Sports Editorial: Ralph Nader Gets You

James Blankenship, Sports Editor

Guess what Oberlin athlete? Ralph Nader gets you. In fact, Ralph Nader wants athletes across the nation to be more like you, and why not? You strive to balance life and love, finding just enough time to make those weekend mistakes that so gracefully drag us into adulthood.

What separates you from your counterparts at Public U? Athletic scholarships. And unethical cash transactions. Oh, and sex. Also, criminal records (hopefully).

Never one to seek the spotlight, Mr. Nader appeared on ESPNs Outside The Lines to discuss his endorsement of a proposal that would essentially eliminate athletic scholarships and replace them with need-based aid. While Nader’s League of Fans, a self-described “sports-reform project to encourage social and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture,” seems about as legit as an online girlfriend, they may be up on to something.

“By eliminating the athletic scholarship and replacing it with need-based financial aid, we could de-professionalize college athletes,” he said. “[We could] reestablish athletic departments as part of the educational institution, and be able to use the term ‘student-athlete’ without snickering.” He deserves credit, not so much for the proposal itself (which is impractical at best), but for clearly articulating the seemingly obvious problems troubling high-profit college athletics.

Yet for some, these problems aren’t so obvious. According to, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams believes that referring to college athletes as professionals defies logic.

“They are students,” he said, “Just like any other student on campus who receives a merit-based scholarship.”

Are they really? In Oberlin, particularly when compared to their Division I opposites, student-athletes are approachable and human. They don’t have hordes of people following them around telling them how great they are. They don’t have multi-million dollar clubhouses and stadiums. Most importantly, they don’t receive athletic scholarships.

So perhaps here, in our little hole in the wall, the student-athletes and non-student-athletes do find some common ground. What about at a school like Ohio State? Or Auburn? Or basically any school with a half-decent Division I football and/or basketball program?

HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel recently profiled four former Auburn football players who admitted to receiving lump sums of cash in book bags, envelopes and handshakes while playing in college. One said that, during recruiting visits to LSU, Michigan State and Ohio State, he received money handshakes and even sexual favors.

So yea, Bob, you may be right. I mean, as long as “any other student on campus” receiving a merit-based scholarship at a Division I school with relevant football and/or basketball programs also receives bags of cash and sexual favors, then you’re right on the button.

But, just in case that’s not how things work, maybe we should reevaluate the system. One of those former Auburn football players recorded four sacks against rival Alabama during one season and left the locker room only to receive four bags of cash totaling over $4,000. How many times has that happened to you or someone you know? Wait, how many times has that happened to someone you know who doesn’t get involved in drugs? Exactly.

Maybe, just maybe, the high school football and basketball players who are being recruited to these schools are as innocent as angels. Hell, maybe they go to school, go to practice, do their homework, and still find time to volunteer at the local homeless shelter.

Admittedly, it would be pretty hard not to bend some rules to recruit a kid of that caliber, especially if his athletic abilities are off the charts. He or she boosts the school academically, while also generating millions of dollars in revenue for the athletic department.

The fact of the matter is that far too many of these athletes carry a criminal record with them into college, and the vast majority of schools do little to nothing about it.

In an article published early last March, CBS News and Sports Illustrated published data regarding the criminal background checks they conducted on over 2,800 college football players. Exhaustive checks were done on every player on the opening day rosters of Sports Illustrated’s 2010 pre-season Top 25 teams, and the results were disturbing.

On those teams, more than 200 players were either arrested or cited by the police a total of 277 times. This means that one out of every 14 players had a record.

In all, 40 percent were arrested for serious crimes, including 25 for assault and battery, robbery, domestic violence and sex crimes. Of the more than 100 drug and alcohol-related offenses, 27 were DUI’s.

According to co-author Jeff Benedict, “Even the coaches don’t know the full extent of a player’s criminal history.”

Despite those jarring statistics, only two of the 25 schools perform any kind of regular criminal background check on incoming recruits. Benedict went on to mention that in Florida, a recruiting hot spot, a complete criminal history from juvenile to adult costs a mere $25, and schools are “in a position where there’s really no excuse not to do it.”

These statistics have little significance without consideration of Nader’s argument: that Division I schools, at least in terms of the relevant football and basketball programs, have done more than blur the line between amateurism and professionalism.

The University of Pittsburgh, fortunate enough to earn a spot atop the study, had the most players with police records at 22. A four-year education there would cost you at least $100,000. So, naturally, what I gathered from all of this information is that these schools are more willing to hand $100,000 to a criminal than they are to pay $25 for the purpose of learning about their investment.

Did I mention that last season’s Fiesta Bowl participants, in the form of watches, hats, electronics, backpacks, mountain bikes and recliner chairs, received $500 worth of gifts each just for showing up? Obviously these schools have the money to do their due diligence in recruiting athletes, they just don’t care to. The truth is that they, from the athletic director to the coach himself, don’t want to know.

Nader’s proposal is certainly radical, and more a ploy to draw attention to the issue than to actually solve it. But before you say things like, “Everyone deserves a second chance,” and, “They’re just kids,” consider this: If someone offered you $100,000, random cash for expenses, unlimited exposure and support, and sexual favors on their tab, would you think they were offering you a corporate job or a football scholarship?