Story and Photos By Ken Krayeske • 3:05 AM EST
University of Connecticut running back Donald Brown straight arms a hapless University at Buffalo defender Saturday afternoon, January 3, 2009 at the International Bowl in Toronto's indoor football stadium, fka the SkyDome. Brown ran for some superlative 261 yards, and with that total, he joins an elite club of college running backs with 2,000 yards for their career. He did it in three years, and announced that he is foregoing his senior year to enter the NFL draft.
Is NCAA Division I football a minor league for the NFL? The collegiate career of UConn running back Donald Brown answers that question affirmatively.
Brown led the nation in rushing this year, and capped his All-America 2,000-plus yard season by plowing the University at Buffalo defense for a career best 261 yards Saturday, January 3, 2009 in the International Bowl in Toronto.
More than 40,000 flocked to Toronto to pay to see Brown rack up more than 260 yards rushing. ESPN2 broadcast the game live, showing cable TV and sports land that Brown was now one of college's all-time great rushers. The press breathlessly reported on his decision to go pro.
The AP played it cutesy:
"OK, tell them, bud," Coach Randy Edsall said, slapping Brown on the back at the postgame interview table.
"I'm not coming back," Brown said. "I'm going to pursue the NFL."
He then apologized for saying three weeks ago that he planned to return to Connecticut for his senior season.
The nation's leading rusher said he made the commitment to return to stop speculation and negate a potential distraction for his team heading into the game.
The AP skirts the larger issue - instead of calling a fib a fib, the AP pawns Brown's school-sanctioned, coach-condoned dishonesty as taking one for the team. If he said he was going pro, we wouldn't win, therefore, it is okay for him to tell a white lie. What of the academic integrity of the school?
Perhaps our society has become a touch too accustomed to obfuscating, and justifying those half-truths to maintain order and self-interest. Before the bowl game, no matter its outcome, Brown decided he was going pro. Does Brown's mindset - his intent - cast into doubt his status as an amatuer?
Maintaining amateur status is a big deal. Shutters whir when a star high school player signs a commitment letter for a four-year scholarship offer from a big-time school. The amateur contract comes fully loaded with the NCAA's baggage: other than the academic fee waivers, players merit no payment, not even a hamburger from a coach.
Brown, though, determined that his stellar achievement opened the door for a better remuneration deal from the NFL. He utilized the bowl game as a final advertisement to NFL teams interested in purchasing his services in the NFL Draft.
I would've liked to have asked Brown about his story, which is ethically tame compared to some of the more egregious corruption we've seen in college football over the past few decades.
The International Bowl fully credentialed a two-person video team from the 40-Year Plan.com. Armed with a camera, a question, and field passes for the floor of the stadium formerly known as the SkyDome as fully credentialed press, we were ready to interview away.
After the game, we took our interrogatory to the first player we could grab - UConn cornerback Jasper Howard. Howard had an eventful afternoon, fumbling a kick return or two, but playing solid defense. Did he think this game was professional entertainment?
Howard said he felt like he was a professional, with the atmosphere of all the fans and media and attention. Then Mike Enright, the football representative at UConn's Sports Information Office, told us no interviews were allowed on the field after the game. I said we had press passes. Enright said he didn't give a shit. See the video of this interaction here.
My videographer dutifully turned off the camera, knowing it wasn't fit for family entertainment. Soon enough, we will post a fuller report on this topic from the International Bowl. But when Enright cursed at me, I, dumbfounded, repeated his assertion: "You don't give a shit, Mike?"
Yes, he said, I don't give a shit. I suppose that being in Canada, claiming the First Amendment as protection wouldn't help much. So I pointed out that Donald Brown interviewed with a network television camera crew right behind us, in the chaos that was UConn's midfield victory celebration.
Mr. Enright told us that UConn does things for certain people. How does a media outlet get to be one of those certain people?
I would like to be one of those people who can conduct an interview without being bothered. I managed to converse with Jeffrey Hathaway, UConn's atheltic director during halftime in the press room. Am I a "certain people" fit for favors because I can can carry on a civilized repartee with a big kahuna like Hathaway?
Hathaway and I merely continued the conversation from our previous interaction at UConn law a few weeks back: when poor graduation rates strip away the fig leaf of scholarship as remuneration for the collegiate athlete, how are we to make sure that these young people are adequately compensated for their labors (sometimes hazardous)?
