Flashback: My 2003 Los Angeles Times Magazine Article ‘Welcome to Plantation Football’

Published October 1st, 2019, Uncategorized

With the passage of and signing by California Governor Gavin Newsom of legislation allowing college athletes to get paid for licensing their names and likenesses, I return to my coverage of the issue 16 years ago. Below is the text of my article in the August 31, 2003, edition of the Los Angeles Times Magazine article. The piece is also viewable at https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-aug-31-tm-athletes35-story.html,Muchnick

WELCOME TO PLANTATION FOOTBALL
The Financial Rewards for a Winning College Program Have NeverBeen Greater. Yet Most of the Athletes Who Make It Happen Are Living in Grinding Poverty. How Fair Is That?

Rush hour in Sacramento customarily finds an exodus of suited lobbyists pouring southwest on Interstate 80 or south on I-5 at the end of a day of Capitol-style arm-twisting. But this particular Tuesday afternoon in July they were joined by a caravan of muscular but low-power colleagues dressed in Dockers, college T-shirts and tieless buttondowns. These neophyte contributors to California’s legislative and vehicular gridlock–six football players from Stanford University and UC Berkeley–had just finished testifying before the Assembly Higher Education Committee in support of SB 193, the Student-Athletes’ Bill of Rights, which passed the state Senate in May.

The reason theirs were the only teams represented was that none of the players from the other two California schools in the Pacific 10 conference, UCLA and USC, could afford the transportation from Southern California. And the reason they were making such a hasty getaway from the hearing was that they feared missing their own teams’ “voluntary” workouts that day.

If you’re wondering why the prospect of skipping a single, putatively noncompulsory practice in the middle of summer can bring almost as much sweat to the brow of a brawny jock as the practice itself, then you’re starting to grasp why state Sen. Kevin Murray, a Culver City Democrat, thinks California needs a Student-Athletes’ Bill of Rights. What you wouldn’t yet know, however, was that these proud representatives of Stanford red and Cal blue-and-gold, weaving through traffic in a Jeep Cherokee and a Ford Explorer given to two of the players by their parents, were streaking home on empty stomachs. Greeting them at the Capitol at 12:30, Murray had offered to take them to lunch. They politely declined. Under National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules, the acceptance of any kind of gift from anyone other than an immediate family member can be construed as a gratuity from a booster–punishable by loss of eligibility.

At the hearing, UC Berkeley wide receivers Chase Lyman and Joe Crenshaw, cornerbacks James Bethea and Mike McGrath, along with Stanford linebacker Jon Alston and wide receiver Grant Mason, reviewed this and other indignities visited upon them by the NCAA, whose administration of the intercollegiate sports programs at 1,200 American colleges and universities seems straight out of a playbook from medieval Byzantium.

Lyman told of a teammate who had to pay for his own knee surgery after landing on a screw in the grass during a voluntary practice, and of how his $899 monthly scholarship check during the academic year–from which $135 was automatically deducted for the daily training table meal–didn’t cover his portion of the rent and utilities on the Berkeley apartment he shared with two fellow undergraduates. Don’t think of big-time football as the setting for limos and jangling jewelry, said Crenshaw: “Everything is not as glamorous as it seems.”

Then the players excused themselves for their respective 120- and 80-mile freeway dashes. The Stanford guys, whose longer drive ensured they’d be hopelessly late, stopped along the way at one of their favorite affordable eating establishments: a Popeye’s Chicken drive-thru. By the time Alston and Mason arrived at the campus Arrillaga Family Sports Center, their teammates had finished showering.

The NCAA bars coaches from supervising off-season weightlifting and sprinting, so they are overseen instead by strength and conditioning staff, who can forward attendance reports to the coaches. That’s why the players sardonically refer to these sessions as “volandatory.” The sneakiest coaches figure out how to get their charges onto the field for conditioning work–sometimes for as little as a scheduled 10-minute stretch–then seamlessly fold it into borderline-legal seven-on-seven football drills.

