Football – Columbia Sports Journalism Sports writing from students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism Wed, 04 Feb 2015 16:08:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Reinvention of Ray Rice /2015/02/01/the-reinvention-of-ray-rice/ /2015/02/01/the-reinvention-of-ray-rice/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2015 21:30:01 +0000 /?p=2014 By Jack Crosbie

On February 15, 2014, Ray Rice, the star running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punched his fiancee Janay Palmer in the face. She was knocked cold, either by the punch or when her head hit the handrail of an Atlantic City hotel elevator, a moment immortalized by the small security camera in the corner.

Four days later, TMZ released from a camera in the hallway of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator. That video was enough to convict him in the eyes of much of the public, although NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Ravens executives danced around the issue of his guilt for nearly seven months, when TMZ released the direct footage from the elevator, showing the brutal punch, Palmer’s fall, and Rice’s seemingly callous attempts to move her.

But a lot can happen in a year. When a major scandal breaks, the story follows a familiar arc. An event occurs — Rice hits his fiancee, Kobe Bryant is accused of rape, Tiger Woods cheats on his wife — and when it comes out and the appropriate institutions react, there is a “moment of assigning blame, deciding who is responsible for what has gone wrong,” says John Affleck, a former AP sports reporter and the Knight Chair of Sports Journalism and Society at The Pennsylvania State University. Rice’s first calls, in a car back to Baltimore, were to his agent, Todd France, Ravens Security Director Darren Sanders, and his mother, according to Janay Rice’s account of the day, as told to Jemele Hill of ESPN. At some point, when the story hits the media, involved parties will often hire a “Strategic Communications,” or public relations firm to help them shape the story as it plays out.

There are two types of clients in this situation, says Jack Deschauer, a vice president and crisis communications expert at Levick, a strategic communications firm with offices in New York and Washington, DC. “The smarter half call right away, the others call when it’s 48 to 72 hours too late.”

But the Rice story developed slowly, after the initial burst of coverage and the release of the first video on Feburary 19, 2014. Rice and Janay Palmer quickly got married, moving their planned date up a several months, and stayed away from the media, especially after the disastrously-scripted Ravens press conference on May 23. In it, Janay Rice apologized for her role in the incident, prompting a fierce backlash of media accusing the Ravens of putting her in a situation of victim-blaming, something Katherine Redmond Brown said is common, if not encouraged, in the NFL’s culture.

“It has always been, ‘What did the woman do to make the guy do this?’” Redmond Brown said. “None of the NFL teams have done anything to undo that, and they’ve benefitted from it.”

But Redmond Brown says the video evidence of Rice’s crime upset any notions of Janay Rice’s culpability or responsibility for Rice’s actions. “What you see in that video that people were so shocked by was the imbalance of power,” she said.

Still, a stroke of luck or legal brilliance got Ray Rice into a pre-trial intervention program that less than one percent of domestic violence offenders receive in New Jersey, letting him avoid jail time, and the story continued to simmer. In many cases, Affleck said it’s important for the guilty party to let time pass before speaking out, as “there is often a sort of denouement, or second act, in which the person who was most ostracized gets a chance to come back.”

For Rice, that happened in the late fall of 2014, when an arbitrator overturned Goodell’s ban from the NFL. Rice was reinstated to the league on November 28, close to three months after the second video’s shocking footage prompted the Ravens to cut him from the team and Goodell to throw him out of the league. The second video also prompted Rice and his manager to bring on Hiltzik Strategies, a strategic communications firm, to help manage the family’s public relations in the last months of 2014.

While he was technically able to play, none of the NFL’s 32 teams signed him. The man who knocked out a woman with a single punch in an elevator, according to police reports, was still the media’s favorite pariah — at least until the woman he hit stepped up to speak for him.

On November 29, Janay Rice, formerly Janay Palmer, told her account of the night of February 15 and the following weeks to Jemele Hill, a veteran reporter for ESPN. Janay Rice followed up the as-told-to piece with a carefully-constructed taped with the Today Show’s Matt Lauer, holding firm to the line that her husband was a good man who made a terrible mistake. She was eloquent, sincere, and according to Hill, completely consistent in her story. In the interview with Lauer, she sat on the couch in the family home in Baltimore, her mother beside her.

All of these details matter, and Deschauer said that PR firms want to control those details as much as possible. “This [a Rice exclusive] was a major get for a news organization, when you have something like that, that news organizations want, you have a lot more say,” Deschauer said.

“What they’re trying to do is control the narrative. They want to send the athlete’s message, repeat it, keep it simple as possible, and control the message through clothing, body language, and who is there,” Affleck said. When Ray Rice stepped into the interview after Lauer’s formal sit down with Janay, “They’re close, they’re physically touching each other, trying to send the message that they’re really sorry.”

It also helps that Rice was a hometown hero. He and Janay met when they were teenagers living in rival suburban towns north of New York City, where Rice was the star of the New Rochelle High School football team. Janay told Hill about Rice’s generosity, his devotion to his family, and said that she never considered leaving him, even after that night last February.

“Before this, he had a very good public opinion,” Hill said, “Which might make it easier for people to see him as a good guy, who had a really bad night.”

This mantra— “good guy, bad night,” cropped up many times in Janay’s exclusive interviews. And with good reason — almost everyone involved agrees that Janay’s story, as told to Hill and Lauer, was her husband’s best, and perhaps only, shot at regaining any shred of his former positive public image after the event.

“I don’t think there’s any question that she’s [Janay Rice] part of him restoring his public image. She’s a big part of that. Any time you sit down with somebody, everybody has an agenda,” Hill said. “I think that agenda is coming from a place of her loving the person that she’s with, and like anyone in that situation she’s bothered and hurt by the public perception of him.”

And for Rice, public perception is everything. He has been reinstated to the league, but won’t play another down of professional football unless a team decides that the 28-year-old running back’s merits as a player outweigh his record off the field.

“At some point,” Affleck said, “everybody’s got a price.”

And Rice’s price, with the ever-present footage of the terrible punch, is high. “It’s a case closed, unless some losing team decides they want to tolerate having that video in every report,” Sweeney said. But Rice has two widely-agreed upon advantages — his wife’s loyalty and the desperate culture of victory in professional sports.

“This is profession where a third of the coaches get fired in any given year,” Affleck said. “The win now mentality is one where that can overcome stuff.”

Kobe Bryant survived a similar media storm in 2003, when he was accused of rape by a 19-year-old hotel employee. Bryant maintained that the sex was consensual, and his defense took a hard line against his accuser, questioning her credibility. She eventually declined to testify, and the prosecution dropped the charges. Bryant later settled a civil suit with his accuser out of court. Like Rice, Bryant’s wife stood by him through the case, even as he acknowledged his adultery.

In the world of professional sports, the trend of victims or wronged women standing by their partners is not uncommon, Redmond Brown said.

“There’s a social interaction that occurs [between athlete and spouse] — this is what you get from being with me, this is what your family gets from being with me… because of this deal we made,” Redmond Brown said. “When you have friends and family and fans pushing you back in, it can be a very difficult situation to get out of.”

And with his wife on his side, Bryant was given a second chance. He returned to the Lakers, put his head down, and carried them to three finals appearances and two NBA championships in the following years. When Bryant takes the court now, the case is not discussed — and Hill thinks that given the chance, Rice’s story could play out the same way.

“Kobe Bryant won championships after that [case]. If you win you’ll pretty much be forgiven of anything,” Hill said. “If he [Rice] is given another opportunity to contribute to a winning situation, over time you’ll probably see the public soften to who he is.”

But as so many athletes and celebrities and politicians know, it’s hard to argue against video. On February 15, 2014, Ray Rice punched his fiancee in an elevator. She stayed with him, and he may play football again, but no amount of wedding or Superbowl rings will erase that tape.

/2015/02/01/the-reinvention-of-ray-rice/feed/ 0
Fans and Advertisers Continue to Rate /2015/02/01/fans-and-advertisers-continue-to-rate/ /2015/02/01/fans-and-advertisers-continue-to-rate/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2015 21:21:08 +0000 /?p=2011 By Carl Stoffers

The predictions of the National Football League’s imminent demise have proven to be as flat as a New England Patriots football, based on the television ratings for the 2014 season.

