Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the sixth episode of "Therefore, what?" — a podcast from Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: The start of college football season is only weeks away. Highly hyped high-stakes games are on the schedule, complete with corporate sponsors, television rights and local as well as national media coverage. Such games should feature young men committed to their teammates and schools with wise coaches who are equally committed to building character in their players and serving in their communities. Instead, we are force-fed the unsettling onslaught of stories about barroom brawls, boosters bankrolling, big money, police reports instead of history reports, DUI scores instead of ACT scores, professors ignoring academic fraud, administrators turning a blind eye to assault and abuse, and far too many thugs who get a free pass because they are talented enough to either throw or catch one. The state of college athletics, and what to do about it, on this edition of "Therefore, what?"
"Therefore, what?" is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is "Therefore what?"
It is great as we approach college football season to be joined today by Dick Harmon. Dick is a columnist for the Deseret News with a focus on college athletics. He's really one of the national treasures when it comes to, particularly, college sports. He previously worked as executive sports editor, sports columnist, city editor and a reporter at the Provo Daily Herald. He's often appeared on ESPN and other broadcasting programs and has written three books and co-authored a fourth. Dick, thanks for joining us today.
Dick Harmon: Thanks for having me.
BM: So as we look at what's going on, it seems like all the stories of what college football is supposed to be about — hard work, goals, overcoming adversity, pride, character, teamwork, all of those things. They seem to be becoming fewer and farther between. From your perspective and what you've seen over the last three decades, how do you see that playing out?
DH: Well, I think a lot of the hard work and dedication and all the great coaching and playing is still going on. It's getting overshadowed somewhat, I think. Because of the access we have to so much information, a lot of these people used to operate, you know, kind of behind the scenes and make mistakes and people wouldn't know anything about it. But now, life could be fully exposed, mistakes could be really highlighted in a matter of seconds with Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. We live in a different age where information is almost right now, I mean, you do something, you hear something. And the other thing is a lot of people that cover teams and follow teams as fans are members of message boards. And that means you've got three or four or 5,000 reporters or self-appointed reporters who are looking at information, looking to disseminate it, get it out as quick as it can, so those things are overshadowing a lot of the other aspects. LaVell Edwards, the legendary coach at BYU, once said that his athletes and other athletes with other schools get in trouble and have problems just about the same rate as other people in society. The difference is when they do make that mistake and it becomes known it becomes far more newsworthy for people to digest.
BM: That's so true and especially in today's world, as you said, it's instant access to that information. And while for many people that would just be kind of a slap-on-the-wrist moment, there is that exposure. Plus you also have fans from opposing teams who would love to embarrass their archrival in some way, and that definitely has to be playing into it as well.
DH: Oh, absolutely. And you know, the other thing that you didn't have even five or six, seven years ago is the ability to have smartphones with video capabilities. So what you have is actually thousands and tens of thousands of newscasters out there with equipment that can take video and put it on YouTube, a platform that can then be seen in, you know, happen in real time. And, you know, that didn't exist. I mean, you could take a video of somebody doing something wrong in a, say, a bar or a restaurant or getting in a fight in the parking lot. And if they happen to be an athlete, that could be one of the biggest things that gets viewed on YouTube. And that never existed 10 years ago.
BM: That's right. It really is. I used to always tell the politicians you just have to remember that in today's world, every mic is an open mic and every device is a recording device. And so there is that big exposure for these athletes and it really is high-stakes stuff. I mean, if they have this kind of error or this kind of exposure to something it can cost them millions and millions of dollars. And so you have that on the one hand, and then you have the other side of the coin, which is a lot of these athletes have been coddled, you know, from the time they had some potential as a third-grade football player. So how do you see that part playing out — the intensity and really the high-stakes game that I think is causing some bad decision-making both from players but also from coaches and administrators?
DH: Well, there's no question. You have a young man that’s say 16 or 17 years old and he's having adults recruit him, make phone calls to him, text him, send him information, talk him and his parents up, show up at games. And say this young man has five or six of these adults doing that as he's being recruited by several schools. I mean, it puts a tremendous amount of entitlement on that young man as to who and what he is. Unless he's been brought up with certain types of perspective, it is really hard. You have a guy like Aaron Hernandez, who played for the University of Florida and then with the New England Patriots. Here's a young man that was an All-American in college, and he made a lot of mistakes. He was accused of fighting, of assaults, of attempted murder, of attempted double murder. He was convicted of one of those murders and put in prison. Days after he was acquitted, you know, he committed suicide in jail. But here's a young man that had a lot of problems. But he had coaches that would cover for him; he had a university that would cover for him. He'd be let off the hook, wasn't held responsible. Nobody made him accountable. And if they did, it was behind closed doors where he never received the scrutiny that maybe he should have to make corrections in his life. And it cost him his life.
BM: Yeah, and I think there are so many times where I think the coaches or the administrators really do a disservice to these players, because most of them are not going to make it to the NFL. Most of them, even if they do make it to the NFL, it's going to be a very short stint, probably ended by some sort of injury, and then they've got to move on. But they haven't learned the real character skills, the real life skills, that are going to help them move forward as a member of society, not just a member of a football team.