Last year at Stanford, in the midst of a chaotic head coaching transition from Tyrone Willingham to Buddy Teevens, attendance at the summer voluntaries was truly discretionary. Mason, a civil engineering major, felt free to spend the summer as an intern at a development company in Washington, D.C. But after Stanford proceeded to win only two games, Cardinal strength coach Ron Forbes warned that players falling short of perfect attendance this summer would have to submit to an unspecified special conditioning test before the official start of training camp on Aug. 10. Fortunately for Alston and Mason, Forbes agreed to let them make up the lifting and running they missed the day of the legislative hearing.

For James Bethea, a senior out of Reseda’s Cleveland High School, this meal was of more than passing importance. In the kitchen cabinet of the two-bedroom West Berkeley apartment he shares with a graduate student and the student’s young son, there were two packages of rice, and the refrigerator held one steak and one pork chop. Bethea didn’t have another grocery trip budgeted before the Bears’ training camp opened three weeks later, on July 30, in preparation for their earliest first game ever, against Kansas State in Kansas City on Aug. 23.

“There are days,” Bethea says, “when training table is the only thing I eat all day.”

Complaints that college athletes are mistreated or taken advantage of are as old as the games they play. Yet over the last decade, enormous changes have altered high-profile sports in ways that athletes and the public are only beginning to understand. First came an explosion of revenue around a college football industry generating billions of dollars a year for universities, the media, apparel companies, bowl game hosts and stadium builders. Coaches began earning million-dollar salaries. Fans began paying thousands of dollars for season tickets and membership in fancy stadium lounges.

Everyone, it seems, shared the rewards–except the athletes. Their stipends for living expenses remained about the same, which is to say, near poverty level. But two things did change. The demands to win rose so high that college football turned into a year-round sport. Players now work on strength and conditioning 12 months a year, which means that between classes and football they have little time for the part-time jobs that athletes used to hold to help make ends meet.

At the same time, their “job security” has plummeted. Years ago, if a player suffered a career-ending injury, he often was allowed to keep his scholarship. Today, universities can drop players the next year, freeing up the scholarship for a healthy athlete.

What has emerged, say Murray and others, is “a plantation system” that treats the players as nothing more than cheap labor.

Here’s how it pencils out at UC Berkeley. An athlete’s scholarship provides full tuition, books and fees. That takes care of the classroom. The problem is with compensation for room and board. Each institution sets a formula based on NCAA guidelines. At UC Berkeley, the stipend of $899 breaks down to $135 a month for the evening training table meal, which leaves the athletes on their own for breakfast and lunch. The room stipend is a weighted average of on-campus dormitory rent, which comes to $764 at UC Berkeley. Cal has only 5,500 dorm rooms for 25,000 undergraduate students. If a player can’t get a dorm room, he has to stay off campus, where one-bedroom apartments cost nearly $1,200. So he takes roommates and shares. Even so, he has little left for non-training table meals, or utilities, much less a movie or concert.

“Athletes don’t have the money to live the normal life of a student,” Murray says. “They don’t have the money to buy toothpaste. They don’t have the money to buy toilet paper.

”Murray is but one of a number of activists and officials beginning to recognize the unfairness. His bill parallels similar legislation signed into law in Nebraska but held up until four other states with Big 12 schools pass similar bills. SB 193 would liberate California colleges and universities from NCAA restrictions on outside income, and allow student athletes to market their fame, hire agents and explore career options in a variety of ways that tiptoe right up to the sideline boundary of “pay-for-play” professionalism.

But the NCAA contends that the introduction of agents or endorsement income before the completion of a player’s college career would invite abuses and competitive inequities, and that stipends going above existing formulas would be tantamount to banned “extra benefits.” Mindful that the consequences of unilateral action might include expulsion of the state’s schools from the NCAA, the California Assembly is still studying the bill. Like his Nebraska counterpart, Ernie Chambers, who called his legislation “a shot across the bow,” Murray believes each additional state that pursues legislation helps put pressure on the NCAA to change.

A former William Morris talent agent, Murray was drawn to the story of UCLA defensive back and kick returner Ryan Roques. In the fall of 1999, the campus bookstore was selling Bruins football jerseys embroidered with his uniform number, 33. A family member, wrongly assuming that Roques received complimentary licensed merchandise, asked him for one of the $60 jerseys. Roques had to explain to the relative that he couldn’t afford it.

