OK, pop quiz. Which of the following organizations asks its labor force to open personal checking accounts with the help of office superiors, submit individual financial budgets for workplace review and allow supervisors to monitor private, after-hours spending habits in the name of -- ahem -- “financial literacy?”
(A) The Central Intelligence Agency
(B) The Ohio State University football team
Pencils down. Believe it or not, the correct answer is “B.” (Though “A” might have helped the CIA catch notorious mole Aldrich Ames a bit sooner.) According to a recent report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ohio State now “strongly encourages” student athletes to obtain bank accounts with the help of school officials, who in turn set budgets and keep an eye on spending. In fact, football players reportedly aren’t even allowed to suit up unless they agree to let assistant coaches snoop on their personal finances.
And that’s not the half of it.
In the wake of a tattoos-for-memorabilia scandal that violated National Collegiate Athletic Association amateurism rules and left this year’s undefeated Buckeyes squad bowl-season ineligible, the school has increased its annual athletic department compliance budget to more than $1 million and upped the size of its corresponding department to 14 full-time employees -- four more people than are on the football squad’s coaching staff. Where are the money and manpower going? Toward background checks on the 4,000-some people who receive free game tickets from football players, the better to sniff out agents and other undesirables. Toward investigating license plate numbers jotted down during regular surveillance walks through the players’ parking lot. And toward hiring a former NCAA investigator whose job, according to the New York Times, is to “educate local businesses -- like barbershops, nightclubs and tattoo parlors -- on NCAA rules.”
Rule No.1? Apparently, it’s start snitchin’.
In fairness, Ohio State isn’t alone. The school simply stands on the bleeding edge, and as the logical, inevitable extension, of contemporary college sports surveillance. Don’t get me wrong: schools aren’t the wiretap-happy National Security Agency. NCAA president Mark Emmert does not have a secret room where he can track the movements and conversations of Division I revenue-producing athletes while wearing a codpiece and a horned rubber helmet. Still, things are heading in a Big Brother-ish direction. Last fall, North Carolina university system president Thomas Ross told a college sports reform commission that a proposed $2,000 increase in athlete grants should be given out on debit cards, which would allow campus administrators to examine purchase receipts, instead of as cash.
As Time magazine, the New York Times and Deadspin have reported, more than a dozen schools -- including North Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas Tech and Auburn -- have hired independent watchdog companies to provide and maintain software that spies on athletes’ social media accounts. One of those companies, UDiligence, installs cell phone apps that scans users’ Facebook and Twitter pages for words (profanity, the words “party” and “assclown”) and texting terms (“a$clown”) that indicate possible unwanted activity, and then sends corresponding alerts to coaches and compliance staff. Utah State University takes matters one step further, requiring athletes to “grant full permission for the university and other third-party monitors to gain access to the 'friends only,' 'private,' and similarly designated areas" of their social-networking pages … all while touting a social-networking policy that “supports and encourages the individual's right of free speech.”
Needless to say, all of this qualifies as awful. Revoltingly un-American. And also completely insane. Don’t take my overheated word for it: Ask someone who works on privacy rights for a living.
“There’s nothing else out there that I’m aware of that is this extreme,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “There’s tons of monitoring of workplace computers. But here, we’re talking about people’s private phones and financial activities. It wouldn’t be acceptable for an employer to monitor an employee’s life to that degree.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, college officials don’t think they’re doing anything unacceptable, let along downright wrong. To the contrary, they seem to believe they’re doing athletes a favor. Benevolently carrying the Bureaucratic Man’s Burden, in fact. Take Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who told The New York Times that football players simply are being taught how to balance checkbooks, draw up budgets and read the fine print of apartment leases. “This is about education,” he told the newspaper. “It’s not about Big Brother. It’s about helping young people become managers of their assets. It’s a financial literacy program.” Oh, sure. There used to be a name for those kinds of programs: Home Ec. But let’s be real. If Ohio State’s banking watchdoggery was truly benign, harmless and designed to teach young people how to keep their fiscal houses in order, then wouldn’t the school be offering the same program to its entire student body? Or mandating it? Wouldn’t chemistry students be asked to share their checking account passwords with their lab instructors?
Heck, wouldn’t students from every walk of campus life be volunteering for such a wonderful service?
