Monday, April 14, 2014

One Whining Moment

By Corrie Trouw

After finishing an impressive run through the NCAA tournament, Connecticut's Shabazz Napier grabbed even more attention by using his moment in the sun to take a few final shots at the NCAA.

Named as the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Napier used his brief on-court interview with Jim Nantz to say, "...This is what happens when you ban us," referring to UConn's 2013 postseason ban for failing NCAA academic standards. Later in his open press conference, when asked about feeling like an employee or a student-athlete, Napier said he thought players should be paid a modest amount because, "...there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I'm starving."

Napier's barbs, separated just a few weeks from the progression of the Northwestern unionization push, emboldened many anti-NCAA-ists. But tempting as it may be to embrace any digs at college sports' antiquated system, we have to be discerning in which shovelers we back.

Napier's comment about going to bed hungry may illustrate the great hypocrisy of college sports, but it is hardly the smoking gun in the hand of a broken system many would like it to be. College is a time of relative poverty for many students, regardless of athletic participation.* Yes, NCAA rules like those restricting athlete employment probably complicate Napier's cash flow, and yes, eyes should roll when schools can sell a player's replica jersey but he cannot be paid for his own likeness, but I think the direct line from those rules to not having enough money for food makes some grand and flawed leaps.

(*There's an enormous discussion about students' reliance on debt to get through school and the decreasing value of college overall you might inject here, but I don't think Napier was invoking it.)

Can we do better? Of course. But the superficial (and TV-friendly) argument Jon Stewart and others have crafted has more holes than the Swiss cheese they would have you believe the NCAA is taking out of Napier's fridge.

However, at least in that jab Napier touched on a plausible, if not well-developed, argument. But when he proudly boasted to Nantz that somehow UConn's 2013 postseason ban motivated the Huskies, he exposed an age-understandable immaturity. Again, I'm willing to have a discussion not only about the machinations of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate (APR), a score by which college teams are rated in their progress toward graduation, but also the silliness and relevance of even trying to standardize academic progress in the first place. But right or wrong, these are the current rules NCAA teams are bound to. Napier's post-championship griping struck me as impulsive, frustration-born, and the kind of thing I also might have said in a fiery moment when I was 22.

And that's where I substitute Napier's accountability for those who have used his comments as some sort of field evidence of the NCAA's failings. I can sympathize with a young man attacking a crumbling, cruel monolith in a moment of passion and bravado. But I expect more out of supposed thought leaders and agenda setters, even if I share their cynicism for the NCAA.

There's a reason even the most vile, guilty criminals get a fair trial in our society. By presenting evidence and coolly reasoned cases, we leave no question as to the justification of punishment. I believe the NCAA will eventually be forced into concessions as the public becomes increasingly aware of and outraged by its outdated framework. But this has to be achieved through real discussion, like that around Northwestern's football players, rather than heated insults that demonstrate circumstantial guilt at best. The false dichotomy that any shots fired at the NCAA are good ones only confuses that discussion.

Look, I'm excited for the bubbling prospect of sweeping college sports reform that seems intractably inevitable. But if those that share this excitement want to do so from the perceived logical and moral high ground, we have to be selective in picking our examples.

Give Shabazz Napier credit: he cleverly used a high-profile platform and a swelling progressive wave to gussy up his grievances against the NCAA. But if justice is the goal, even deserving targets like the NCAA have to be spared stray slings and arrows.

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