Unwritten code of college athletics

By The Daily Texan

Either the media are at the feet of college athletics or college athletics are at journalists’ throats. There’s no in-between.

Last month, The Daily Texan reported on its blog that the Austin Police Department suspended an assault with injury investigation in which Longhorns backup quarterback John Chiles was a suspect. When the Texan originally reported that APD confirmed Chiles as a suspect, assistant athletics director John Bianco wrote several threatening e-mails to Daily Texan sports editor and journalism senior Ricky Treon, calling him unprofessional and his reporting “untruthful.” Bianco warned that other news agencies (and potential employers) “realize how you do business now,” which “will hurt you in the long run.” He also said that if the Texan’s editors didn’t pull the post off the blog, “John Chiles would understandably have an issue with the entire paper,” which would be “unfortunate for the Texan’s long-term working relationship with him.”

Considering our football players’ history with arrests – close to 10 in the last year, for charges ranging from possession of marijuana to having an unlicensed gun to automobile burglary to probation violation – public concern about Longhorn athletes’ conduct is high, and the Texan has a duty to hold players accountable.

In a similar situation last September, Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy launched a heated tirade on Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist for The Oklahoman, after she wrote a highly critical column about then-player Bobby Reid. Carlson pointed out instances in which she felt Reid acted undesirably on camera, such as when he let his mother feed him chicken in public and when he laughed with an assistant coach during the final minutes of an embarrassing loss. Gundy claimed that three-fourths of Carlson’s column was inaccurate, but when she asked him to clear up the factual errors at a press conference, he replied: “I don’t have to.”

There are unwritten rules in covering college sports. The bottom line is that press scrutiny is simply not accepted by sports officials or the public fan base. At UT, reporters are not allowed to call athletes, and both athletes and reporters face being reprimanded for unauthorized interviews, no matter what the story is about. More importantly, university officials are under pressure to protect the image of their sports programs, which are at the forefront of bringing in money, identity and recognition to the school. According to NCAA estimates cited in a 2006 Chronicle of Higher Education article, the budgets of college athletics have been growing three to four times as fast as overall university budgets in recent years, and their profits are tax-exempt because government officials have long believed that college athletics contribute to the educational purpose of higher education.

The institution of college athletics is in need of major reform. The control that athletics has over the media and universities as a whole only perpetuates the sometimes higher-than-the-law attitudes of players and unfair practices of athletics officials. Sports officials such as Bianco and Gundy dedicate their energy to keeping players on their pedestals, but their vengeance only creates a facade to mask the underlying, decrepit institution of college athletics. Last month, Texas Tech student newspaper The Daily Toreador reported that Tech overspent its travel budget to the Gator Bowl by more than $200,000, and officials were demanding higher travel allowances. The Longhorns went $68,850 over their travel allowance for the 2007 Pacific Life Holiday Bowl in San Diego. According to UT athletics’ financial report for that trip, the team spent $38,117 on awards, $94,760 on complimentary tickets and $275,109 in supplemental staff pay – plus $17,618 on entertainment alone. And, the team’s total spendings on that trip were $550,000 more than that of the band and cheerleaders. It’s no wonder that athletics officials think they are invincible from the media and that some players seem to think they are invincible from the law.

A select few UT athletes enjoy a luxurious life of private cars and charter planes instead of buses and coach class. They are held to different admissions and academic standards than many fellow athletes and peers, and much recognition and revenue is dependent on their talent. But their actions have the potential to tarnish the image of UT athletics as a whole.

Even with the rash of arrests in the past year, University athletics programs will be harbingers of money and fame regardless of whether they give access to the media, which points to an unfortunate truth: They don’t need journalists, but journalists need them – and in this type of relationship, it’s the public that suffers the most in that it is less likely to get the truth beyond what happens on the field.