REQUIEM FOR A GADFLY
Thomas Palaima tried to take on the University of Texas's powerful sports program. Guess who won?
By Evelyn Ngugi'
It is a balmy Sunday afternoon in April. Young mothers in burnt orange sundresses carry their infants (protected from the sun by tiny burnt orange baseball caps) down the hill of 21st Street to Darryl K. Royal Stadium. Young children run ahead of their parents. Not far behind, elderly couples carefully shuffle down the hill hand in hand. One man wipes his brow with a burnt orange handkerchief. They all have a chance to inspect the new players for the fall, take pictures with Bevo and Big Bertha, and this year: stick around for a free showing of Toy Story 3 on the 55 by 134 feet "Godzillatron."
Even in April, the annual Spring Jamboree attracts Longhorns to the Mecca of Texas football for the Orange-White Scrimmage. Forty-five thousand Longhorns, to be exact.
This is the power of University of Texas football. We're four months away from a serious game, but despite last season's disappointing 5 and 7 record - the worst in Coach Mack Brown's 13 years as head coach - the sport has a firm grip on the loyalties and imagination of the community and the culture. It's not just the games - it's the TV broadcasts, the $10 million in annual trademark licensing revenue, the tailgate traditions, the families that bleed burnt orange.
This is Texas. Football is a sport, a culture, and a religion. It has its faithful and its heretics.
Taped to Thomas Palaima's office door in Waggener Hall are rectangular clippings of op-eds he's written.
"Work long and hard for what is right for society."
"No more excuses for UT's excesses."
Added to that will be his most recent piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education- "The NCAA and the Athletes it Fails."
Palaima is 5'9". White hair, white beard. Wears a black belt with a brass "P" on the buckle. He looks like the Ancient Greek professor he is. His office looks more like a cave. Ancient Greek texts line the shelves. On the white concrete wall are framed 4x6 photographs of his archeological digs. Corinth, 1977. Prague 1982. Hohhot, Mongolia, 1990. Palaima got his Ph.D. in 1980 from the University of Wisconsin and came to Austin in 1986. He created the Prehistory and Aegean Scripts program in the Classics department. He is a connoisseur of all things Ancient Greek, specializing in war and violence. "You wouldn't believe the similarities between Homer's society and the U.S. during the wars in the Iraq," he says. He can recite lines of the Iliad in its original Ancient Greek.
But most recently Palaima has earned another title. He's become "that guy" - one of the most vocal critics of the university's NCAA program.
It all started in 1999 when then-UT Chancellor Bill Cunningham published his new millennium vision for the campus in the Austin-American Statesman. Cunningham saw the university as a "magnet for business" meant to attract and foster new industries.
"Nothing in it about fine arts and humanities or the culture of higher education," Palaima recalls.
Is college supposed to churn out a bottom line-minded workforce, Palaima asked himself, or help students figure out what kind of adults they want to be? "It seemed so one-sided," he says.
Palaima submitted his response---"Is Corporate Model Right for Higher Education?"---to Maria Henson, op-ed editor at the time. "It was a rather long response and required a lot of editing," he says.
The finished product got people talking. Big people. Department chairs, deans, executive vice president types, Palaima says. They contacted him in confidence, because they agreed with him. Palaima won't name any of them even now, but he says the response shocked him. "I just can't understand how they would write to me saying 'thanks for this' but never be vocal about it," he says.
With encouragement from Henson, Palaima became a regular contributor to the Statesman. "The windows have been opened," he says. In the following years, Palaima says he witnessed "scandalous behavior and wrong values."
The commentaries he wrote as a result reflected his belief that on UT's campus sports entertainment reigned supreme, to the detriment of the students who play on the teams. For his pieces, he spoke with athletic academic advisors, the men and women's athletics council, UT athletes past and present. "Because of that, I became an accidental expert," he says.
He quickly came to realize that to afford multi-million dollar coaches and achieve a status of success worthy of an $8 million "Godzillatron," you have to win games and earn fans who will spend money on whatever the burnt orange logo touches. Coca-Cola, Nike, Budweiser, AT&T and other brands attach themselves and their money to the Longhorn brand through sponsorships.
In 2008 Palaima became the university's representative on the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization of faculty members from 57 of the nation's 155 Division 1-A NCAA universities. It meets annually and publishes reports advocating reforms. His predecessor, Michael Granof, an accounting professor had thrown in the towel after five years. "He thought COIA would be ineffective because of the money and power and UT presidential gaga-ism over sports," Palaima says. "I thought after nine years of writing and looking locally, doing something nationally was worth a try."