Roques has since gone on to become the co-founder and director of organizing for the Collegiate Athletes Coalition, a fledgling group that has secured the backing of the United Steelworkers of America. The other founder of the coalition, and its chairman, is Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who says he was awakened politically by what happened to teammate Donnie Edwards in 1995. Edwards, who now plays in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers, had mentioned in a radio interview that he was having difficulty paying his bills at UCLA and didn’t know where his next meal would come from. An anonymous donor left a bag of groceries at his doorstep.

When Edwards accepted it, the NCAA suspended him for a game.

That episode wasn’t isolated, Huma says. On the student-athlete grapevine, similar stories travel from cell phone to cell phone with the swiftness of a wideout on a fly pattern. Hear the one about the high NFL draft pick who was pilloried for costing his team a bowl appearance after being caught driving around in a car supplied by a booster? The public might have been a tad more sympathetic had it been more widely known that, weeks earlier, this player had been evicted from his apartment. He was homeless.

Huma sees a correlation between well-publicized scandals and the muted human scandal of food insecurity and inability to pay the rent. “Giving the players a fairer shake is a matter of basic decency,” he says. “But more than that, it’s a matter of morality by the NCAA’s own definition. The NCAA comes down and levies these punishments that impact the direction of a player’s life, yet it fosters the environment that creates these infractions in the first place by forcing student athletes to live below the poverty line. A good-faith solution not only helps players make ends meet; it puts a stop to a lot of the violations.”

This wouldn’t gall so much were it not for the cash stream that Big Football generates every Saturday afternoon–and sometimes Saturday or Thursday or Monday night–in a season now stretching from late August until past New Year’s. Lofty notions of amateur purity and the Greek educational ideal of a sound mind in a sound body have long been lost in the numbers. Football and men’s basketball annually gross more than $3.5 billion in media fees, ticket sales, concessions, licensed merchandise and donations. CBS is in the middle of an 11-year, $6.2-billion contract just for broadcast rights to “March Madness,” the NCAA basketball tournament. ABC is paying $525 million over seven years for the Bowl Championship Series, a consortium of climactic holiday football matchups. UCLA’s $40-million annual athletic department budget is partially funded by a six-year, $18.95-million deal with Adidas leveraged by its Rose Bowl and Final Four legacy and aspirations. Stanford’s athletic budget is a hefty $45 million, and Berkeley’s is $38 million. Donors and athletic revenues at the University of Oregon funded a $90-million expansion and renovation of Autzen Stadium. The University of Washington is in the final stage of its own $90-million program of capital improvements to make its sports facilities more luxurious.

Coaching salaries have kept pace with the boom. Last year, when UCLA dismissed football coach Bob Toledo, boosters contributed to the $1,343,000 for his golden parachute–$918,000 for the university to pay off six years of his $153,000 annual base salary, plus the $425,000 that represented one year of his outside broadcast and endorsement income. But those same boosters, under NCAA regulations, can’t give the players a dime.

Stanford’s Alston, one of the state Assembly witnesses, compares student athletes to illegal immigrants: a population taking implausible risks in quest of opportunity, and willfully enduring degradation by commission and omission. When the price has been too high for the latter, such as when 18 illegal immigrants were killed in a truck crash last May, a shocked world protested.

What to make, then, of the deaths two years ago of Florida State’s Devaughn Darling, Florida’s Eraste Autin and Northwestern’s Rashidi Wheeler during football workouts? Autin and Wheeler had participated in “voluntary” sessions not covered by university health insurance. The $10,000 death benefit paid to Darling’s family under Florida State’s life insurance policy for its athletes didn’t even recoup burial costs. The NCAA subsequently raised the standard death benefit to $25,000, but it still has done nothing to cover student injuries suffered during voluntary workouts. In their high-contact sport, football players take chances with their health and lives for 12 months of the year that other athletes never have to fret over.

James Bethea had a not-shabby 3.4 grade-point average and was a star running back when he attended Cleveland, one of the top high schools in the San Fernando Valley. Bethea had his sights on California’s most prestigious public university, but his academic performance would not have gotten him admitted to Berkeley. It was his athletic performance that did the trick. “I was told it was a ‘full scholarship’ for playing football, and that was all I cared about,” he recalls.

