Wrestling is perhaps the loneliest and most individual of athletic pursuits. It's about the work ethic, sacrifice and mental and physical toughness. It's about pushing through walls and sweating off pounds. It's miserably wonderful. And success and failure rides all on one guy.
Which is why, even by the big-money standards of college athletic administration compensation, this item Tuesday, first reported by the Associated Press, stood out: When Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber won the 141-pound wrestling NCAA championship last week, he triggered a bonus in the contract of Gene Smith, the Buckeyes' athletic director.
For Stieber's triumph, Smith, whose base pay is nearly $940,484, picked up an additional week of compensation – about $18,000. Smith gets that anytime an Ohio State athlete wins an individual national title in cross country, track, wrestling, swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, fencing, golf, gymnastics, tennis or rifle and pistol, according to his current seven-year contract obtained by Yahoo Sports.
He also gets six weeks base salary if the football or men's basketball team wins a national title. Final Fours and playoff appearances are worth four weeks. Same with Big Ten team titles. That's just some of the bonuses.
In all, Gene Smith can make about $1.5 million per year.
None of this is unusual. Smith's wrestling bonus put him in the crosshairs Tuesday, but the singular spotlight is unfair. His deal is but par for the business.
Other ADs sometimes have even better deals. Arizona State AD Ray Anderson gets one week pay for any individual top-five finish and two weeks for a champion. Oregon's Rob Mullens gets $50,000 if the Ducks football team makes even the lowliest of bowl games, requiring just a 6-6 record, which would be a disaster of a season. Arkansas' Jeff Long can pick up $150,000 for clearing just four of seven painfully easy bars, i.e. one demands he engage in the nebulous "good citizenship."
The market for athletic directors determines what an individual can negotiate with his employer. These are all encompassing jobs requiring a specific skill set and experience. Ohio State's nine-figure athletic department budget and expectations for success make it a particularly demanding job.
So more power to Smith and the others for getting what they can get. That's America.
Except, of course, college athletics operates in a rather un-American fashion: The bonus for Logan Stieber, redshirt junior from little Monroeville, Ohio, for winning that NCAA title he trained relentlessly for was … zero.
That's because the NCAA is adamant that so-called student-athletes remain amateur (a made-up and baseless concept in itself). They can receive no financial compensation above tuition, room and board. The schools don't allow a free market to operate for wrestlers or football players to exploit like they do for athletic directors and commissioners, the very people who write the rules of amateurism while relentlessly pushing for every last penny they can.
Athletes are even prohibited from cashing in on outside income. Johnny Manziel couldn't appear in a McDonald's commercial until he left Texas A&M. And a business back in Monroeville (1,394) is prohibited from, say, setting up a $5 autograph session for thrilled locals to support Stieber, their hometown kid made great.
With college sports, the schools get all the money. The player gets none. That's the only deal.
Even the idea of a "full ride" is a misnomer. The gap between what schools dole out and the actual cost of attendance (cost of living, etc.) can be as much as $5,000 or more. And that's if you can even get a full scholarship.
The NCAA caps scholarships for wrestling at 9.9 per team. Why? Who knows? That's what the NCAA members decided to do even though a place like Ohio State could certainly afford more. The result is those 9.9 scholarships are then carved up and divvied out so even champions often wind up receiving only partial deals. After all, there are 39 men on the Ohio State wrestling roster.
This is the dichotomy of college sports that gets lost in the too simple framing of "let's pay the players."
Last weekend ABC/Washington Post released the results of a poll that found nearly two thirds of Americans oppose college players receiving a salary. The question though lacked any depth or background perspective and was terribly worded: "Beyond any scholarships they receive, do you support or oppose paying salaries to college athletes?" it asked.
The poll is an insult to the issue.
If you talk to people who are serious about reforming the NCAA, few are talking about broad-based paying of salaries. They're talking about health insurance benefits beyond college, sharing in merchandise sales and grad school stipends.
If ABC/Washington Post were asking if ADs should get big bonuses on athletes who may not even have a full ride, assuredly they'd get different numbers.
Of course, NBC's Meet the Press doubled down on the shallow debate Sunday by having NCAA president Mark Emmert join a roundtable discussion with Reggie Love, a former Duke basketball player and aide to President Obama, and Arne Duncan, an ex-Harvard player and current U.S. Education Secretary.
Neither Love nor Duncan expressed even a remote grasp of the nuances of the issues. But both men reside inside the Beltway culture, and for Meet the Press apparently that's as far as its list of possible guests goes.
Duncan, for example, said the chief issue was making sure players "graduate," a fine concept but one that has little practical use since it's been completely abused by schools.
The result: Emmert coasted through the interview without much of a challenge.
This week's powerful episode of "HBO Real Sports" includes admissions from graduates and academic advisors at North Carolina, Oklahoma, Memphis and other schools that football and basketball players were pushed into no-show, no-learn classes designed to keep them eligible and earn them a diploma but little else. They learned virtually nothing. One football player showed how during his junior year he used "Green Eggs and Ham" to teach himself to read. Of course he "graduated."
This is hardly a new storyline; it's just very well told.
The hypocrisy is where the anger among the athletes and fair-minded observers comes from. It's all about education, but not really. It about free markets for the bosses but not for the players, who can neither individually nor collectively negotiate anything.
College sports leaders claim that college sports is nothing but a non-profit running extracurricular activities designed to enhance the educational experience, all while refusing to engage in not even a hint of austerity that would seemingly come with it.
Their contracts are loaded with country club memberships, comp cars, hours of private jet usage and other perks that have nothing to do with supporting the student-athlete. They don't protest when bowl directors bilk millions off their schools. They build outrageously opulent facilities and offices. They don't hesitate to wring every last concession right down to a synchronized swimming bonus.
All the while they keep telling us they are overseeing something akin to a Little League team, yet they keep paying themselves like it's the Red Sox.
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