DH: Absolutely. And we see those mistakes being made both in regular society with marriage and, you know, abusive marriages and abuse to girlfriends, things like that that we see and read about. But yet those same kinds of things are taking place regularly in society. But there's no question that a lot of universities, a lot of colleges, they kind of handle situations behind the scenes as best they can. But once it becomes public, then it turns into a whole different animal and it’s treated differently. And that's happened locally and on the national scene over and over again.
BM: So we see that immense pressure to win, or as Al Davis famously said, you know, "Just win, baby." And win now I think is the real story, and a lot of these programs are not giving them time to really build. So how do you see that and do you think there are any solutions out there in terms of how we deal with that?
DH: Well, I don't know that there is because money has taken over. This is a big business. It's a corporate type of sporting atmosphere. Both in the NFL and college football. You have a situation like Alabama where Coach Saban is receiving $8 or $9 million dollars a year in salary, and that's happening across the country, even in the state of Utah, where a football coach is the highest-paid public employee in the state. And there's a tremendous amount of pressure to collect money, whether it be from concessions, from parking lots. I mean, you pay $6 for a hot dog, you know, $5 for a bottle of water, you don't allow any other outside food to come in. You want that revenue, you're asking people to pay $25 parking. There's all kinds of ways that athletic departments are trying to collect the money and they have to have the fans engaged and to come to participate and pay money. And then the TV networks, I mean, everybody wants a TV deal. Every conference wants to have their product on national TV and they want to be paid the rights to do that. So this has gone far beyond the cheerleaders with pompoms and students that show up and use their activity card to come in and watch a game, maybe pay 50 cents for a seat. It’s far beyond that, and I don't see how it can ever be retracted.
BM: I know one thing that always gets brought up when these issues come up, oh, you should pay the players something more than just kind of meal money to kind of put them in a different space. I'm not sure that's the answer. But then you also look at where this really leads, and where the buck stops, I guess, is the real question, Dick, because is it the coaches? Is it the administrators? Is it the president of the university? I mean, we've seen institutions like Penn State literally bottom out for a number of years after this kind of scandal. We know Ohio State is in the middle of a lot of questions being asked right now. How do you see that?
DH: You know, that's a great question. I think part of the challenge you have is that there's such a great big demand for entertainment and this fits in that slot. I mean, why should a schoolteacher that's approaching a math topic with students and teaching them so well and helping them to progress in life academically; why should they be paid say $45,000 a year when a coach that's coaching and doing a great job and will be paid $500,000 or an assistant coach maybe $800,000? But that's the reality that you live in, as long as there's a product out there, like sports, that TV networks are willing to pay a tremendous amount of money. And now you've got the athletes saying, "you know what, we're out here being the worker bees. We need a part of that, we need a bigger slice of that." I see it moving not back and not being retracted in any way, but moving towards a professional collegiate athlete, where they get paid a salary, where they get paid more than just tuition and books and room and board that they've been given for decades, but more towards a bigger piece of this pie because they are being taken advantage of by universities and university presidents and boards of trustees who now depend on that money, then can't wean themselves off of it. And the stadiums are getting bigger and bigger and more fancy and more complex, and the money demand is there. And it is going to be impossible to go back.
BM: And just real quickly, what responsibility do you think the NCAA has in all of this? It seems like they're the ones, you know, first to cash the checks of all the funds that you just described. But then they're always the ones that kind of shrug their shoulders and say we're just trying to monitor and we're trying to crack down. Do we need more transparency and more accountability at the NCAA level?
DH: Well, we do, but that transparency and power is given by the presidents of the universities. The presidents are the ones that are on the boards of directors, and they're the ones that make those decisions and they're the ones that empower the NCAA. But part of the problem is the big guys in college football, and college football runs everything. There are 16 to 25 teams in college football that run everything and they are saying to the NCAA you will let us do this, and you will let us do that, and well, we're gonna start our own league — we don't need you. And then what do you do? You're stuck. It's a form of blackmail right now
BM: Wow, interesting. Well there's a lot to discuss and a lot will happen as we get into the season. Let's not end on a down note — what are you most looking forward to and give us one prediction for the upcoming college football season?
DH: Well, I think the University of Utah is bound to have a great year. They could challenge for the Pac-12 Southern Division, could be in the Rose Bowl. I think BYU will be far better than people expect them to be. They've got a new offensive coach and staff with about 85 years combined experience and that's showing right now in football practice. The USU Aggies should be better, I think that they'll show what they can do. And the Wildcats ought to return to the divisional playoffs at Weber State University.
BM: Fantastic. Give us one national pick — who ends up in the national championship game?
DH: The people with the most money. I would say Alabama and Clemson.
BM: That’s a pretty safe bet. Dick Harmon from the Deseret News. Thanks so much for joining us today.
DH: All right. Thanks for having me.