Despite several high profile incidents of domestic violence and child abuse last year, female viewership of the NFL has not rapidly declined, as some industry experts and journalists predicted. Overall ratings increased slightly for the 2014 season, according to the Nielsen Company, a global marketing and research firm that measures media audiences.

An NFL regular season contest averaged 17.6 million viewers in 2014 (up from 17.4 million in 2013). Additionally, Thursday Night Football ranked number one in all of prime time, averaging more than 21 million viewers per week, according to Nielsen.

The mass exodus of female fans following incidents involving star players Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy never materialized. In fact, there was only a slight decrease — from 6.08 million viewers to 6.06 million — in average female viewership in the 2014 regular season, a decrease of less than one percent.

“Sports is supposed to be an area of fun for us,” said Dr. Deborah Borisoff, professor of Media Culture and Communication at NYU, by phone. “We live vicariously through sport. These incidents are seen as something that doesn’t touch our daily lives. It’s really hard for people to say, ‘Do I really want to fight this fight and stop watching the NFL? I’m already fighting so much in my daily life.’ Sports is an escape mechanism, especially in tough times.”

The NFL’s domestic violence issue got even bigger last September as the season was starting. But the issue had been simmering since last March and even before that, after the arrest of Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice for assaulting his then-fiancé in an Atlantic City elevator. In response, commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for the first two games of the season.

“I initially thought he should have been suspended for more than two games,” said Gwen Robinson, 38, who serves as the “Official Fan Reporter” for the Ravens blog on, by phone. “But that didn’t stop me from watching. I love football.”

While Rice’s arrest was noteworthy, it occurred in the off-season when there was less fan attention. Less than two months later, Carolina Panthers All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested on May 13 for abusing his girlfriend. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police accused Hardy of “grabbing (the) victim and throwing to the floor, throwing into a bathtub, slamming her against a futon and strangling her.”

Hardy pleaded guilty July 15 and received 18 months probation. He later appealed, and will be tried later this year. Hardy was in uniform when the Panthers opened the 2014 season on September 7 in Tampa Bay, recording four tackles and one sack in Carolina’s 20-14 win.

NFL broadcasts accounted for five of the top six programs watched for the week ending September 7. It appeared that the Hardy and Rice incidents would blow over, just as previous domestic abuse cases involving players seemed to.

“I think the NFL thought it was all going to go away,” said Philadelphia Eagles fan Leah Zummo, 36, as she sat in a New Jersey sports bar watching a Super Bowl preview show. “They slapped Ray Rice on the wrist and Hardy was playing, and nobody seemed to be too upset about it.”

Then, on September 8, TMZ released the video from inside that Atlantic City elevator. The shocking footage showed Rice knocking the woman unconscious.

Suddenly, everything changed. Or did it?

The Ravens cut Rice later that day, apparently aware that the release of the brutal video was going to require action more severe than the two-game suspension that had previously been handed down by Goodell.

The Panthers, perhaps aware of the fallout that the Rice footage would cause, deactivated Hardy before their week two contest. He did not play again in 2014.

Just four days after TMZ released the second Rice video, on September 12, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for physically abusing his four-year-old son. The 2012 NFL most valuable player was placed on the exempt list on September 17, effectively ending his season.

“Maybe it’s a double standard,” said Robinson, who admitted she has “mixed feelings” about Rice. “But him (Peterson) hitting his kid with a switch and leaving bruises that were still there a week later made me not want to be a fan of him anymore, but not of the NFL.”

Despite the public relations nightmare of September, the bad press did not hurt the NFL where it hurts most: the TV ratings. Nielsen reported that the top three most-watched programs for the week ending Sept. 14, 2014 among adults age 18-49 were NFL broadcasts.

The following week, as pundits like ESPN’s Keith Olbermann proclaimed that the league was destined to lose its female audience, the top three programs (and four of the top five) were NFL broadcasts, according to Nielsen.

The continued success of the NFL in light of public relations disasters that would sink lesser organizations begs the question: Why is the NFL so invincible?

“The public tends to individualize deviant behavior,” said Dr. Michael Johnson, a professor of women’s studies at Penn State, and an expert on domestic violence issues. “We look at what’s happening with Ray Rice and we compartmentalize. It’s easier to chalk it up to a few bad apples than to look at societal causes or an all-male, violent organization like the NFL.”

The league responded to the crisis in September by partnering with No More, a national organization formed in 2013 that aims to end sexual assault and domestic violence. The result was an ad campaign that featured prominent athletes and celebrities reacting to off-camera footage of domestic violence.

“I feel that the ad campaign was a little hypocritical,” said Pittsburgh Steelers fan Kelly Caputo, 39, as she watched the NFL Network at a New Jersey sports bar. “The NFL is going to lecture people about domestic violence? Now they’re saying, ‘No more’? Where was the ad campaign in August?”

Zummo also felt the “No More” campaign lacked sincerity but admitted that it didn’t affect her viewing. “Sure, it’s not genuine,” Zummo said of the campaign. “But I’m not going to stop watching football because Ray Rice is a jerk who can’t control himself. I’m a football fan, not a Ray Rice fan.”

Despite the timing, others felt that the No More campaign was a positive development.

“How many anti-domestic violence ads had you seen on TV before this?” asked Johnson. “It’s a step in the right direction in terms of raising awareness.”

The league also named Lisa Friel, former head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the New York County District Attorney’s Office, a special advisor to Goodell in September. According to the league, Friel was hired to “help lead and shape the NFL’s policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault.”

The league, meanwhile, continued to finish high in the ratings throughout the season. According to Nielsen, the Cowboys-Eagles Thanksgiving Day game was the most watched program of the fall ratings season, with an estimated 32 million viewers. Despite all the controversy, the public still wanted to watch the NFL.

It is unclear whether the fallout from the 2014 cases will be enough of a catalyst for true change in the league’s culture in terms of how it deals with domestic violence. But the changes that are occurring may be permanent.

“It’s a public relations matter, for sure,” said Johnson, “but the steps that the NFL is taking now may be irreversible. They’re moving towards sanctions and discipline that they won’t be able to back away from in the future.”

One of the most tumultuous seasons in NFL history will conclude with the Super Bowl. After that, it will be up to the public to decide whether they’re more concerned about slightly deflated footballs or brutalized women. Regardless, there will be plenty of females watching.

/2015/02/01/fans-and-advertisers-continue-to-rate/feed/ 0
Living in the NFL’s Fantasy World /2015/02/01/living-in-the-nfls-fantasy-world/ /2015/02/01/living-in-the-nfls-fantasy-world/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2015 21:19:58 +0000 /?p=2013 By Leif Reigstad

Like many Americans, Renee Miller plays fantasy football.

Unlike many Americans, Renee Miller is a neuroscientist.

This has helped her develop a unique view of fantasy football; she has studied the effect of cognitive bias on the game, and writes regularly for fantasy football websites advising players to eliminate their biases and personal attachments from the fantasy football decision-making process, one Miller says is best based solely on cold statistics rather than the imperfect gut or the fallible heart.

Fantasy football is a game in which users compile a roster of NFL players and compete against other people’s fantasy teams, scoring points based on touchdowns and yardage gained by their fantasy lineups’ real-life counterparts.

One cognitive bias Miller applies to fantasy football is what she calls the endowment effect. It means, basically, that if a participant feels he or she has ownership over something, then they like that thing more—perhaps irrationally more.

“As fantasy users, we own the players,” Miller, a lecturer and researcher in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at University of Rochester, said in an interview by Skype from her home in upstate New York. “The effect is no different than other possessions we own and are attached to. It gives us a stake in the game that we won’t give up. The grip is personal.”

That may help explain why fantasy football owners struggle to trade the players they picked on draft day. It may also explain how fantasy football continues to grow in the face of the NFL’s very real problems with on-field head injuries and off-field domestic abuse, and why the NFL is so committed to fostering fantasy football’s growth to strengthen its own grip on fans.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, a marketing and advocacy-based organization focused on fantasy sports, about 42 million people played fantasy sports in 2014, up from 32 million players in 2010. About 70 percent of fantasy sports players listed football as their favorite fantasy game, so at least 30 million people played fantasy football in 2014 — about 10 percent of the total population of the United States. The average fantasy sports player spends nine hours per week on the game. According to Advertising Age magazine, fantasy football generated $1.1 billion in revenue in 2013.

The game’s grip is so strong that Miller said she has difficulty reconciling her aversion to the NFL’s problems with her love for fantasy football.

