Monday, January 10, 2011

Oregon carries its own ethical questions into BCS title game

Tonight’s BCS national championship game between the Oregon Duck Star and the Auburn Tigers is about more than just the action on the field. There are rumours of shadowy background figures, stories of vast sums of money, and questions about undue influence floating around—and that’s just on the Oregon side!

I’m obviously exaggerating for effect there, but it does bother me a bit that all the questions people are raising about ethics and morality are surrounding Auburn, and particularly Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton. I’m not here to defend Newton or the NCAA’s convoluted decision to declare him eligible despite finding evidence of a pay-for-play scheme that’s certainly against their rules as they currently stand. Whether those rules are right or not is another question entirely, and whether it’s possible to change them in a way that’s fair and equitable to all athletes is yet another issue, but I understand where the people who want to put black hats on Auburn are coming from. I don’t necessarily agree, but I understand it.

What I don’t get is the corresponding desire to paint Oregon as the good guys, the cavalry that are going to come charging over the hill to save amateurism from the evil Cam Newton. To me, the Oregon program comes with just as many questions, and yet few of them have really been talked about much. The Newton story revolves around a reported demand of $200 thousand; Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight has reportedly given $200 million to the Oregon athletics department over the last 25 years. Here’s what Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated recently wrote:
Knight's influence on Oregon is so great that calling him a booster is like calling the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a concerned citizen. Without Knight, Oregon would be thrilled to go to the Holiday Bowl. Without Knight, Oregon would be asking for money instead of printing it.
Without Knight, Oregon would be ... (gasp!) Oregon State.
Knight holds the key to Oregon athletics in his wallet, and everybody there knows it. The new basketball gym -- Matthew Knight Arena, named after Phil's late son -- is his project. The school's uniforms, more than any other team's, are a billboard for his company, Nike. There is a sense that every new building and every important hire needs Knight's stamp of approval.
And John Henderson, in The Denver Post:
How do you go from one of the pack to one of a kind? How does Colorado go from the bowels of the Big 12 Conference to battling Oregon at the top of the Pac-12? Find a booster like Phil Knight.
They aren't found at the local Elks Lodge. No Colorado alumnus is worth $11 billion, is a former athlete at the school and is one of its most rabid fans. But the power of one wealthy, loyal booster can change the course of an entire athletic department and, thus, a university.
What has Knight meant to Oregon?
Said Bellotti, "What is the sun to life on Earth?"
The main difference seems to be that Knight and Nike are playing by the NCAA’s rules. In an athletic environment that claims to value amateurism but is really about big bucks, they aren’t daring (at least not that we know of) to go around actually giving money to the players who do the real work and sacrifice their bodies. Instead, they’re dumping money into swanky new facilities, highly-regarded coaches and fancy uniform designs that turn those unpaid players into walking, talking advertisements for an apparel company that carries its own set of ethical concerns. All of that appears perfectly fine with the NCAA, which wants amateur players but professional quality in everything else. Meanwhile, the NCAA sees Cecil Newton’s reported scheme and others’ similar moves as the real problem. There is some merit to that, as Newton’s scheme directly contravenes the rules while Knight’s works within them. All I’m saying is from this corner, the shadow Phil Knight casts over Oregon is just as ominous as Cecil Newton’s over Auburn. Root for either, but let’s not reduce this to a good guys-bad guys story.

[Meanwhile, on the yes-there's-an-actual-game-going-on front, here's my prediction:  Oregon 31, Auburn 24. Things should go well for Auburn initially, but Oregon’s conditioning might give them the edge in the second half. I think Darron Thomas can move the chains against Auburn’s struggling secondary, and that could open running holes for LaMichael James. For more detailed analysis, I point you to Matt Hinton, Chris Brown and Spencer Hall.] 

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