As a faculty member at the third most expensive NCAA program in the country, Palaima had a lot of numbers to get acquainted with. He decided to go straight to the source. He set up an appointment with Kevin Hegarty, the university's chief financial officer. Joining them in Hegarty's office was Men's Athletics Director Deloss Dodds, Women's Athletics Director Chris Plonsky, and Ed Goble, the program's chief financial officer. They did their best to answer all of his questions. "We had all the spread sheets strewn on the table, and they gave me a complete run-through of the program's finances," Palaima recalls.
They told him that Longhorn athletics generated $138,770,031 in income that year. Football alone earned $87,583,985. But they also told him that the program was committed to a huge outlay of building and remodeling projects, a debt totaling $396 million, incurring annual payments of $15 million. Instead of cutting expenses, the program was increasing revenue. "That's not a business plan my financial advisor would recommend," Palaima says.
In 2007, University President Bill Powers and the Board of Regents agreed to turn over management of trademark licensing to the athletics department. The royalty revenues are split 90 percent and 10 percent---for every dollar the Longhorn name and its associated brands brings in, the sports program gets 90 cents and the academic institution gets a dime.
"Multi-year contracts are much more prevalent than before, and that's something you have to deal with the universities - with buyout," Mack Brown is saying. That was something that we haven't really dealt with before. And the salaries are much higher. I didn't even realize how high they were until I started looking outside. In a lot of cases some of our staff members were not paid near as much as some guys on the outside."
It's late January--two days before National Signing Day 2011---and Coach Brown is meeting with the press for a play-by-play look at the state of Longhorn football.
Right now he's explaining about the huge sums the program has allocated for hiring assistant coaches for a team that went 5 and 7 last year.
Brown hired nine assistant coaches. Eight of them received pay raises. Six of them are brand new to Longhorn football. The program dished out $3.7 million in total for the new coaches. "In the end, we thought we hired a great staff for Texas," says Brown.
Two years earlier, Brown himself signed a revised contract that made him the highest paid college football coach in history at $5.1 million per year. Alabama's Nick Saban has since stolen the top spot with $5.9 million.
By contrast, university president William Powers makes $511,491. Soncia Lily, the dean of students, makes $198,177.
While the football program is offering six-figure salaries to new assistant coaches, the rest of the university is cutting as fast as it can. The university's total 2010-2011 budget is $2.23 billion. The academic core, which pays teaching salaries, student scholarships and keeps the lights on, is $1.2 billion. With the state legislature reducing its contribution by about $29 million over two years, the university has to slash five percent for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. UT enacted a hiring freeze in February 2009. That saved $7 million. A UT system-wide salary freeze followed suit.
At the time of Brown's pay raise, Palaima was on the Executive Faculty Council. "They sent the email before the Christmas break, you know how they time things," he recalls. "Just like releasing bad news on a Friday. By the time they notified us, we weren't able to muster a quorum. It was absolutely insane."
The available council members met days later and although it was unofficial, passed a resolution calling the pay raise "unseemly and inappropriate." They voted 23 to 15 in favor. Four members abstained. Powers was one of them.
To find Tom Palaima's counterpart in the sports world, go to Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall, the engineering building. David Fowler, head of the Men's Athletic Council, is an architectural engineering professor. The salary freeze applies to him as well. Still, he's an ardent defender of the sports program and its expenditures.
As chair of the council, Fowler serves as an advisor to the president, evaluates the athletic budget, and takes part in student athlete initiatives like Major Exploration Night, a dinner conference for freshman and sophomore athletes to fine-tune their degree plan and career goals.
Fowler says his interactions with Palaima are cordial, although the two professors wildly disagree. He says Palaima simply doesn't understand how truly valuable the sports program is. "When you get a degree from UT, it's huge and everybody takes notice," Fowler says. "And sports is a great reason for the desirability of that brand."
Fowler explains that sports often serve as the launching pad and introduction to the greater Longhorn culture. Take Billy Joe "Red" McCombs, a UT alumnus who co-founded Clear Channel Communications, the largest owner of full-power radio stations in the country. He made Forbes magazine's 400 Richest Americans list in 2005. McCombs's first big donation to the school was $3 million to Women's Longhorn Softball in 1997. Three years later, he donated $50 million to the business school - the largest single gift in the university's history. "It started with sports, but that opened him up and he saw a need in the academic world," says Fowler.
President Powers echoed the same point in his blog Tower Talk. "Athletics is a key way we connect donors to the University and our academic programs," he wrote.
"I travel around the world quite a bit, and if I'm wearing UT gear, people will come up to me and say 'Hook 'Em!'" Fowler says. "We're so well-known and the sports program is a big reason for that. It's a great brand, UT Longhorns."
Of course, the people who truly power the brand aren't the coaches or the alumni, but rather the student athletes.