“I’m frustrated with myself,” Miller said. “As both a neuroscientist and a woman, I feel like I shouldn’t watch football or play fantasy because of the NFL’s problems with concussions and domestic violence. But my football consumption hasn’t gone down at all.”

Miller is not alone, according to Dr. Andrew Billings, a professor in the University of Alabama’s Sports Communication program, and Dr. Brody Ruihley, who teaches Sport Administration at the University of Cincinnati. Billings and Ruihley co-authored “The Fantasy Sport Industry: Games Within Games,” in 2013, an in-depth look at the motivations of fantasy players and the game’s effect on them.

“We find fandom among fantasy sports players is like traditional sports fandom on steroids,” Billings said in a phone interview.

Billings and Ruihley both said ESPN’s fantasy sports players consume three times as much sports media as non-fantasy playing sports fans (22 hours a week versus seven for those who don’t play), a boost comparable to the spike in consumer involvement seen during a major event like the Olympics or the Super Bowl.

“It’s exactly what media companies want,” Ruihley said. “Attention and time, so they can sell advertising. That’s the game changer. That’s where the tipping point is.”

Instead of just rooting for their favorite team, fans are following all 32 teams to watch their fantasy players. The NFL started to embrace fantasy football in 2009 when the league unveiled its special RedZone channel providing whip-around coverage of weekly games, showcasing only touchdowns, the most important statistic in fantasy football.

In 2010, created its own fantasy football game to compete with ESPN and Yahoo! Sports. By 2014, would have six more fantasy football games available for fans — NFL Perfect Challenge, Weekly Pick’Em, Thursday Night Football Challenge, Playoff Challenge, Fantasy Survivor, and Record Breaker — and an equal number of big advertisers, with Verizon, Lenovo, Snickers, Dodge Ram Trucks and the United Services Automobile Association sponsoring fantasy football this season, according to the league.

The league’s stadiums are becoming more accommodating to the fantasy player, too, boosting wireless internet connections and providing personal TV screens and tents so fans can watch their fantasy players perform in other games throughout the league. The San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium even has a lounge dedicated to fantasy football, featuring large TVs and touch screens and charging stations.

The NFL’s commitment to fantasy football is clear. On the navigation menu atop’s home page, the first drop-down tab after the league logo is labeled, in big block letters: “Fantasy.”

“The fantasy player is the league’s best fan,” Peter Schoenke, president of the popular fantasy sports news and analysis website, said in a phone interview. “They’re more knowledgeable. They’re buying more jerseys, going to more games.”

They may also be more likely to ignore the NFL’s problems.

“There are rules to fantasy football, but not a whole lot of ethics,” Billings said by phone. “You can bet that if there were rumors that [Minnesota Vikings star running back] Adrian Peterson was coming back from suspension [for allegedly abusing his son], he’d be the hottest pickup of the week. Fantasy football users will so easily separate from moral distinction. People just want the party to keep going, and are willing to move larger issues to the back burner.”

Fantasy football’s grip is most evident among those, like Miller, Billings and Ruihley, who study it and are aware of their own consumption and the game’s grip, yet still readily succumb to it.

“I added [Cleveland Browns wide receiver] Josh Gordon a few weeks before he returned from suspension [for violating the league’s substance abuse policy],” Ruihley said. “And I teach a class about ethical issues in sports! We need them for numbers, not to fill a heroic role for us.”

While Ruihley and Billings said they believe fantasy football may be desensitizing fans and distracting them from important issues in the NFL, Rotowire’s Schoenke insisted fantasy football remained independent from the league’s real-life problems.

“It’s just something you do to enhance fandom,” he said. “If there are a few bad guys involved, it’s a minor annoyance at most.”

Fantasy football’s dominant demographic is white men. According to the FSTA, 80 percent of fantasy players are male, and nearly 90 percent are Caucasian. The area where fantasy football has the most room to grow is among the non-white, non-male population.

How the NFL will attempt to harness that population is a difficult question, given fantasy football’s unsettling racial rhetoric and the NFL’s male-dominated culture and problems with domestic abuse.

Fantasy football involves constant adding and dropping of players, trading, buying and selling. One of the most popular draft formats is the auction draft, where owners “bid” on players.

“The NFL players are treated as commodities, and that may be why black America is not showing interest,” Billings said. “There are connotations of slavery — white owners trading and selling predominantly black players.”

Emil Kadlec, owner of Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., which publishes four fantasy football strategy magazines and the website, said he doesn’t think fantasy football has anything to do with slavery. “An auction is just a method to draft,” Kadlec said in a phone interview from his home in New Mexico. “And it’s the best way to draft a team.”

Kadlec also said he has “no idea” why so few women play fantasy football, and that he worries society will deem fantasy owners distasteful because they will readily add players like Peterson or Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice when they can.

“It’s not that we don’t care,” Kadlec said. “It’s just that fantasy football is supposed to be an escape. We don’t support the NFL — the NFL supports us. When I’m playing it’s all about me. I’m not trying to make a moral statement. I’m not thinking about the world’s problems.”

/2015/02/01/living-in-the-nfls-fantasy-world/feed/ 0
Odds are Gambling Drives NFL Audience /2015/02/01/odds-are-gambling-drives-nfl-audience/ /2015/02/01/odds-are-gambling-drives-nfl-audience/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2015 21:17:51 +0000 /?p=2012 By Jeremy Fuchs

The Eastside Lounge, part of the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel, is hosting a party to watch the Super Bowl. For $150, there will be an all-you-can-eat and drink menu. There will, however, be one thing missing from the party.

“The NFL prohibited the casinos from using the [phrase] ‘Super Bowl,’” Jessalyn Strauss, a professor of communications at Elon University who studies the city, said by phone. The NFL forced the party at the Eastside Lounge, along with the countless others along the strip, to be called “Big Game” parties, instead.

Strauss said that this change is emblematic of the NFL’s attitude when it comes to Las Vegas and gambling. “It’s a very public attempt to distance themselves from gambling, but at the same time, they’re benefiting from it,” she said.

While opposing legalizing sports wagering as a matter of policy, the NFL still benefits from the widespread gambling — legal and illegal — on its games. The league generates more interest in its sport, while distancing itself from the harm that gambling causes and avoids the stain of corruption.

When the Patriots and Seahawks kick off Super Bowl XLIX, Americans will have placed $100 million in legal bets, Andrew Smith, a research analyst at the American Gaming Association, said in a phone interview. Additionally, bettors will spend $3.8 billion in illegal wagers, according to Smith. The legal bets can only be placed in four states: Delaware, Nevada, Montana and Oregon.

In January 2012, one more state was added to that list. New Jersey passed legislation legalizing sports betting in the state. In February 2013, after the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA filed a federal lawsuit against the state, Judge Michael Shipp ruled that the legislation was in violation of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. Shipp’s brother, Marcel Shipp, was a NFL running back for seven seasons and was recently hired as the running backs coach for the New York Jets.

In its opposition to sports betting, the NFL has invoked the phrase, ‘the integrity of the game.’ Betting on the game, the league has argued, could influence players and officials to involve themselves in point-shaving and match-fixing schemes. Ray Lesniak, a New Jersey State Senator who has led the push to bring legalized sports gambling to the state, said in a phone interview that regulating betting would only make protecting the integrity of the game easier.

“The best way to avoid hanky-panky is to study unusual gambling patterns,” Lesniak said. “You can’t determine [it] when it’s done underground.” Lesniak said that by legalizing gambling, it would become easier to track trends and investigate anything out of the ordinary, thereby reducing the potential for any game-fixing schemes.

Beyond just protecting the integrity of the game, the NFL wants to protect its image. “If people were fearful there was a scandal, it could destroy the brand,” Rodney Paul, a sports management professor at Syracuse University, said by phone. “They fear the idea of something happening that would put a damper on the sport.”

The NFL’s anti-gambling stance might protect its brand, but it also discourages a discussion about gambling responsibly. “We’d like to see them do a lot more,” Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said by phone. “We would like to see more of a conversation about responsible gaming.”

The league is involved in a number of products that resemble sports gambling. They offer fantasy games on their official website, lottery tickets with team logos on them are available in multiple states, and the league plays games every year in London, where sports gambling is legal. Whyte said the NFL has to make up its mind.