Instead, Ohio State’s monitoring is for athletes only. Athletes who are “strongly encouraged” to participate. (Cue Jon Stewart Mafioso-parody voice: Hey, it would be a real shame if something happened to your playing time.) The reasons for this are obvious. And ominous. Like all internal police -- both the KGB and NFL Security come to mind -- the emerging college sports security apparatus doesn’t exist to protect the grateful population carrying on under its all-knowing gaze. It exists to protect the powerful. To enforce the rules. To uphold the status quo.
From a calculating, utterly self-interested standpoint, it's understandable why schools and athletic departments want to get out in front of amateurism violations, to nip potential scandals and public embarrassments in the bud.
It’s cheaper that way.
Scandals cost money. Serious money. There are lawyers to pay, investigations to complete, reports to compile, public relations crisis management plans to implement. Did we mention the lawyers? There are staggering opportunity costs, too, the ones that come with postseason bans -- punishments, by the way, that are arguably unfair even within the NCAA’s own private snow globe of ludicrous jurisprudence, because after all, said punishments generally fall upon coaches and players who had nothing to do with the rule-breaking in question.
Had undefeated Ohio State been eligible to play in the Rose Bowl this season, they would have earned a $22.3 million payout. That’s far more than the school’s $1.1 million compliance budget, even after Big Ten postseason revenue sharing. Moreover, big-time football teams essentially serve as marketing tools, a way to juice admissions, encourage alumni giving and generally contribute to a school’s financial and psychic bottom line. Your favorite players are running, jumping billboards. Bad press damages the brand. As Ohio State board of trustees member Robert H. Schottenstein told the New York Times, “the biggest take-away from what happened with our football team is that the single most precious asset any institution has is our reputation. You cannot put too great a value on how important it is to protect that. Compliance is the tangible guardian of that reputation.”
He’s right, in a narrow, pathetic sense; right in that it’s better to not break NCAA rules and then get caught. And that’s my first, less important objection to college sports surveillance: I’m unconvinced that the practice will actually work as intended. The point of what Time’s Sean Gregory dubs “e-babysitting” is the point of all lawyer-designed remedies. Limiting risk. Minimizing exposure. Yet as Gregory astutely points out, snooping creates its own liability risks. Probable blowback. “What if the monitors miss a threatening tweet,” he writes, “and an athlete harms someone?” Subsequent lawsuits could cost schools millions -- and if those schools are public universities, the bill could be footed by taxpayers. As sports law attorney Bradley Shear told Time, “the more information you're collecting, the more responsibility you have. Doing blanket monitoring is nuts.”
Now consider why Ohio State is on probation in the first place. Because players traded memorabilia for cash and tattoos. And because former coach Jim Tressel tried to cover that up. Consider almost any college sports scandal not involving point-shaving, academic cheating or Joe Paterno. They invariably involve athletes receiving “impermissible benefits,” everything from Reggie Bush’s parents getting a house to Myck Kabongo getting a gratis workout with a basketball trainer. The horror. The horror. To believe that running campus athletics like Spy vs. Spy -- or, if you prefer, in the manner of Scott Pioli suffering a paranoid episode -- will somehow stop and/or slow college sports’ well-lubricated, long-grooved underground economy seems to fundamentally misunderstand both human motivation and, well, common sense.
Regarding the latter, The Big Lead’s Ty Duffy puts it best. “What student-athlete would be responsible enough to deposit cash slipped to him by a booster,” he writes, “but dumb enough to deposit it in that [school-monitored] checking account?” Indeed. Remember those terrible, no-good, very-bad free Ohio State tattoos? They came courtesy of a barter system. There was no bank involved. College athletes aren’t fools. Monitor the parking lot, and they’ll likely park their prohibited “loaner” cars somewhere else; keep tabs on their bank accounts, and they’ll make sure that “money handshakes” are cash-only.
As for the reason athletes accept goodies with open palms, Ohio State’s Smith told the Chronicle of Higher Education that “some of our guys from low socioeconomic environments were getting a $3,000 Pell Grant, and all of a sudden they're spending it on an iPhone and whatever else today's bling is. Now, we're teaching them about their cars, their apartment leases, and how to have a budget … we want coaches saying, 'Help me understand why you have a [bank-imposed] hold on your account, why you're delinquent in paying your apartment lease.' It gives us a chance to see if they're going to get into financial problems, and that they don't go find another way to take care of it.”
