April 3, 2009
For days I have been unable to get the thought out of my head. It creases my brain when I'm awake. It arrives in black and white footage in my dreams.
Stanley Robinson is open on the wing in the closing seconds of the national championship. UConn's down by one. The world is screaming. Three, two . . . Robinson shoots. As the final buzzer goes off, swish. UConn players are jumping all over each other. All except Sticks. In the midst of the delirium, he is standing there with a sheepish grin, hands extended as if to ask, "What did I just do?"
I am convinced it is a message from a higher power, the Holy Spirit, Buddha, Myles Brand, somebody. More than a message, it is a conundrum: Are we to believe in the romance or the cynicism of major college athletics?
More than ever the question haunts me during this Final Four. I want to believe the good stuff about college sports, but the bad stuff, the greed, the arrogance, the deceit keeps banging on the door.
As this weekend progresses, especially if UConn beats Michigan State and Robinson continues his rise, the nation is going to realize, hey, this star is a walk-on. The nation is going to start assimilating that he worked full time during the fall semester, stacking scrap metal in Willimantic for $17 an hour, to pay the toll for his own road to the Final Four. Sticks saved money and took out loans. And now here he is.
"Yep," Robinson said, "a regular student."
It is a story both heartwarming and head-scratching. FERPA laws assure his privacy, but if we are hearing him correctly, he doesn't have a grade since fall semester 2007. He reaffirmed Thursday that he withdrew from classes last spring. It never was made clear precisely what happened, with Jim Calhoun once calling it an "academic redshirt." It was Calhoun who appealed to the dean on Robinson's behalf to prevent him from failing out.
Again, we ask what happened?
"Personal issues," Robinson said Thursday. "I had to reach my standards as a player for Coach Calhoun. Other than that, it was family issues, stuff like that with my kids. Issues I'd rather not get into."
If it sounds as if Robinson is talking in circles, well, sometimes he does. He can say the darnedest things. Meaning hats off to an opponent, he recently said "heads off." There's a warmth and childlike quality there, one that makes it impossible not to root for him.
"I'm coming back next year," Robinson said. "And I will be on scholarship again. . . . Right now I'm taking classes I withdrew from. I'm going great in my class 93 and 81 so far."
UConn will need Robinson next season and keeping him eligible is paramount. Part of me believed Sticks would turn pro after this season. That would have meant he'd post zero grades during a 16-month period in which he played more than 40 games. While it evidently would have broken no rules, it sure would have made the notion of student-athleticism a sad joke.
Sorry if my doubts sound overly cynical, but look at the stories in college basketball in recent days. So much money. So many allegations. John Calipari, for example, left Memphis for an eight-year, $31.65 million deal with Kentucky. That's an obscene amount for coaching amateur sports.
"When you get an eye-popping, mind-boggling salary like [Calipari's], it really brings you up short," University of Hartford president Walt Harrison said. "It sort of takes your breath away in this economic environment."
"I think you have to ask some very hard questions," said Brand, the NCAA president. "Whether this is really in tune with the academic values, whether we're at a point already that these high salaries has extended beyond what's expected within the academic community. They have to be asked. We cannot answer them. It's antitrust if we try to regulate any salaries."
It's up to the schools. But good grief, March Madness is bankrolled by $6 billion in CBS money alone. UConn basketball, a legislative report showed, brought $14 million in revenue and $6 million in profits. Despite all this, only a half dozen of 350 Division I athletic departments are showing a profit. There is a lot of gluttony in the NCAA.
As USA Today documented Thursday, hundreds of millions are being taken in for naming rights for stadiums and arenas, apparel contracts and the bundling and selling of multimedia rights. Several schools even have casino advertising. IMG is all over the place nowadays, and not just allegedly tied to Nate Miles. IMG is involved in sports merchandising, media advertising rights and marketing. Among its many deals is a 10-year, $80 million multipurpose deal with UConn.
"The goal here is to find a balance point between two extremes . . . crass commercialism and idealistic purity," Brand said. "And you cannot exploit student athletes."
Yet Indiana and Florida State are the only major conference basketball schools that have been nailed for cheating in the past 2 1/2 years. Everybody seems to agree there are widespread recruiting and academic excesses, but nobody's getting caught? UConn is saddled with accusations of NCAA violations involving agents with institutional interests. But that is the result of an investigation by Yahoo!, not NCAA elbow grease. If the NCAA is going to rake in hundreds of millions, with media partners tiptoeing around using current athletes' images in video games, etc., it makes you want to scream, "Either quit the charade of student-athleticism or enforce it. Pay the students or make the cheaters pay."
In the meantime, I sure hope every word of Stanley Robinson's academic rebound is on the level. I'm naive. I'm still cheering for the romance.
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