“We’re not seeing counterbalancing efforts,” he said. “If you’re going to embrace fantasy sports, if you’re going to allow advertising, have NFL-themed [lottery] tickets, where is the harm minimization message? If you’re trying to maximize revenue, how are you minimizing harm?”

The NFL did not respond to repeated requests for comment by phone.

Football, in particular, works well with the gambling market. Every play is measurable, every trend easily tracked. Websites like Pro Football Focus analyze every player on every play of every game. The availability of statistics can foster more gambling, Whyte said, because participants might think they have an insight into the outcome. “You’re more likely to bet the more you think you [can] control the outcome,” Whyte said.

It’s not just that there is more information available to make a more informed betting decision; gambling itself has become a part of enjoying the game. “A better way of viewing sports gambling is [that] it adds to the entertainment value of watching the game,” Paul said. “A lot of people are watching a game if they are invested in it. It makes the experience more enjoyable. Without it, the game might not be as popular.”

More money was spent gambling on football last year than on any other sport in Nevada. In 2014, Americans bet $1.4 billion on college and professional football in Nevada, according to Michael Lawton, a senior research analyst at the Nevada Gaming Commission. That is a 206 percent increase from 1989. The popularity of the sport and the popularity of betting on the sport go hand in hand.

“It’s so widely televised, but one of the reasons that some of those people are watching is because they’ve got money on the game,” Whyte said. “People put money on the game because the games are televised. These things reinforce each other.”

Football gambling, in which bettors spent 134 percent more than on baseball gambling in 2014, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission, has become an industry — the odds reported in newspapers and on the scroll on ESPN, the over-under analyzed on talk radio. With the Super Bowl, a dizzying array of bets will be made available.

Some of the more popular bets are the so-called prop bets. These bets often don’t concern the final score of the game, but rather more innocuous things. For example, according to the Bovada Sportsbook, an online betting site based in Canada, there are 3-2 odds on orange being the color of Gatorade dumped on the winning coach. Odds are +750 that Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, will wear a red hoodie, while the over-under has been set at two minutes and one second for the length of the national anthem sung by Idina Menzel.

Prop bets are often silly and fun. At the countless Super Bowl parties across the country, these bets can add enjoyment to the game, according to Paul. “People aren’t betting more on the Super Bowl because there’s easy ways to make money,” Paul said. “People are making a big deal out of the Super Bowl. It’s a big event, they get together with many others, and they like to enhance the experience by being able to have something going through the game.”

Not all gambling activity is harmless, however. Between 0.4 to 2 percent of the American population are pathological gamblers, according to a 2012 study done by researchers Nancy Petry and Carlos Blanco at the University of Connecticut and Columbia University, respectively, in the journal “Addiction.”

The NFL has been clear in its lack of support for legalizing gambling. At the same time, the league reaps the rewards of fan interest in the activity.

“They’re hypocrites,” Stephen Sweeney, the New Jersey State Senate President, said by phone. “To make the argument that we’re going to hurt the game while they’re promoting [gambling]—they put the lines out, they give you the injury reports. It’s a joke.”

/2015/02/01/odds-are-gambling-drives-nfl-audience/feed/ 0
Still in Control of The Message /2015/02/01/still-in-control-of-their-message/ /2015/02/01/still-in-control-of-their-message/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2015 21:16:40 +0000 /?p=2009 By Max Burman

On Friday before the Super Bowl, hundreds of reporters assembled in Phoenix for Roger Goodell’s annual State of the League press conference. Once again the orchestrated event — this year humility was the predominant message — served as little more than a public relations exercise for an organization that, facing criticism for its handling of a litany of controversies over recent years, has increasingly sought to control the media agenda.

The notion of a conflict of interest between journalistic organizations like ESPN and NBC and the league they are supposed to cover independently, but rely on for their own financial health, seems clear. Stefan Fatsis of Slate Magazine said in a phone interview that the NFL can control the media message in part because of the growth of social media and the rise of “Insider” reporters such as Adam Schefter of ESPN, Jay Glazer of Fox and Ian Rapoport of the league’s own NFL Network who draw millions of Twitter followers as they “break” news of trades, injuries and gossip. Fatsis contends that with such attention afforded to this type of reporting on minutiae – not all of which is accurate – it becomes hard for sports fans to “see the forest for the trees”.

“The NFL wants to keep fans’ attention on the day-to-day,” said Fatsis. “There is a difference between quotidian consumption and the larger narrative but we so easily lose the big picture. In that sense these reporters are really the coal that keeps the NFL’s engines burning.”

Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner, had a somewhat different relationship with the media than Goodell does now. Green tells of watches and other gifts in Super Bowl ‘goody bags,’ of Rozelle paying for his parking at an airport lot after discovering the two were on the same flight to Los Angeles and of informal dinners between Rozelle and small groups of reporters at swanky restaurants. “You wanted to talk to Pete on the phone,” said Green, “you called him.”

Now? “Roger doesn’t know me from Adam,” Green said.

That is not to say Rozelle’s NFL was any less of an exercise in public relations. When he became commissioner in 1960 he quickly recognized that the press was essential to the growth of the league. He just had a different approach in that era. John Jeansonne, who retired as a sports writer at Newsday last year after 44 years, covered the league at varying times and now teaches at Hofstra University. He said in a phone interview that the NFL has “always been a fabulous PR operation … controversies in the Rozelle era just didn’t reach this level of importance.” As Jeansonne said, “I don’t think the way they’ve handled these things [under Goodell] is different, I think we in the media are different.”

Curtis, who is covering his first Super Bowl, identified the last lockout of the players in 2011 as a turning point. “When the players turned on Goodell, they encouraged the press to be more skeptical,” he said in a phone interview. Journalists like Alan Schwarz of the New York Times, Don Van Natta, Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother Steve Fainaru at ESPN, among many others, have brought issues like concussions and domestic violence to the public over recent years. “Pro football used to operate in an era of innocence,” Green said, “and that is no longer the case.”

Curtis jokingly described today’s NFL coverage as the “golden age of liberal sports opining,” bemoaning as “unfocused” many of the recent attacks on Goodell and the league. “On one hand, the press argued Goodell was too soft and on the other, with incidents like Bountygate involving the New Orleans Saints, they said he was too harsh,” Curtis said. “For me the better, more coherent, criticism is that Goodell is simply too powerful and that when one man has such power he is bound to make mistakes.”

Unfocused or not, what is clear is that an increasingly skeptical media has had little tangible impact on a league that, as Fatsis claims, is now simply “Too big to fail.”

/2015/02/01/still-in-control-of-their-message/feed/ 0
Concussion Case: An Unsettling Wait /2015/02/01/concussion-case-an-unsettling-wait/ /2015/02/01/concussion-case-an-unsettling-wait/#respond Sun, 01 Feb 2015 21:10:48 +0000 /?p=2016 By Bridgette Bjorlo

Detailed studies and statistics couldn’t do it. Expert medical testimony was ignored. Not even player suicides could shake the National Football League out of a denial reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s ‘smoking doesn’t cause cancer’ campaign.

But after years of dismissing the link between repeated concussions and long-term brain injury, the multi-billion dollar league may soon be forced to pay for its role in the suffering of many of its retired players.

“I think they have a moral obligation to us, but they’re businessmen, and their bottom line is money and if it threatens the money, then there’s a challenge there,” said Karl Mecklenburg, a former captain of the Denver Broncos and an All-Pro linebacker, in a phone interview. “Somewhere along the line, someone made the decision that money’s more important than the lives and the problems that this business causes.”

Mecklenburg is one of nearly 5,000 retired players who signed onto a class action lawsuit against the league, claiming that the NFL failed to warn them about the dangers of head injuries.

“The NFL was aware that there were long-term effects of concussions, and they didn’t tell the players, and they didn’t protect the players,” he said. “They told us that we were fine and to go back in the game.”

Under the proposed settlement, the NFL will spend at least $765 million on health care and clinical testing for retired athletes who suffered concussion-related injuries.

“I think the NFL should be paying more,” Leonard Marshall, a two-time Super Bowl champion and former All-Pro defensive lineman for the New York Giants, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think it’s enough to cover all the guys and families that have been affected by this. It’s just not enough.”

Players also criticized the league for failing to properly treat injured players on the field and for dismissing football’s neurological health risks. Paul Rochester, former co-captain of the New York Jets and a defensive tackle, keeps his Super Bowl III-winning helmet in his office to remind him of the continued damage his brain endured during his 10 years in the league.