BM: "Therefore, what?"
While the list of problems and what is wrong with college athletics is long and seems to be lengthening every day, the list of the solutions, that "Therefore, what?" component seems to be pretty short. And it's usually presented by a lot of the shoulder-shrugging administrators who swiftly pass the buck or say it's simply beyond their control. Well, not too long ago, I was given a gift that caused me to wonder if the solution to what ails college athletics could be as simple as a letter and a sweater. Let me tell you what I mean.
A number of years ago, I got a gift from my great-uncle, Marvin Pugh, who for many years was the oldest living letterman at the University of Utah here in Salt Lake City. He played guard for the Utes back in 1931 to 1935, and Uncle Marv presented me with one of his prized letterman sweaters. And equally important, he also gave me a copy of the letter he received from the university and the athletic council when he was given his sweater. And back in the old days, they would present the letterman sweater in front of the student body. So there was a little authority going there. And I remember looking at the "U" stitched in this, you know, deep crimson red sweater, and I read the letter from the council. And it made me think how simple the lessons of the gridiron had been, and how they've really become a bedrock for true character, which my great-uncle Marvin Pugh then parlayed into a life of significance and service and just an amazing, amazing legacy. And so I actually want to read as part of "Therefore, what?," because I think this is the answer to a lot of what ails college athletics. They read this letter to the student body and to the athlete as they presented their letterman sweater, and this is what it says:
"You are being granted a sweater emblematic of an athlete who has won the right to wear an official U. This means that you've complied with the rules of competition as laid out by the conference and also your own institution. Not only have you met the athletic rules, but also the scholastic rules. You have proved your absolute right to this award and it is the honor of the associated students to grant this award to you." And this is where it gets interesting — because this award is not merely a sweater with an emblem on it. It has years of tradition behind it. It stands for something far more than a mere piece of clothing. It means loyalty and service. Now for a bit of advice in its use. This is fantastic — it says: "this sweater is given to you and you alone. The public recognizes its wearer as having achieved athletic distinction. That's something that you cannot transfer or sell to others. No one else has a right to wear your sweater, the sweater is given to honor you and you alone, and you have no authority to pass that honor to someone else. This includes the trading of sweaters," which I guess was kind of a big thing back in the day, "the type of sweater you've been given is recognized by the public as meaning a certain thing and so you have no authority to trade it. It's vital that you keep your sweater clean, and under no condition should it be worn when it is not clean." I love that. Then it says, "we want you to use it. We like to have people respect you for having won such distinction. But that respect can only be maintained if you keep the sweater clean and under no conditions trade it." And then a little bit of housekeeping here: "It's made of excellent materials and will withstand cleaning.
"So you've got to keep it clean — there's no excuse for not having a clean sweater. Utah is proud to publicly mark you as one of its honored sons. Do your fair part as one of those honored to continue to merit that honor." And the final paragraph from the athletic council says one other thing: "By wearing this sweater, you identify yourself as an athlete, as a high-minded man and as a gentleman. And in so doing, it is your duty to wear the sweater only where respectable men gather. Any transgression of these rules may be taken up by the athletic counselor, and the offenders will be penalized accordingly. But we hope that will not be necessary."
And I love that — we talk about the "Therefore, what?" and what that means for the school, and what that would mean. Those are simple, powerful, practical words and principles. Principles that led Marvin Pugh to do some pretty cool things, not just during his playing days, but really set him on the right path for life. And think about this as we think about "Therefore, what?", how would the landscape of college football change if the letterman sweaters were only awarded to those who lived up to a higher standard of personal behavior? What if instead of wearing the sweater as a way to get perks and privileges and payoffs, athletes wore them to demonstrate their commitment, loyalty and service to their schools? How would the culture within athletic departments change if, rather than wearing their letter with an attitude of entitlement, student athletes wore them gratefully, with humility and with the quiet dignity that comes from being an honored son of the university? And how many people young and old alike would be inspired to be better if athletes were worthy role models and wore their sweater or their jacket as an emblem of their commitment to being a high-minded man and a true gentleman?3 comments on this story
So as we cruise into the fall, as we watch these athletes stepping off of buses and planes wearing those letterman jackets and sweaters, all of us should pause and ponder in a "Therefore, what?" moment the significance of what that letter and sweater truly represent. And the impact it could have on the life of a young man now and in the future. And in a tribute to my Uncle Marv, so while his playing days at the University of Utah in the 1930s were never really recorded in the history books, by living up to the standard of the letter on his sweater, his impact and influence has been recorded in countless hearts and minds and souls around the world. He made a difference as a loyal man, as a serving man, as an athletic man, as a high-minded man and as a gentleman. In short, he exemplified the simple solution, not only for what ails college football, but what is killing our country. He has shown the power of living to a higher standard character and the impact of a simple symbol like a letter on a sweater. Remember after the story is told, after the principle presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, what?"
Don't miss an episode. Subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseret News.com/podcast and subscribe to our newsletter This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, what?"