Athletic grants-in-aid for college students began in 1956. What was once an educational gift became a binding contract in 1967, when institutions were allowed to terminate scholarships to athletes who withdrew from their sports. Six years after that, four-year scholarships were replaced with renewable year-to-year grants, and now the specter of semester-to-semester contracts lurks. Like many universities, Berkeley generally supports its football players in some measure through five school years, allowing a “redshirt” year for many players who are held off the active roster due to injury or inexperience. “But they won’t put that commitment in writing,” Huma says.

Bethea began his freshman year thinking he’d major in architecture. But by the end of the year he had switched to the most popular jock major, American Studies, which offers broad-based humanities courses with flexible class offerings. Derek Van Rheenen, director of Berkeley’s Athletic Study Center, says, “A lot of the players come in with pretty unrealistic classroom goals, both in terms of their time commitments and in terms of the academic demands.”

The NCAA sets a limit of 20 hours a week that a student athlete can spend on his sport. This accounts for formal practices, some team meetings and the games themselves. It doesn’t include travel time to away games, commuting to campus from far-flung but cheaper apartments and all the other team commitments. Let’s add that the athletes love their sport, perhaps more than it loves them. “I’m a competitor,” Bethea says. “If someone pushing me for a spot in the starting lineup is going to review film for four hours, then I’m going to review film for four and a half hours.” In fact, Huma says, athletes spend as many as 60 hours a week in season on their game–practicing, strength conditioning, getting treatment for injuries, attending team meetings, reviewing films. Coaches book virtually every hour of their non-classroom time. Off season, their commitment falls to about 30 hours a week, he says.

A student athlete has to take at least 12 credits every semester to stay eligible with the NCAA–Berkeley has set its own standard for the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at 13. Thirteen credits translates into 13 class hours every week and, according to Berkeley guidelines, every hour in the classroom should be matched by two hours of study. So 13 credits means 39 hours of schooling every week. As for dating–forget it. In survival mode, Bethea makes it clear to approaching women that he doesn’t “have time for the girlfriend thing.” The only exception is when, near the end of a month in which he’s coming up short, he might “hustle up” a casual lady friend for a loan or a meal.

Meanwhile, his main education is the school of hard knocks. “I’m not proud of this,” Bethea says, “but I’ll admit I’ve figured out how to get by in my classes without ever reading the books. You can put all your marbles into school and do half-ass football, or you can put all your marbles into football and do half-ass schoolwork. Sure, there are a few exceptional people, the academic All-Americans who can do both. But for the vast majority of us, the numbers just don’t add up.”

Bethea, who was raised by his grandparents, is among the tiny number of athletes who qualify for federal Pell grants for disadvantaged students, but he says it still doesn’t provide enough to meet his bills. Contrary to stereotype, only 15% of all Division I athletes qualify for either the Pell grants or the NCAA’s $15-million fund for severely underprivileged athletes.

Loans are an option, but many students are caught flat-footed when they realize how much they will need to go into debt, Huma says. They end up relying on credit cards, he says, the most usurious form of debt.

When he’s not drinking in the adulation of football fans, Bethea is executing baroque strategies, which sometimes backfire and leave him in an even bigger hole. Remember, this is a young man who turns 21 on Sept. 24–right between the road game at the University of Illinois and the home game against USC.

This summer he double-dipped. In addition to taking two classes to qualify for a partial athletic stipend (a little over half of the monthly $764-plus-training-table he receives during the school year), he landed a paralegal/clerk job at a San Francisco law firm. He could take BART to the city in the morning and still meet his obligations on campus, which included voluntary workouts.

The idea was to save over the summer before he went into deficit spending during the season. Unfortunately, Bethea got a whopping ticket for driving his scooter without a license, before the scooter itself was run over. For his main mode of transportation from his apartment to campus, he turned to a 1987 Mercedes, which cost $2,000 and which he paid for with savings. Relying on street smarts rather than the $69-per-semester campus parking permit, he left the car in spots where he’d learned he could get away with it. Then one day he failed to move the Mercedes on time and got a ticket. He says the combination of car and scooter citations and repairs left him $1,000 in the hole, so that the summer job barely got him back to square one.In hindsight, it might have been smarter to ditch the scooter and the car, wake up a half-hour earlier every day and take the bus to campus. But just as on the football field, this is a determined young man learning from his mistakes.