“Basically when I went off the field, the team physician, who was paid for by the Jets, looked at me

and said ‘Rocky, are you alright?’ I said ‘I’m a little woozy’ and he said ‘don’t take your helmet off for the rest of the game.’ I thought it was to protect my head, but it was so that I wouldn’t see the dent in my helmet,” Rochester said by phone.

Marshall condemned the league for its inadequate handling of brain injuries and said he lost count of the number of concussions he suffered throughout his 12 pro football seasons. He recalls how the New York Giants, his employer of 10 years, responded when a player got ‘dinged.’

“When you got your bell rung, they gave you some stuff to smell, which would serve as a jolt to wake you up, and then they would ask you questions like ‘do you know where you’re at’ or ‘do you know who you’re playing,’” he said. “I remember getting my bell rung a number of times.”

Marshall now serves as an advocate and national spokesman for sports safety. He educates children and families about the trials and tribulations associated with head trauma. He also participated in the documentary “The United States of Football” and co-wrote a book titled “When the Cheering Stops,” which sheds light on the many hardships players face in the years following their retirement.

“I wish the NFL did more,” Marshall, 53, said. “I think each and every player wished they did more. What players wished the most was to be told what traumatic brain injury was and the risks versus the rewards of head trauma.”

Though the players have accused the NFL of wrongdoing, the league can defend itself with causation and assumption of the risk arguments. David Schwartz, a New York based defense attorney and former state prosecutor, said the players would face a high burden of proof if the case went to trial.

“You have to prove that the brain injury that you sustained is connected with your football playing career in the NFL, and that’s very speculative,” Schwartz said in an interview. “The other hurdle the players must jump over is that they assumed the risk. This is a tough sport, and the NFL is not responsible for every single risk. They pay these players to perform a function and for a player not to know that they can get injured is a very questionable argument.”

But Dr. Martha Shenton, a Harvard Medical School health scientist and neuroimaging expert, finds holes in the causation argument.

“A person who has a neurodegenerative disease, who’s played 12 years in the NFL, what’s the likelihood that it came from something else? I would say small,” she said. “The obvious thing that’s staring you in the face is the repetitive head impact to the brain.”

Mecklenburg, Rochester and Marshall all battle continued mental and physical injuries as a result of their time in the league. Mecklenburg, now 54, struggles with short-term memory loss.

“I go to the grocery store and park my car, and when I come out, I don’t know where my car is,” Mecklenburg said. “I’ve had to adjust. My phone is filled with pictures of parking spots and room numbers and stuff like that so I know where I’m going.”

Rochester, 76, had a cochlear implant after years of hearing impairment. The device allows him to talk on the phone, while having the caller’s words translated into text for him to read. He attributes his hearing loss to the many hits to the head he endured over the years. As for his mental state, he says it’s “livable.”

“My wife doesn’t think it’s so hot,” Rochester said, laughing. “She gives me directions for around town that I forget all the time.”

Though most players have agreed to the settlement, more than 200 retired players and families have chosen to opt out. While some have argued that the NFL should be paying more settlement benefits to suffering players, those with the most serious health problems had no choice but to pursue further litigation. Players believed to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease common in athletes with repeated brain trauma, are only compensated after their death according to the settlement proposal.

“We’ve studied 96 NFL players and there are changes in their brains,” Shenton said. “Most cases of repetitive head trauma end up having, what seems to me, this pattern of brain pathology that’s consistent with CTE.”

Because the disease cannot yet be diagnosed in a living person, researches identify CTE by assessing the brains of deceased athletes. Shenton said that one develops CTE as a result of repeated symptomatic concussions in addition to asymptomatic subconcussive head impact, such as hitting one’s head on a car door.

Marshall is among the group of retirees showing signs of possible CTE. Marhshall said he has chosen to remain in the settlement and is seeking compensation for other injuries, which his attorney has advised him not to disclose at this time.

“I have some problems, and I have these problems as a result of playing the game,” he said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Marshall said he holds resentment toward the NFL for denying him the opportunity to make informed judgments about his health.

“I think I would have been able to make better decisions as a result of knowing what was ahead,” he said. “Having those kinds of collisions at practice 85 to 100 times a day, as a defensive lineman, if I had known what that meant, I probably would have played a lot less.”

Though both Mecklenburg and Rochester have yet to be diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, they both remain plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the NFL. Rochester said he views the settlement as a form of long-term health insurance, in case he is diagnosed with one of the diseases covered by the agreement.

As for Mecklenburg, he said the lawsuit was never about the money. While he wants his family to be compensated if anything happens to him, Mecklenburg pursued legal action for his football successors.

“Because this lawsuit was filed, the NFL has set up protocols to protect the guys that are playing now, and that trickles down,” Mecklenburg said. “Colleges now have concussion protocols, high schools now have concussion protocols, and even the little Pop Warner kids are now very aware of the seriousness of concussions. So to me, that’s the value of the lawsuit. It’s not that I get to make some money; it’s that things change.”

Though more than a year and a half has gone by since the proposed settlement, the agreement has yet to be finalized.

“Nothing has been done,” said Cedrick Hardman, a former defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders, by phone. “I played twelve years, and so be it.”

Marshall said that something has to be done because many of these retirees need the money for their health care needs.

“This group of athletes is no better today than they were a year and a half ago,” he said. “It’s totally unfair and unjust.”

Despite the rising frustration surrounding the settlement limbo, those players who opt out of the proposed settlement face great risk in going to trial.

“The fact that the players and the league didn’t get everything they wanted, that’s usually a sign of a good settlement,” Schwartz said. “I think the settlement is fair because those who don’t think it’s fair could opt out and take the case all the way, but they are risking getting zero.”

Both Mecklenburg and Rochester said that if they could relive the past, they still would have played professional football, though Mecklenburg vowed he would have taken his concussions more seriously. As for Rochester, he doesn’t have any regrets about his football career but admitted he influenced his grandson to play lacrosse.

Marshall, on the other hand, said though he can’t rewrite history, he would have made different decisions had he known about the dangers of head injuries.

“In terms of my career, it would have been shortened by a number of years,” he said. “I think a lot of guys wouldn’t have stayed as long knowing that those types of collisions would take the toll that it did.”

He predicted the league would undergo changes in the years ahead as information on concussions becomes more available, possibly resulting in fewer athletes risking head injuries.

“I think if the future of football ever was at risk, it’s now,” Marshall said.

/2015/02/01/concussion-case-an-unsettling-wait/feed/ 0
A Double Standard for the NFL? /2015/01/31/nfl-cheerleading/ /2015/01/31/nfl-cheerleading/#respond Sat, 31 Jan 2015 19:33:18 +0000 /?p=1978 The League Promotes its Cheerleaders While Proclaiming to Change its Image

The white sideline boundaries at the University of Phoenix Stadium have been carefully painted, ready for all the fanfare of Super Bowl XLIX. In addition to the action on the field, the game will have all of its usual trimmings: beer commercials, rowdy fans, voluble commentators, and an NFL staple: cheerleaders.

In two-piece uniforms performing racy dance routines, the Sea Gals and Patriots cheerleaders who will line the field are proving to be a paradox.

“These steps are based on a clear, simple principle: domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong,” Goodell’s letter reads. “They are illegal.  They have no place in the NFL and are unacceptable in any way, under any circumstances.”

Tomi-Ann Roberts, a professor of psychology at Colorado College, said the photographs are meant to do more than just document part of what goes on at an NFL game.

“It’s the same as when [companies] use a woman’s body to sell shoes or cologne. It’s a display,” Roberts said. “If all the messaging around football is about brute force on the part of men, and what is a highly-sexual performance of a stereotype of femininity on the sidelines, how can we be surprised that these players commit acts of violence against women?”

Ben Liebenberg, a photo editor at who said he has worked with the company for more than eight years, said a team of about five people work to put the galleries together each week. Though he said women are involved in the process, he would not say how many or what decision-making capacity they had. did not respond to email or phone requests for comment regarding the photo galleries and why they are still being used despite the league’s claims to be attempting to redefine the way it treats and views women.

Some of the women who wear NFL cheerleading uniforms, however, disagree with the idea that they are objectified. LisaMarie Ianuzzi, 25, will finish her third season cheering for the Patriots at the Super Bowl. Ianuzzi said she is proud to wear her uniform — not despite its revealing nature, but because of it.

