Feinstein: The NCAA Is A "Propaganda Machine"

College presidents are the ones pushing the "student-athlete" myth, John Feinstein says; Mark Emmert is simply the public mouthpiece

John Feinstein
November 06, 2019 - 9:28 am
Mark Emmert NCAA

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Anyone who has followed me at all through the years knows that I greatly enjoy writing stories that most—if not all—of my colleagues are paying no attention to at all.

It’s why I wrote a book on the Army-Navy football rivalry; a book on Patriot League basketball and a book on PGA Tour qualifying school. It is also why my next book, which will be published in March is called, “The Back Roads to March,” because it focuses on players, coaches and teams you will NEVER hear Dick Vitale or any of the other TV talking (or screaming) heads rattling on about.

Last March, on the day of the ACC championship game between Duke and Florida State in Charlotte, I was in Norfolk for the MEAC Championship game that DID involve a school from Durham—North Carolina Central—taking on Norfolk State.

I had a great time.

Which is why, when I looked through this week’s college football schedule, understanding that about 90 percent of the country would be frothing at the mouth over this fall’s Game of the Century—LSU-Alabama—and the rest would probably be jumping up and down about Penn State-Minnesota, I decided to write my weekly Washington Post column about another game that involved two unbeaten teams: Dartmouth and Princeton.

Both are 7-0. Dartmouth is on a nine-game winning streak, dating to last year’s 14-9 loss at Princeton, that decided the Ivy title. The Tigers finished 10-0; the Big Green 9-1. Princeton has won 17 in a row, dating to the 2017 finale when it lost to—you guessed it—Dartmouth. Both coaches are alums: Buddy Teevens, Dartmouth class of ’79; Bob Surace, Princeton class of ’90.

There was also one more intriguing twist: the game is being played at Yankee Stadium. This is as close to a legitimate celebration of the 150th anniversary of college football as anyone is going to get. That first game—November 6, 1869—involved Princeton traveling to Rutgers and the Scarlet Knights (not that they had a nickname back then) beating the Tigers (same thing) six goals to four.

Princeton and Rutgers tried to negotiate a deal to play this Saturday, but the Rutgers people, after initially trying to low-ball Princeton, bailed out even after the Yankee Stadium people got involved, proposing the game be played there. The Rutgers athletic department is such a mess I doubt if it could successfully negotiate a deal to give away ice cream at an elementary school.

Yankee Stadium still wanted Princeton to play a game, so Surace—a lifelong Yankee fan—called Teevens—a lifelong Red Sox fan—and proposed they come and play. “Negotiation took about two minutes,” Teevens said to me this week. “I’m a believer in new experiences. This will be a new experience for all of us. Never crossed my mind to say no.”

It also never crossed his mind to worry about giving up a home game or trying to get Surace to come to Dartmouth next year rather than go back to Princeton without Dartmouth getting a turn at home. You think Nick Saban would give up a crucial home game and get nothing in return so his players could have a new experience?

That, however, is not my point today.

While talking to Teevens and Surace, I asked them if they thought they would live to see the day when Ivy League football teams would be allowed by the league’s all-knowing presidents to take part in the FCS playoffs. Athletes from every other Ivy League sport take part in postseason. Only football players don’t get that chance.

Both laughed when I brought it up.

“Probably not in my lifetime,” said Teevens, who is 63.

“One can only hope that maybe someday,” said Surace, who is only 51.
            
Every player and every coach in the Ivy League would like the chance to test themselves in postseason. Right now, Princeton and Dartmouth are ranked 9th and 13th in the FCS coaches poll. Since 24 teams make the tournament, the chances are decent that both schools would be invited if allowed to go.
            
“You know most years, we’d probably be a one-bid league,” Surace said. “Last year, though, we would have gone and I’m pretty certain Dartmouth would have gone at 9-1. That would have been a really nice thing for those kids to have another chance after barely losing to us.”
            
It certainly would have. The Ivy League presidents continue to insist that they worry about their “student-athletes” being asked to play more than 10 games. Oh please. To begin with, football players miss less class than any other varsity team. At most, they will miss five Fridays during the regular season. Adding another game or two or even three games for one or—occasionally—two teams, would hardly change the players lives as students.

Sure, you can use CTE as an excuse, but if that’s such a concern, then the schools should give up football. And, the Ivy kids were denied the chance to compete long before anyone had ever heard of CTE.
            
This is about the massive egos of college presidents. Every one of them is always the smartest guy—regardless of gender—in the room. Just ask them.
            
