exposure. And they’re doing anything. I mean, they will do a back handstand and play on a Wednesday night in clown outfits if you ask them to,” Cody Hawkins, a former Colorado quarterback, told The Boulder Daily Camera newspaper at the time.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told The Arizona Daily Star earlier this year that the conference grants television programmers flexibility in scheduling and that the return is a substantial amount of money in rights fees. Some Pac-12 athletic departments would be in debt without that money.

The University of Maryland had to cut sports for men and women because of its debt, which is why it left the ACC for the Big Ten. The school hopes the new conference arrangement will generate more television revenue.

“If that’s where the dollars are, there is no remedy,” said Elmore, who attended Maryland. “The presidents and athletic directors have to step back and decide when enough is enough, when is it starting to hurt student athlete academic experience. And that’s when you have to put your foot down and say no. I’m not saying you can’t do it, but at some point there has to be a balance struck.”

The presidents and athletic directors have to step back and decide when enough is enough, when is it starting to hurt student-athlete academic experience. And that’s when you have to put your foot down and say no.

Len Elmore

college basketball analyst, ESPN

Mary Hart Weaver, the University of Arizona’s president, is dismayed by the contracts between the Pac-12 and the television networks. Her men’s basketball team took trips during the season when they would leave campus Tuesday and return Saturday, according to The Arizona Daily Star.

“I can’t speak for the Pac-12 in particular, but it looks like there were some dysfunctional outcomes that maybe weren’t thought through fully when the negotiations occurred,” she told the Daily Star earlier this year. “And the whole notion of increased, ubiquitous coverage? Maybe all of us need to talk about what we want, as a community of leaders. Exactly how exploitative does this get?”

Shaq Goodwin is a Division I basketball player at the University of Memphis who will graduate in three years. He listened to the argument made by Weaver and others who say the travel and time commitment is too onerous for athletes. Still, Goodwin insists athletes are not getting unfairly hammered by television.

His team takes a charter jet to road games and on longer trips takes along an academic counselor.

“It’s tough, but this is a privilege to play Division I basketball,” he said. “You have late games. You understand that before you sign up to play. I don’t see it as a bad thing. I get to travel and see different cities.”

If there are athletes who feel burdened by the travel, Elmore said it is up to them to take a stand.

“You have to be able to stand up and say, ‘Coach, I have a test.’ There has to be some self-advocacy. I don’t care if you are the star running back,” he said. “It’s up to the student athlete to be an advocate. People say they are too young and they can’t do that sort of thing. But I’ll tell you what — if they are not getting the playing time they think they deserve, you don’t think they would be strong advocates for themselves? In my mind, not enough of them care at the time.”

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