Shon Mitchell graduated from LBJ High School in Austin in 1993 as an All-American, one of the top high school running backs in Texas. He remembers scouts visiting his school. "They come watch you practice, see if you fit the criteria as far as your grades," Mitchell says. "Make sure you're the type of player they want on the team."
Mitchell says he didn't take his grades seriously in high school and had to go to Blinn Junior College. John Mackovic, then UT's head coach, promised Mitchell that if he continued the football process and did well in junior college, a scholarship would still be on the table. And it was. In 1995, Mitchell became a Longhorn. He and future Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams led the team to two consecutive conference titles.
And what about grades? The truth of the matter is that the academic services available to UT athletes rival those of most of the country. Longhorn Pride is the name of the academic initiative. It enlists a team of 88 mentor-tutors exclusively for athletes. Each freshman athlete is assigned to one. There's mandatory study hall. The pressures of academic and athletic performance is a juggling game, much like pursuing a journalism degree while freelancing. It just comes with the territory.
"That's what I try to tell kids - it's hard," Mitchell says. "Watch film. Go on flights to away games yet focus for a test you just studied for. Sure we had tutors and you got your study hall to sit in there for an hour and concentrate on your grades, but still."
The pressures, Mitchell says, have only increased since his time at UT. "At the time it wasn't a big 'go pro' talk," he recalls. "Our coaches didn't like you talking about going pro at the time. Just stick to the program. They didn't really push us. Nowadays it's a different process. They put the NFL into their heads and it's a different focus on keeping that 2.0."
After two seasons, Mitchell did leave for the pros. In 1997 he became a 49er and moved between different indoor and outdoor leagues. "I was a journeyman," he says. "I saw Europe. I got a chance to see a lot of places that I wouldn't have, coming from East Austin."
Mitchell didn't feel exploited as a student athlete, he says. Football is his passion, and Longhorn football allowed him to move on to bigger and better things. Academic tutors and football coaches were available to help him achieve any goal he wanted. "They were really there to hellp me," he says.
After a knee injury cut short his pro football career, Mitchell decided to return to Austin for his degree. "I called up academic advisors and Brian Davis got me back enrolled," he says.
Yes, it's much easier being only a student, Mitchell says. "I can focus on getting that 3.0," he says. "I ain't got to lift weights, watch film of practice, watch film of opponents. I ain't got to do none of that."
In May 2009, he earned his degree in Youth and Community Studies. He was 35. "I always wanted to be the first one in my family to graduate and I did that," he said. "I got my degree, and I'm happy."
Now, Mitchell lives in East Austin and is a manager at Hit Center Austin, an athletic training facility. "I'm trying to get these young athletes to be good student athletes, focus on both," he said. He even has a top recruit headed for UT Austin soon.
In 2005, NCAA created the Academic Progress Rate, to track student movement toward graduation. A passing grade is 925, the equivalent of a 50 percent graduation rate. The latest available data from NCAA is for 2008-2009, and football earned a 947.
The Graduation Success Rate groups athletes in six-year cohorts for graduation. The 2009-2010 graduating class enrolled in 2003. Their GSR is 79 percent, compared to the general student body's rate of 80.7 percent. The NCAA created its own rubric because the federal government's graduation rate for student-athletes didn't take into account students who left for the pros, mid-year enrollees or those who transferred and graduated at another institution. The federal rate for that same 2010 class is 64 percent.
Palaima isn't buying the NCAA's numbers. If a student doesn't make the grade, Palaima points out, he's dropped from the program and usually transfers to another school. The fact that the student failed in the first place is ignored. The rubric is set up to allow academics to take a back seat to athletic performance. Under the NCAA rules, a student can fulfill the requirements yet still fall a full year short of graduation even after four years in college. "It's all a smokescreen," he says.
Most people see Shon Mitchell as a success story, but to Palaima, his is a cautionary tale, one of some things done right and some things done wrong.
According to an NCAA survey released at its convention earlier this year, student athletes at Division 1 schools like Texas spend 43.3 hours per week on athletics during football season. That number decreases to 42.1 hours for baseball and 39 hours for basketball. Women's basketball reported 37.6 hours per week.
The allowable maximum, according to NCAA regulations, is 20 hours.
"I can't even imagine that," Palaima says. "That's a full time job. The NCAA has the information right there and they don't do anything about it."
Well-funded tutoring facilities and increased one-on-one academic advisor attention can't replace favorable studying conditions. "The system's almost set up to ensure they fail," Palaima says. "It's a flaw in the structure."