“I feel like the uniform is empowering. We all work very hard to wear that uniform,” Ianuzzi said in a phone interview. “We feel beautiful. Besides the sex appeal and connotations behind that uniform, we work very hard to represent the organization and wear the Patriots’ logo. I’ve never felt objectified by our fans”

Ianuzzi added that her time as an NFL cheerleader has been the best experience of her life, and her coaches and coordinators have treated her and her teammates well.

Not all cheerleaders, however, have been so quick to praise their experience with the NFL In recent months, five separate teams have been sued by their cheer squads for providing low wages. The Raiderettes, the squad associated with the Oakland Raiders, made headlines in September last year when the Raiders paid $1.25 million to current and former cheerleaders after a class action lawsuit alleged the dancers’ annual salary  — at $1,250 — factored out to less than $5 per hour.

Another lawsuit, filed against the Buffalo Bills last April, alleged the cheerleaders were paid below minimum wage and faced steep pay cuts for violating a dress code that regulated everything from hair length and style to fingernail polish. The Buffalo Jills, as the squad was called, was disbanded before the 2014-2015 season.

Phil Urban, an associate at a law firm that represents the five plaintiffs in the Buffalo Jills case, said the case was still in the discovery process, but the attorneys were not hopeful that a settlement would be reached. “So far it doesn’t look like the Bills want to engage in settlement talks at this time, but we hope they do,” Urban said.

Alexa Brenneman, a former cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals, filed a lawsuit in February last year alleging she worked 300 hours for the Bengals during the 2013 season and was paid only $855. Brenneman also took to Twitter to condemn Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice incident last September.

“I have no respect for Roger [Goodell],” Brenneman wrote in a Sept. 8, 2014 post. “The NFL seriously needs to reconsider the way they view and treat women.”

Karen Link, 24, is a first-year Patriots cheerleader. She agreed with her teammate in saying the the team treats their cheerleaders well.

“The Patriots are a standup organization, and we always are compensated very well for the work that we do,” Link said.

Cheerleaders for the New England Patriots, like most other NFL cheerleading squads, attend six or more hours of practice per week, make public appearances for the team, and pose in skin-bearing uniforms for a swimsuit calendar that is sold to the public. Both the Sea Gals — the dance team for the Seattle Seahawks — and the Patriots cheerleaders, sell calendars for $20 each on their websites.

Natalie Adams, a professor of education leadership at the University of Alabama, wrote a book titled “Cheerleader! An American Icon” that discusses what she calls the sexualization of cheerleading. She said the racy photographs that most NFL cheerleading squads pose for are the epitome of a dangerous trend.

“The introduction of cheerleaders to the NFL sexualized cheerleading in a way that it had not been before,” Adams said in an email. “The cheerleader calendars and catalogs perpetuate the image that women and their bodies are for the pleasure of men. They are an object for men, and their interests and concerns are secondary to that of the male who gazes upon them.”

Adams added that she believes the NFL’s involvement in the “No More” campaign is a good first step to changing that culture. “At least the NFL is acknowledging the powerful role models athletes are and that sports is a celebration of masculine power and how that power can translate in very harmful ways off the field,” Adams said. “But it is just a first step in a long, complicated process of helping men and women understand the insidious nature and pervasiveness of domestic abuse and sexual assault.”

Roberts of Colorado College also applauded the NFL’s efforts to address sexual and domestic violence issues, but she said the league’s continued portrayal of cheerleaders in calendars and online photo galleries “is pure hypocrisy” — and it is up to the league to make a change.

She said that although she believes the vast majority of cheerleaders think of themselves as more than objects, the hyper-masculine nature of football combined with provocative marketing of its cheerleaders inherently objectifies them.

“Culturally,” she said, “It’s a setup for that.”

/2015/01/31/nfl-cheerleading/feed/ 0
“Front Porch” Politics: Why College Coaching Salaries Continue to Skyrocket /2014/06/09/academics-vs-athletics-not-even-close/ /2014/06/09/academics-vs-athletics-not-even-close/#respond Mon, 09 Jun 2014 17:01:56 +0000 /?p=1954 It sounds almost like a talking point for college presidents at major athletic institutions.  In recent years, presidents from all over the country have repeated the same words, referring to their athletic programs as the “front porch” into their universities.  What they mean is that their successful sports teams — namely football and men’s basketball — are what prospective students notice first and what more and more alumni consider when it comes to donating.

Because of that philosophy, the salaries for NCAA football and men’s basketball coaches have risen to exorbitant figures.  The “premier” coaches often are the highest paid employees at their school, compensated significantly more than the university’s president and top ranking professors, not to mention the governor of the state.  At Indiana University, for example, basketball coach Tom Crean was paid $2.8 million in 2008-2009, his second season with the team, while Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, received $167,018 in her 35th year of teaching at the university.

University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, whose new salary will pay him a reported $6.9 million a year in 2014, will make approximately 60 times more than Alabama’s governor Robert Bentley would if he chose to take his salary ($120,935.80), which he does not.

What follows is a series of stories — written and reported by Columbia University Sports Journalism graduate students — that examine the tale behind the rising salaries of top NCAA coaches.  Speaking with administrators, academics, and often other sources at various universities, the stories depict why and how big-time college athletics have become the “front porch” for institutions of higher learning.


/2014/06/09/academics-vs-athletics-not-even-close/feed/ 0
Shatterproof at Alabama /2014/06/09/shatterproof/ /2014/06/09/shatterproof/#respond Mon, 09 Jun 2014 15:38:03 +0000 /?p=1875 By Ben Baskin

When Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on January 3rd, 2007, hundreds of strangers, most of them adorned in crimson, were waiting outside the small airport to greet him.  They cheered wildly when his plane touched down and then formed a throng, multiple layers deep, surrounding him as he disembarked.  They were there to welcome him, praise him, touch him; anything to be close to the man who had come to save their beloved, and recently struggling, University of Alabama football program.

The previous season the Crimson Tide had won six games, and lost seven.  They were losers in four of their final five contests, including a fifth-straight loss to arch-rival Auburn, and a loss to Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl.  Before the bowl game, Mike Shula was fired as head coach.

For a state that has such a rich football history, a state that has tied its identity to the Alabama football program since the early 20th century, the recent trend of losing was not acceptable.

“The way in which we can best understand what’s happening there…is that these things are religious,” Dr. Eric Bain-Selbo, author of “Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South,” said.  “What it boils down to in the end is a way for people to identify who they are, orient themselves in the world…and infuse meaning into the things that they do.”

Alabama pried Saban from the Miami Dolphins, and gave him an eight year, $32 million contract.  The deal was approved by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees — they oversee operations for the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Alabama in Huntsville —  mere months after the board had denied the $600,000 per year contract, half set to come from booster donations, that UAB had offered to current Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, citing “fiscal responsibility.”

At the time of Saban’s hiring, he had the highest salary ever paid to a college coach.  Seven years, and three BCS National Championships later, Saban —who could not be reached for comment — has reworked his contract on three separate occasions.

Before the 2009 season, Saban signed a three-year extension, bumping his annual salary to $4.75 million per year.  In 2012, two more years were added on to the deal, with total compensation at more than $5.3 million annually before additional bonuses — $400,000 if his team won the BCS National Title, $100,000 if it had a graduation rate in the top twenty five per cent of all SEC football teams.  The deal also included country club membership, personal use of a 15 seat skybox during games, and 25 hours of annual flight time in a private plane for personal travel , according to the University of Alabama.

Most recently, in December of 2013, Saban reworked his deal again.  The new contract, which will pay Saban $6.9 million per year — $6.5 million in base salary with a $400,000 annual “completion bonus” — was unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees, the school announced in a press conference on June 3.

Saban’s new annual salary is nearly 60 times more than what Alabama Governor Robert Bentley would make per year if he chose to take his salary ($120,935.80), which he does not.  Bentley did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.  Saban’s salary is also approximately 13 times more than what University of Alabama President Dr. Judy Bonner — who declined comment for this story by email —  is paid ($535,000).

“Nick Saban is the best financial investment this university has ever made,” Dr. Robert Witt, the University of Alabama System Chancellor, said in an email statement.  “We have made an investment that has been returned many fold.”