At least he didn’t undertake some of the more extreme and shady measures you hear about. He didn’t fence his books at the secondhand store on Bancroft Way as soon as he received them for class use. He didn’t cash his summer stipend checks while blowing off the classes. He didn’t trade complimentary game tickets in return for a break on his rent, which is why Oregon defensive end Quinn Dorsey has been suspended for the first four games of this season.

The Dorsey case is perhaps particularly poignant. He gave up his tickets for rent. He gave someone the right to watch him play in exchange for a place to live.

Activists say that increasing the total for room and board from, say, $900 to $1,200 a month would help defuse the sense of desperation and exploitation felt by many of the 10,000 scholarship athletes who cycle through the nation’s 117 top-tier, or Division I-A, college football programs each year. “The plantation metaphor can be overused,” Murray says, “but I really think it’s appropriate here.”

Indeed, many beleaguered student athletes use the term with what is a kind of literal black humor, and it’s not hard to understand why. Almost half of all Division I athletes in football and basketball are African American. The overall graduation rate for athletes is about 60%, but for black players it’s 43%. Many come from tough backgrounds and are fueled mostly by dreams of pro football riches, but in actuality, only 2% of college players make it to the NFL. But they’re not the only ones who should reflect on the message. After all, they perform in front of largely privileged audiences for whom prestigious football programs provide not only riches and thrills, but also a certain snob appeal. “Entertain us,” the message goes, “but don’t you dare swap your tickets for rent.”

Steve Gladstone isn’t buying the hardship line. As far as UC Berkeley’s athletic director is concerned, an edgy lifestyle–long hours without compensation, the creative juggling of sport and classroom, the obsessive pursuit of high-intensity, high-performance competition–is the eternal creed of the college athlete.

From his office at Haas Pavilion, Gladstone says the idea that football players are forced to devote more time to their extracurricular activities than their counterparts in other sports is a myth. “Come here at 5 a.m. Our swimmers are on the deck at 5:45, and they’re back on the deck at 3:45 in the afternoon. They do weight training. They do film study. Serious intercollegiate athletes, whether Natalie Coughlin [who holds three world swimming records] or Kyle Boller [the quarterback selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the draft], aren’t doing it for pay. They’re doing it because they have a passion for the sport. These people work hard, but they’re not victims. Is the athletic stipend lush? No. But it’s enough. Differentiating among the sports based on the revenue they generate would be a serious mistake.”

With his salt-and-pepper mustache and his homilies on college sports as a character-shaping end in itself, Gladstone looks and sounds exactly like what he is, a veteran crew coach with an Ivy League pedigree–Princeton, Harvard and Brown. This makes him a credible spokesperson for what Allen Sack, a University of New Haven sociologist and a defensive end on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship team, calls one of the most successful campaigns in the history of obfuscation.

For his part, Sack thinks the NCAA should bite the bullet and bag athletic scholarships in Division I-A and go to the Division III and Ivy League model of offering only need-based financial aid and fully integrating athletes into the student body. Not exactly a formula for national championship-winning programs. “Schools with massive financial and emotional investments in professional college sports won’t like this,” Sack says. On the other hand, he adds, “they shouldn’t be surprised when athletes start demanding the right to engage in entrepreneurial activities, just like the coach.”

Huma puts it this way: “If players can’t get paid for playing football, with all this money involved, at least they should be able to get paid for being famous for playing football.”

Gladstone makes a point about the inevitable drive of the revenue sports to subsidize poorer programs, some of which fulfill the federal Title IX mandate to redress gender inequities. Berkeley’s athletic department budget underwrites 27 sports, from field hockey, gymnastics and lacrosse to rugby, softball and volleyball. The University of Oregon, by contrast, has 17 sports.