Teevens isn’t about to call out his president or any of the other seven in the Ivy League, but he did say, “Logic and reason aren’t always part of the package with very smart people.”
            
That’s true. But this is more about arrogance: we’re doing it this way because we say we’re doing it this way. What about doing what the athletes want and what is best for them as competitors? Oh, we’re protecting them.
            
Bologne. Garbage. Horsefeathers. To put it politely.
            
But this attitude fits right in with exactly what the NCAA is and what most presidents are when you cut through their rhetorical jargon.
            
Did you read the NCAA’s grand announcement last week on Names, Image and Likeness—a response to California’s recently passed, “Fair pay to play,” law?
            
According to the NCAA Board of Governors, this is an issue they’ve been working on for a while. (Uh-huh, sure they have). Now, they WANT players to be able to earn money from outside sources; but we DO have a few caveats that must be followed—the funniest one being that there must still be a line drawn between a college athlete and a professional athlete.
            
How exactly do you do that if someone is getting paid?
            
What the NCAA wants is for California and other states proposing similar laws and—more important, Congress—to just leave them alone. “We’ve got this,” is the message they’re now pedaling.
            
Remember that while the California law was being considered, NCAA President Mark Emmert was making not-so-veiled threats about declaring players from California ineligible if the law was passed. After Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law—effective in 2023—Emmert and various conference commissioners and administrators began running around screaming, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

Fortunately, almost no one was listening. Now, the NCAA is trying to claim that it has really wanted to see players make money off their names, images and likenesses all along. That’s what last week’s announcement was about. Leave us alone, we’ll get this done.
            
Sure they will.
            
Let’s be clear on Emmert: he’s doing exactly what his fellow presidents are paying him about $2 million a year to do: be the public mouthpiece for their ridiculous assertions about “student-athletes” and amateurism and the notion that while THEY make millions; the schools make millions (tax free) and coaches make millions, the players who make them all those millions should be happy to receive tuition and fees.
            
And PLEASE don’t recycle the old, “they’re getting a free education” argument. The biggest stars in college football and basketball are in college to do two things: bide their time until the rules say they can turn pro AND train to be pros.
           
There’s nothing wrong with that. By my junior year in college, I was training to become a newspaper reporter. My major was history and I enjoyed it, but none of those classes put me any closer to where I was trying to go. The only difference between me and my classmate Tate Armstrong—who played on Dean Smith’s 1976 Olympic team and then in the NBA for five years before an injury cut his career short—is that Tate MADE Duke money. As a swimmer, I COST Duke money.
            
I still remember then-basketball coach Bill Foster doing TV commercials for a Japanese restaurant called the Kan-Ki. Why the heck couldn’t Tate have done those commercials?
            
The NCAA is nothing more than a self-glorifying propaganda machine. Emmert’s the front man, but it is the PRESIDENTS who push the completely hypocritical “student-athlete” myth. I pointed out to Emmert several years ago that a smart, educated man like him should understand that “student-athlete” is redundant. By RULE, you must be a student to compete as a college athlete. It’s like calling someone a “man-person.” He laughed and said, “Okay then, how about ‘college athlete?’”
            
I’m fine with that, although player is just fine. Dean Smith, one of the best men to ever coach at the college level, NEVER once used the phrase, “student-athlete.” Neither does Mike Krzyzewski. I was in a meeting once with the NCAA basketball committee and one of the PR-types kept saying “student-athlete” over and over. Finally, I said, “Mark, can’t we just call them players?”
           
He huffed and puffed and said, “I was proud to be called a student-athlete when I was in college.”
            
I said, “I was fine with being called a swimmer.”
            
It is all part of the non-stop campaign to fool people into believing there’s an ounce of purity left in the big-time game—football or basketball. It is also part of the NCAA’s incredibly dishonest campaign to get people to believe that the world will come to an end if athletes start doing commercials for restaurants or car-dealerships.
            
Now, they’re changing their spin: they want the athletes to get paid, just under THEIR rules; under THEIR control.
            
There’s one word that describes what they are full of—but I won’t use it here. This is a family website.
 
John Feinstein’s most recent book is “Benchwarmers,” the story of an 11-year-old girl who wants to play on the boys sixth-grade soccer team, but in spite of being one of the best players, is denied the chance to play by a misogynist coach. His book, “The Prodigy,” the story of a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters, is now out in paperback. His latest non-fiction work, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,” is also just out in paperback. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com

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