Witt was the president of the University at the time of Saban’s initial hiring in 2007.  A lot has changed since then.  In 2006, the year before Saban’s arrival, the Alabama athletic department spent $60.6 million on all of its programs, according to Alabama’s financial reports compiled annually by the US Department of Education.  In the most recent fiscal year, 2013, that number has risen to $122.2 million, including debt service.  The athletic department revenue has increased at an even higher rate, rising from $67.7 million in 2006 to $143.4 million in 2013.

The 2013 revenue came in part from record-highs in ticket sales ($38.9 million), donor contributions ($34.2 million) and NCAA/SEC payouts ($23.9 million). The football team accounted for 93 percent of the athletic department’s ticket revenue and 55 percent of its contribution dollars, according to

With $88.7 million in revenue and $41.6 million in expenses, Saban’s football program accounted for nearly 62 per cent of the total athletic department income, and 38 per cent of its expenditures, in 2013.

Because of this profit, the athletic department was able to transfer $5.9 million to the university in 2013 for initiatives outside of athletics, according to  Current Alabama Athletic Director Bill Battle did not respond to multiple attempts for comment on the details of this transfer, among other topics.

With $47 million in profit in 2013 and an estimated team value of $110 million, Alabama’s football program ranks behind both Texas and Notre Dame in profitability, according to

Calvin Brown, Director of Alabama Alumni Affairs, as well as others in the Alabama administration, pointed not only to the increased profit margins the athletic department has generated since 2007, but also to peripheral benefits that Saban has provided to the school, to justify his salary.

“I really do believe that he’s had a very, very positive impact on enrollment and just on the overall image of the university,” Brown said in a phone interview.

Brown noted that the school has added $1.7 billion in infrastructure in the last 10 years, and also pointed to the growth of Alabama’s student population since Saban first came to Tuscaloosa.  In 2007, Alabama had 21,082 undergraduates, according to the Alabama Admissions Office.  By 2013, that number was 29,443 students, including an incoming freshman class made up of 57.6 per cent out-of-state students who pay a higher tuition rate than in-state students.  That out-of-state number was an all-time high for the school.

Although Brown acknowledged that this increase in enrollment had been planned by the UA administration well in advance of Saban’s arrival, he believes the football coach deserves much of the credit.

“Many times athletics provide the window through which people first see the university,” Brown said.  “I think again, his success, the way he’s run that [football] program, people that may not have had any familiarity with the University of Alabama, got their first glimpse into the university through that program.”

Lars Anderson, an adjunct professor at Alabama and a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated, sees Saban’s impact on the rising student population similarly.

“You certainly can’t attribute all of that [growth] to Saban, but you can attribute a big part of it,” Anderson said.  “He is the number one marketing tool for that school. The culture of college football in this state is unlike anywhere else in the country, the passion is so deep for it.”

Rodney Fort, a sports economist and professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, agreed that there could be an “advertising affect” for universities that is related to having a successful sports program.

“We’ve been able to detect that you do witness a larger number of applications [after increased athletic success],” Fort said over the phone. “And that does two things…One is they can raise tuition, the other is that when the number of applicants go up that means…the quality of applications also increases.”

The average ACT score of the 6,478 students admitted in 2013 was 25.8, an all-time high at the university, according to the Alabama Admissions website.The school also ranks first among public universities nationwide in the number of National Merit Scholars enrolled, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corp.’s 2011-12 report.

“However, there’s no way you can hire a football coach and then turn around and say, ‘Oh I think we better increase enrollment 40 per cent in seven years,’” Fort continued.  “Clearly it was a decision process that was in operation long before Saban arrived.”

Norvin Richards, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Alabama, says he can see two different perspectives in regards to the school’s football program, not its academics, generating the increase in student interest.

“It’s a hard sell to go out and convince people in other parts of the country that [the University of Alabama] is where you should go, that this is a good place academically,” Richards said.  “So, one side of coin is to ride the ‘football horse’ to get the money, to help you attract academic talent, as you have nothing else that will generate that kind of money.”

“The other perspective would be to say, ‘But it’s corrupt…It’s not what universities ought to be doing,’” Richards said.  “‘Universities ought to be academic places, and football and [other] sports are extra curricular activities.’

“The trouble is that if you do take that perspective, I think you don’t have the revenue to pursue really good students and really good faculty. You’re sort of consigning yourself to less success.”

As a result of the benefits that Saban has provided the university, many at the school said that they believe his salary is simply the result of a free market.

“There’s a lot of different market pressures that seem to be at play,” Dr. Andrew Billings, Director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication, said.  “I’m sure if some NFL team wanted to get coach Saban they could offer even more money… So in that way, you can say he’s underpaid, at least to what the market is.”

Brown agreed: “I really believe it’s the free market at work. He’s making what the market will bear.”

Two sports economists had a different take.

“Those [college coaching] salaries, to some degree, are artificially inflated to the extent that the players are not paid,” said Robert Brown, a professor of sports economics at California State University San Marcos.  Brown maintains that a premier athlete at a top program— such as an A.J. McCarron at Alabama — can, on his own, generate $2 million annually for an athletic department.

Leo Kahane, co-founder of the Journal of Sports Economics, agreed.

“It has the elements of a classic, very effective cartel,” Kahane said. “The revenues that are generated by that cartel accrue to a very select group: coaches, athletic directors, the institutions themselves. Left out of that equation are the players.”

In 2013, the university spent $9 million renovating its football facility.  The new space is equipped with an arcade room, pool tables, two 30 foot-long hot tubs, six TVs in the locker room, a weight room with floor-to-ceiling windows, and several “position-specific” meeting rooms.

“The thing that bothers me in college sports, is the kind of hypocrisy between what college sports has become, a big time enterprise in the country, and where it is happening—at institutions of higher education,” Kahane said.  “For many, it would be inconsistent with the mission statements of these universities.”

/2014/06/09/shatterproof/feed/ 0
The High Cost of Keeping Up /2014/06/08/the-high-cost-of-keeping-up/ /2014/06/08/the-high-cost-of-keeping-up/#respond Sun, 08 Jun 2014 21:56:11 +0000 /?p=1930 By Julie Schwarz

James Franklin, a football coach, will be, by far, the highest-paid public employee in Pennsylvania.  Penn State said its new head football coach would be paid $4.5 million per year for the next six years.  Franklin will easily earn more money than the university’s new president Eric Barron and Governor Tom Corbett combined.  Barron, the university said, will earn $800,000 per year with added bonuses totaling up to $1 million.  Corbett was the highest paid United States governor in 2013 with an annual salary of $187,256 according to a survey conducted by the Council of State Governments.

With Franklin’s salary, Penn State is trying to remain competitive in an oversaturated, overpriced college football market, the economics of which are largely dictated by television contracts.  “It’s supply and demand,” former Penn State football player Bob White said in a phone interview.  “The market itself is dictating it.” (All interviews for this story were conducted by telephone).

For years Penn State’s football program, when Joe Paterno was running it, was one of the most lucrative revenue producers in the country and the program was a model for other Division I schools.  According to the annual financial report Penn State submitted to the NCAA, the football team generated $52.8 million in revenue in 2012-2013 down $17.4 million from $70.2 million before the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal hit the school.

On the expense side, the football program cost $18.8 million, a figure that included continued payments for the sanctions the NCAA imposed on the school following the Sandusky case in 2011.  The school is expected to pay $60 million in fines over the course of five years.  The total of all teams’ expenses in 2012-2013 was $110.7 million.  Penn State athletics’ expenses exceeded its revenues by $5.99 million.  In a year that the athletics programs lost money, the school still chose to spend $4.5 million annually on a new head football coach. Franklin came from Vanderbilt University where four of his players were accused of rape in 2013, though Nashville Deputy District Attorney Tom Thurman said in May 2014 that Franklin had nothing to do with an alleged cover-up in the case.

Michelle Rodino-Colocino, an associate professor of media studies and women’s studies at Penn State, started a petition against Franklin’s potential hiring.  Like hundreds of other faculty members, she expressed concern over the allegations involving Franklin.  Rodino-Colocino also wanted a stronger emphasis on academics.  “This system is really top-heavy right now and not serving students.  There’s a lot of talk about Penn State being student- centered, but I just don’t see that,” she said.  “I think we’re failing our students right now.  I see signs of a very wealthy university that has millions of dollars to spend on coaches and administration, and I think that there needs to be a more fair distribution of resources so students can really take advantage of learning.”