Translation? Jocks are too young, dumb and just plain poor to manage their meager stipends, and once they blow their money on silly, flashy things like iPhones -- really, what kind of wannabe Queen of Versailles college kid owns a phone that has, like, the Interwebs and stuff on it? The nerve! -- they have no choice but to take under-the-table payments. This, of course, is ludicrous. It's doubtful Smith believes it. Athletes don’t take money because they haven’t been properly trained in Excel and Quicken. They aren’t a Suze Orman seminar away from happily complying with the NCAA’s byzantine and infuriating restrictions. Athletes take money because, again, they’re not idiots. They understand television contracts. And coaching salaries. And administrator salaries, too. They know the price of season tickets and replica jerseys.
They know they have value. Real, cash money market value. Only somebody somewhere decided that as college athletes they’re not allowed to realize that value, not fully, because a bunch of elitist English rowers once said doing so would be morally wrong, a violation of amateur purity, even though no one else on campus or in America is held to the same arbitrary and capricious standard, a standard extolled and upheld by powerful adults who would dissolve in a puddle of incredulous giggles if asked to practice it in their own lines of work. (See Gee, Gordon, president of Ohio State University, $64,000 bow tie allowance. Exhibit A of college sports gold-plating. The prosecution rests.)
This, in turn, is the fundamental problem with college sports surveillance: It exists to protect amateurism. Not students. Amateurism. A philosophy rooted in shielding athletes from goodies and compensation that other people cheerfully and willingly want to give to them. Is this the purpose of higher education? (Note: rhetorical question.) Colleges have two basic missions, both of them paternal, neither of them suffocating. No. 1: Educate students. No. 1a: Protect them. Yet by policing Tweets and snooping on bank accounts and telling athletes what they may and may not earn, just because we say so, are schools advancing either goal?
Are they teaching players how to think for themselves? How to make mistakes and learn from them? How to function in an adult world where no one is going to tell you what you can and can’t afford? How to recognize an absurd invasion of privacy that members of the student band probably wouldn't put up with? Recall Smith’s quote:
… Some of our guys from low socioeconomic environments were getting a $3,000 Pell Grant, and all of a sudden they're spending it on an iPhone and whatever else today's bling is …
Here is the specific message spying sends, and the broader lesson amateurism teaches. College athletes, you can’t be trusted. Not with a debit card. Not with a computer. Not with a salary. Not with bargaining power, and definitely not with legal representation, those no-goodnik agents, the same awful, exploitative pimps that represent coaches. Your school isn’t interested in protecting you; your school is interested in protecting itself from you. You are being watched. Because your popularity and your very existence both threaten the same profit-hoovering false idol they make possible, the great and mighty amateur Oz.
More than once, I’ve likened college sports’ stubborn defense of amateurism to the War on Drugs. Of course, there’s one key difference: while prohibition is a mostly genuine (if wholly misguided) attempt to alleviate the serious public health problems of drug abuse and addiction, amateurism is designed to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist. There’s nothing morally wrong or physically harmful about playing sports for money. Still, because both systems fight losing battles -- paddling ceaselessly against market forces while blithely wishing away human desire -- both require ever-expanding enforcement mechanisms. Both possess the self-perpetuating logic of a snowball rolling downhill. Prohibition led to the creation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It greatly expanded the size and investigative scope of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an organization founded in 1908 with just 12 agents -- two fewer employees than Ohio State’s current compliance department, in case you're keeping score.
Earlier this year, California and Delaware passed laws forbidding colleges to require or request that students divulge personal social media information. That’s a start. It’s hardly enough. If schools find that a little spying is good, they’ll quickly conclude that a lot of spying is better; the more compliance officers learn about athletes’ personal lives, the more they’ll want to know. Forget “financial literacy.” When it comes to covering one’s rear, restraint is seldom a virtue. “Want to act like a college kid, and unwind at a local bar?” Time’s Gregory writes. “Be careful about dropping too much cash. A coach might find out you stayed out late.” This is college sports as campus security state, and the future likely is more. More invasiveness. More control. More icy economic self-interest masquerading as warm, caring paternalism. More doubling down on amateurism, and less reflection on a basic question: if administering the law means tying your professed values into grotesque, unrecognizable knots -- every linebacker coach a part-time forensic accountant! -- then is the law worth having in the first place?