As for spiraling coaches’ salaries, the only people with control over them are college presidents, says Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College sports economist, and they would need an antitrust exemption from Congress to more effectively control coaches’ salaries, and have begun rumbling for one.

For Division I-A players, the National Football League is deliverance, though not for all the commonly assumed reasons. Indeed, they do buzz about USC’s Heisman Trophy winner, Carson Palmer, who got a $10-million signing bonus from the Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile, Willis McGahee, the Miami running back whose knee was torn to shreds in the Fiesta Bowl, is about to get more than $4 million from the Buffalo Bills even as he rehabs. It goes to show what you can command when you’re a potential “difference maker.”

But the figure most often bruited about is lower and less round: $225,000. That’s the NFL minimum salary for a rookie. To get it, with some exceptions, you have to make enough of an impression to be drafted. There are 32 NFL teams and seven rounds of the draft. As with other prodigal talents, the graphing of the distribution of athletic prowess follows the shape of a bell curve. The difference in the marketplace between the 224th and 225th best available player is highly subjective. As economists would say, it’s fungible.

Stanford’s Jon Alston, a third-year student and a linebacker in his second year of eligibility, says that he’s grateful for the opportunity to play college football, and he would think long and hard about trying for the NFL next spring if he were to enjoy a breakout season this fall. It’s not just about the money. Alston, a political science-economics major whose mother practices law in Shreveport, La., is no dummy. He knows pro careers are short and aren’t automatic tickets to lifetime security. With or without a countdown to Sunday, he plans to get into investment services and possibly go to grad school.

Alston says one important thing the NFL represents is getting your life back. “In college, the money pressure wears you down,” he says. “And you never get home. I’m lucky if I’m home three weeks the whole year.” While his mother was able to help some–she bought him the Jeep Cherokee the players used to get to the legislative hearings–just weeks before Stanford’s training camp started, Alston was thinking about taking on menial jobs to close his latest budget gap.

NCAA rules make sure that if Alston is considering turning pro before his college eligibility expires, the decision will be as painful as possible. There’s no such thing as testing the waters. He wouldn’t be allowed to hire an agent. If he entered the draft, he’d be through at Stanford even if he didn’t get picked or he got picked but never signed. Under these conditions, it’s a no-brainer if you’re projected as a high-round pick, but if there’s any question as to whether you’re No. 223, 224 or 225, it’s not worth the trouble.

James Bethea thinks he has a decent chance to be drafted next spring. He just has to stay free of injuries and get into enough situations that give him exposure on vehicles such as the ESPN highlight shows. At the cornerback position, that usually translates into “picks” (interceptions), of which Bethea had four last year. Prospects on the bubble need all the help they can get from arbitrary stats. If, early in the season, Bethea happens to establish himself as such a force in pass coverage that opposing quarterbacks stop throwing the ball in his direction, he’ll have become an impact player, but one without the picks to show for it. Then there’s the 40-yard dash, a presumed extrapolation of ur-skills that scouts embrace like a totem. Bethea runs a fast 40–4.46 seconds–and as he points out, “You can’t teach speed. I figure if I can get that down to a 4.3, I’ll have it made.”

The spring semester is poised to serve up the crowning irony of Bethea’s Berkeley career. At the moment when he’ll be free of the Bears’ punishing schedule and able to focus on graduating–he’s on track to finish in four and a half years, plus a summer session–he’ll probably still be hustling. Instead of going from lifting to running to classes to practice to the video room, he’ll be exhausting his time in long meetings with fast-talking agents and in training for a head-turning display at one of the regional “scout camps.”

If he has a son who becomes a college football player, Bethea hopes he’ll have an easier time of it. The NCAA’s new president, Myles Brand, took on hot-tempered basketball coach Bobby Knight when he was president of Indiana University, and some speculate that he could be a beacon of reform. Others say he, like past presidents, is merely a figurehead. Regional legislation like Sen. Murray’s has limited immediate impact in the theater of long-term national reform. And whatever incentive individual universities might have to exercise discretion and be the first ones to reward more generous stipends to their athletes is canceled out by bottom-line pressure. Maybe the ultimate solution lies in the conscience of the sports public. The fans sure love the sport: Will they be willing to pay more for it?