If you're an athlete with talent suitable for UT's top-notch program but could benefit academically from time in junior college like Mitchell, then being a Longhorn is doing you a disservice. It's good to reach for the apple, Palaima says "but because the coaches are so highly paid, you have to generate the money to pay them. You got to win. Which means bringing in athletes that are better suited elsewhere."
He questions whether the sports department has the best interests of the student athlete at heart, citing the Buck Burnette case.
It was November 2008 and Barack Obama has just been elected President of the United States. Burnette, a sophomore backup lineman, updated his Facebook status shortly after: "All the hunters gather up, we have a c%&n in the whitehouse."
The next day, he was not only dismissed from the team for his racist remark, but transferred to Abilene Christian University. His comments made national news. So, crisis averted, right? Wrong, Palaima says. "I could see a big business, a professional sports team sweeping this under the rug, but a school institution should address the problem in a way that helps the whole," he says. "They had a damage control mentality."
There was no counseling or team discussion, even though many of Burnette's teammates were African American. Instead of turning Burnette's offense into a learning experience, Longhorn officials simply killed the messenger.
"They're very protective of reputation," Palaima said. "Which is not necessarily in the interest of the student athlete. They dropped that kid so fast"
Palaima was equally shocked when UT signed Jamie Carey to the women's basketball team in 2002, after her previous school, Stanford, advised her to never play again because of recurring concussions. (She successfully played as a Longhorn for three years and was drafted into the WNBA).
So what is UT supposed to do? Treat student athletes like students who play sports, not athletes who have to be in school to keep playing here, Palaima says.
He laments that virtually no university has figured out how to balance sports and academics in a meaningful way. The latest report of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics said 95 out of 114 university presidents surveyed said they felt hopeless about NCAA reform. "But the truth is nobody's got it right because nobody's trying," says Palaima.
In April, Palaima made his final coalition presentation to the Faculty Council. For the last time, he listed his solutions. The first is to turn the sports program's "voluntary" annual donation to the university into a mandatory one. In 2010, the athletic department donated $5 million to the academic side. The thought of applauding a division of the university for giving back to the institution it is a part of is laughable, Palaima says.
Second, instead of splitting revenue from trademark licensing 90-10, sports's share should be lowered to 40 percent. And instead of handing the money to the president's office to be doled out as he sees fit, create a fund with oversight from faculty, staff, and students.
Palaima also wants stronger enforcement of NCAA code violations. The 2011 college basketball season was riddled with compliance issues. The University of Toledo basketball team had an cademic progress rate of 858. In response, the NCAA revoked three scholarships. Rather than play without a scholarship, student athletes left out of the deal and transferred to other schools.
He also wants to keep sports extracurricular. "Any student who would choose a flagship university because of its football team is no student most faculty would want in their classes," he argues.
He is under no illusion that any of these proposals will be adopted. In fact, all the momentum is heading in the opposite direction. Just recently the university announced it has signed a $300 million, 20-year contract with ESPN to create the Longhorn Network, a 24-hour television broadcast network for all things Burnt Orange. UT gets $12.4 million per year. Half of the revenue from the first several years of the contract is earmarked for academics. Already in the works are two $1 million-endowed faculty chair positions in philosophy and physics. In tough economic times, it's a hard gift to turn down. But it gives the university's industrial-size sports program even more leverage in the battle over resources and prestige.
As for Tom Palaima, he says it's time to move on. He will resign from the coalition after the academic year ends. He's wrapped up his thoughts in his last two pieces, one for the Statesman, the other for the Chronicle of Higher Education. "It's a rather thankless position," he says. "Sometimes I wonder why I'm here."
He's written over 180 articles for the Statesman alone, from sports to his passion of history. People know where he stands after more than a decade of op-eds, meetings, debates and interviews. "A voice becomes tired after a while," he says. "We need fresh and new voices."
Palaima believes that Powers is a special president---open and tolerant---even though he is a passionate advocate of all things sports. Voices like Palaima's are free to exist and criticism are welcomed and addressed. Powers is present at Faculty Council meetings and responds to comments on his blog.
Still, Palaima adds, "It's safe to say I don't think I'll ever be invited to the president's skybox again." And that's okay by him. "I don't like being in the sky box," he says. "I feel uneasy and I get the creeps. Too much power and wealth, like 'look at those people down there. Our playthings.'"
The debate about college sports stems back to 1920, when coaches and presidents argued about football players using helmets. Tom Palaima believes the debate has a long way to run. He's a realist---anyone criticizing sports at a place like the University of Texas has to be. Still, he says he's glad he tried.
"I just want to get it on record," he says. "At least when they go back in history, they'll see 'well yes at least somebody tried'. I don't have any illusions that I'll change things. The point is that you never know the impact of your words. All of a sudden something happens and they might finally get it."
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