Allen Sack, the president of the Drake Group, an organization whose mission it is to “defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports,” is adamantly opposed to the high pay of college football coaches across the board.  “It points to an incredible inconsistency and incongruity,” he said referring to Franklin’s hiring.  “Here you have a coach who should be an educator in a non-for-profit organization who insists on being paid as if he’s in the NFL.”  The current average salary of an NFL head coach is $4.6 million, essentially on par with what Franklin will be paid.  Sean Payton, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, topped the NFL’s 2013 list of highest coaching salaries at $8 million per year, according to a study conducted by Forbes.

Sack said college athletics is at a critical point. “The nation has forgotten what universities are here for – we are educational institutions, we’re not here to train and make professional athletes.  We’re here to make well educated citizens,” he said.  “The payment of the coaches has suggested that the public has lost its mind.”

Wally Richardson, a former Penn State quarterback between 1992 and 1996, who is the current director of the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club, understands the current culture of college football and academics does not quite make sense.  “Things are kind of out of whack because the academic component is probably not where it should be,” he said.

Franklin’s salary is competitive with other coaches in the Big Ten as well as the SEC, Big 12 and ACC.  According to a USAToday study of college football coaches’ salaries for 2013, Ohio State’s head coach Urban Meyer earned $4.6 million; he was the highest paid coach in the Big Ten, and now Franklin is second.

After years of competing as an independent, Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990 (and began competing in the conference in 1993).  This move changed the economic dynamics of an institution whose football program had been sold on Paterno’s “Grand Experiment,” the so-called perfect marriage of academics and football.  Beaver Stadium, home to the Nittany Lions, seats 106,572 and is the second largest football stadium in the country, slightly smaller than Michigan’s Big House at 109,901 seats.  It is evident that the football program is hugely important to Penn State and its economics.  But when is enough money just simply enough?

John U. Bacon, author of the book Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, has doubts about the direction of college football and Penn State’s program in particular.  “This [college football] thing is about to blow, it’s gotten to be too much,” Bacon said.  “What makes Penn State special is what makes it unique, it’s different than other schools.  It’s becoming more and more like other schools, and less and less like Penn State.  And that, I think, is a danger.”

Some Penn State faculty members are questioning where and how the university’s money is spent.  Matthew Jordan, an Associate Professor of Media Studies and one of the main subjects of the upcoming documentary Happy Valley, is irked by Franklin’s high salary.  “I would have liked to see us get something slightly cheaper,” he said“The faculty haven’t gotten many raises around here.  We basically have had an average 2.5 percent raise per year for the last ten years.”  Jordan noted that Corbett cut the school’s budget by twenty percent in the last three years which, he explained, meant each college was forced to “cut whatever fat was left” which wasn’t much.  “So to see the salary of the football coach grow exponentially, it does breed a certain degree of skepticism if not resentment among the faculty,” Jordan said.

A.E . Luloff, a professor of rural sociology at Penn State, agreed. “Our coaches probably shouldn’t be making as much as they do,” he said.  “We [professors] don’t get paid very well here as a whole.  We were way behind the Big Ten and way, way behind the national averages.”  According to the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for a Penn State faculty member was $94,500 for 2012-2013.  Penn State ranked second lowest in the Big Ten next to Nebraska at $89,100.  Northwestern, the only private university in the Big Ten, had the highest average salary of $142,000.

Lou Prato, a Penn State football historian and author of The Penn State Football Encyclopedia among other books, has seen the football culture at his alma mater change over the years.  “We got an avalanche coming and you don’t how to get out of the way,” he said of how college sports economics have spun out of control.  “It’s entertainment; sports is now part of the entertainment culture.”

Prato understands how times have changed for the Penn State football program, and how key decisions have altered its course.  “I think Joe Paterno would be [amazed] with all these salaries.  I think [Paterno] made $25,000 his first year.  There was no contract, it was a handshake, and he was underpaid for years.”  Ron Musselman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about Paterno’s conversation regarding salary with then-Athletic Director Ernie McCoy.  The agreed upon salary was actually $20,000 for Paterno’s first year.  Paterno earned a salary of $1,022,794 in his final year as head coach in 2011 according to the tax report released by the university.  He was 64th on the list of highest paid university coaches in the nation for that year.

For decades, Paterno was the face not only of the football program but also of the university.  Richardson said, “Joe was really the guiding light of this university for the past 50 years.”

Paterno began as an assistant football coach at Penn State in 1950, and received the head coaching position in 1966.  Under Paterno’s guidance, the Nittany Lions won national championships in 1982 and 1986.  White, a defensive tackle on both winning teams, called those experiences “overwhelming – just the ultimate in what you’re trying to achieve.”

Running back Franco Harris, one of Penn State’s star players and a four-time Super bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers, remembered Paterno’s many contributions to the university.  “Joe was a big part of not only taking the football program to a higher standard, but taking Penn State as a whole to a higher standard,” Harris said.  “Joe is probably the only coach to take a whole university and to make it believe that it can be better than it ever was.”

Harris was a freshman at Penn State in 1968, just two years after Paterno assumed the head coaching position.  He remembered Paterno as demanding both on and off the field.  “Our freshman year it was mandatory to go to the library every night to study,” Harris said.  “His ‘grand experiment’ was success with honor – the emphasis being not everybody’s going to play pro football and you’re here to get an education.  Joe really made a commitment to a lot of parents.  He told a lot of parents, ‘your son’s going to graduate.’”

Bruce Clark, a Penn State defensive tackle between 1976 and 1979, was another of the players who did continue his football career – after he completed his degree.  “I came to Penn State to get the education that Joe promised me.  I got the education that I wanted.  I got my degree and then I got drafted,” he said.

“Joe,” as former players and other supporters called him, lived up to his word on academics.  Penn State’s graduation rate for all undergraduates, and especially those in the football program, has been near the top of the rankings for years.  Graduation rates remain high today.  Penn State’s overall graduation rate for the 2012-2013 academic year was 86 percent according to the United States Department of Education.  For all student-athletes, the graduation rate was 88 percent, and the football team specifically was 85 percent, second in the Big Ten only to Northwestern’s 97 percent according to data released by the NCAA.

Paterno was the face of Penn State until 2011 when the Sandusky scandal rocked the university.  The NCAA doled out what many students, fans and media members believed to be radical and harsh penalties against the football program, including the $60 million fine, an annual reduction of 10 football scholarships (some of which have been restored), and a bowl game ban for four years. Paterno and school president Graham Spanier were fired.  Athletic Director Tim Curley was placed on administrative leave following the scandal and his contract was not renewed.

Following the Sandusky scandal and Paterno’s firing, the football program was in dire need of positive publicity.  Bill O’Brien, the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots at the time, joined Penn State as its new head coach in 2012 for an initial salary of $950,000 per yearHis contract for his second season at Penn State totaled $3.2 million annually before he decided to become the head coach of the Houston Texans, creating the opening for Franklin.

O’Brien was being paid quite handsomely, but Franklin’s pay is on a whole different level.  Michael Berube, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities and a member of the faculty senate at Penn State, said, “I think everyone knew whoever the next coach coming in was would be vastly more expensive.  The days of the throwback that Paterno was – those days are gone.”   But Berube understands the importance of the program to the institution.  “Football determines the amount of oxygen in the air around here,” he said.

Kay Salvino, president of the Penn State Alumni Association, understood Franklin’s high price tag.  “In today’s market,” she said, “if you want to have a good football program, you need to pay a worthy price.”

Penn State is trying to remain competitive and put the Sandusky scandal behind it.  But hiring Franklin and Barron seems strange to some some critics because Florida State and Vanderbilt have recently had sex scandals that have tainted their football teams.  Penn State’s president’s office and athletic department declined to comment about the hirings and select board of trustee members did not return interview requests for this article.

Jordan understands Franklin’s appeal, but said the focus should be more on academics and less on football.  “Franklin does seem to be a tremendous public persona,” Jordan said,  “Maybe that’s why they picked him – because he realized that his job was to be the public face of the university.  Now, I wish our scientists would be the public face of the university, I wish some of the people that have more to do with the mission of the university should be the public face of the university, but I think in this contemporary university culture in the United States right now we are defined by our sports teams.”

/2014/06/08/the-high-cost-of-keeping-up/feed/ 0