Big money talks in sports but fans are short-changed

Big money talks in sports but fans are short-changed

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Money, the root of all evil, or so the Bible says, but you don’t need the Good Book to understand that in today’s U.S. and global sports worlds.  Wherever you look it is disconcerting and often ugly, mirroring the cancer of big money in American politics. 

Something is truly wrong with this fast evolving picture.

The corrosive effect of big money is increasingly evident in professional and college sports and it is creeping into high school sports as college recruiters open their wallets to select high school athletes.

Let’s start with the university level.  Boundless TV money is distorting values and integrity in collegiate sports, enriching the coaches who are in control while wreaking havoc with conference realignments, undercutting decades-long school rivalries, and creating tensions in the locker room. 

The respected Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics Sept. 6 report highlights these developments. Its conclusions are deeply concerning. One key finding: compensation in nine major universities for 11 “countable” football coaches per school now exceeds “the total athlete scholarships and medical expenses for all college athletes across all sports at that school.” That number will reach 25 in 10 years, according to the study, which goes on to call for action today to address this inequity.

Meanwhile, university presidents are paid much less than coaches at most major football schools. One example: University of Georgia President Morehead’s salary is less than at least seven UGA coaches or assistant coaches.

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Name, image and likeness (NIL) money is also disrupting collegiate sports, where star athletes change schools at whim in search of bigger money and building their brands, and one Division 1 quarterback flashing a $75,000 jewel encrusted watch. Meanwhile, supporting players toil in uncompensated anonymity. Athletic directors have shifted focus from “recruitment” to “acquisition and retention” of athletes, whose education becomes lost in the shuffle. For its part, the NCAA is now pressing Congress to grant antitrust status to the NCAA to blunt the prospect of collegiate athletes becoming “employees” in a legal sense.

And there’s golf, a wonderful game damaged by the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) maneuver via the Greg Norman-led LIV to buy the services of 48 leading professionals to help the Saudi government gain political respectability in the West while “sport washing” its brutal human rights record.  Making it worse, the subsequent “merger” agreement between the PGA and the Saudi PIV-LIV is rife with PGA self-dealing and insider machinations to the profit of a few individuals. It is no wonder that the U.S. Congress is looking into what is going on and what it signifies for the future.

But the most insidious big money development of all is the perverse and pervasive expansion and condonement of legal gambling within the sports world, as leading athletes and celebrities shill for gambling companies via countless television ads. This is the most lamentable, if not intolerable, aspect of big money in American sports in the 21st century; it seems sure eventually to affect performance and outcomes. Sadly, NFL Commissioner Goodell has openly admitted that, because the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gambling interests, “we have to be in that space.”

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While some may win financially, others will not. But, overall, we are all losers in the end if competitive credibility suffers. It is no surprise that at least 10 NFL players have already been suspended to various degrees due to their links to gambling activities and the number of offending athletes at the collegiate level is growing.  In golf, some fans have disrupted play to distract players in their efforts to win personal wagers.

For some, this corrosiveness does not concern. Teams are playing, fans are cheering, and games entertain.  But for those who play sports for the love of the game and value the challenge of legitimate competition, it is alarming and heartbreaking.

Sports leaders at the professional and quasi-professional (collegiate) level, big corporation marketers, and the Saudi PIF should reconsider the direction they are leading our sports world.  Perhaps they – if necessary, encouraged or mandated by Congress – will deign to channel some of their financial firepower into lower ticket and concession prices and perhaps, at universities, into lower tuition costs for all students. Ideally, popular reaction will temper the emerging collegiate excesses documented by the Knight Commission.

Sadly, it may take a major betting scandal – or scandals – a la the infamous Chicago “Black Sox” throwing of the 1919 World Series, to make America’s sports leaders recognize what their greed portends to the detriment to the country’s great sports culture. 

Let’s hope a young fan of today never has to say, as did a youngster a century ago in reportedly challenging the White Sox’s “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

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Mike Mozur is a retired U.S. State Department Senior Foreign Service officer and environmental executive who now lives in the Pensacola area.


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