This question weighs so heavily because big-time collegiate football and basketball is a billion dollar industry, and the main drivers of it - the kids - sometimes receives diplomas, never a dime, though.
Hathaway suggested that the NCAA's attempt at academic reform, the Academic Progress Report needed time to work as a tool to increase student achievement in the classroom. The NCAA has trumpeted the successes of its incipient program.
"The NCAA’s Academic Performance Program (APP) is creating positive behavioral change among Division I institutions, according to new four-year data released May 6," reads a 2008 press release.
Instituted only in 2005, the APR penalizes, but doesn't punish teams that can't maintain a 925 on the NCAA's 1,000-point student-athlete academic eligibility/retention scale. Rather than simply call it a graduation rate, the NCAA settled on a cumbersome data presentation which muddles statistics. From Wikipedia:
The APR is calculated by allocating points for eligibility and retention -- the two factors that research identifies as the best indicators of graduation. Each player on a given roster earns a maximum of two points per term, one for being academically eligible and one for staying with the institution. A team's APR is the total points of a team's roster at a given time divided by the total points possible. Since this results in a decimal number, the CAP decided to multiply it by 1,000 for ease of reference. Thus, a raw APR score of .925 translates into the 925 that will become the standard terminology.
UConn football under coach Randy Edsall enjoys a graduation rate of at least 70 percent, worthy of breathless press releases. In the APR, UConn football scores a 950.
On the accompanying percentile scale, which rates 100 percent as the best, UConn football ranks in the 70th to 80th percentile - among the better Division I football schools. Compared to all sports across the NCAA, UConn football's academic eligibility/retention rate is in the 30th to 40th percentile.
UConn coach Randy Edsall - one of the three highest paid state employees in Connecticut.
It's hard for Edsall to compete with the perfect scores of 1,000 of the rowing and tennis and golf teams. Download UConn's APR here.
And while only one in a million golfers might leave the college early to go pro, dozens of football players will. Yet the NCAA does not penalize teams in this rubric for players who leave early for non-academic reasons, like, say, for when Donald Brown goes pro.
And that is the heart of the argument here: should big time college football and basketball players be paid because calling them all student athletes sullies the concept of student? A suitable payment package doesn't mean millions of dollars and perks.
Getting paid might simply mean setting aside a trust fund for living expenses for players who don't make the NFL draft after their playing days are over. This was, players can so they can finish their education without the distraction of football. Getting paid might simply mean giving athletes travel stipends so they can go home during the holidays.
Critics will say this is a slippery slope - if we do that, we'll eventually have to pay students in band for their service and art students and English students, too. Sure. We should pay young people to get an education. I have often talked about free college tuition, but why not pay kids to get an education.
Right now, college is unaffordable for the average American. Our young people are less educated than our old people - surely a recipe for destruction of this Republic. Let's get more kids in college, and let's pay them to learn - call it an investment in the future.
I wasn't that radical with UConn Athletic Director Hathaway. I didn't even ask him what his salary as atheltic director was, and how much of it he attributed to the money generated by the labors of hundreds of student athletes and thousands of boosters.
Hathaway said I made a confusing argument in our seven minutes of banter. So for the sake of debate, let me be as crystalline as possible: UConn Athletics and all other major Division I football and basketball programs use the same business model to markets themselves as the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys or any other professional sports franchise.
Billboards on the side of Interstate 91 advertised the International Bowl. UConn sells the broadcast rights for its marquee sports teams. UConn strikes lucrative deals with business sponsors to support these athletic ventures.
UConn's exclusive deal with Nike even specifies that UConn must use brand footballs on offense. The only pictures you will see of a UConn player carrying an non-contract brand football is on a turnover or special teams. Maybe that explains UConn's four turnovers on special teams in the first half.
Athletic equipment manufacturers like Nike receive valuable consideration - brand imaging and credibility - when the media publishes images of winning college athletes wearing the inescapable swoosh.
The difference between UConn quarterback Tyler Lorenzen throwing a Nike football and kick returner Jasper Howard running with a Wilson football is clear, and so meaningful in today's world of ground invasions and undereducated nations.
UConn Quarterback Tyler Lorenzen runs a Nike ball in for a touchdown, while kick returner Jasper Howard runs a Wilson ball back on a kick return.
Or is it? If we are going to treat these students athletes as human capital, as walking billboards for Nike, as fodder for ticket sales, as personalities for fans to latch onto, as a feeder system for the massively lucrative professional sports leagues like the NFL and the NBA, why don't we pay them like human resources?