By Jordan Korbitz
For college coaches, Bob Dylan’s title track to his 1964 album could just as easily apply today. Examples of the changing tide in collegiate athletics abound, the most recent being the termination of Illinois football coach Tim Beckman on the eve of the 2015 season.
At first glance, Beckman’s firing could be attributed to his 12-25 record over three non-descript seasons at Illinois. But the decision to fire Beckman had nothing to do with wins and losses. Earlier this year the University commissioned an investigation after allegations surfaced that Beckman and his staff had influenced medical decisions and mistreated players. The coach was let go even before a final report was issued.
On May 9, former lineman Simon Cvijanovic tweeted that the coach and his assistant coaches tried to shame him into playing hurt. Furthermore, according to Cvijanovic, they misled him about medical procedures after he suffered a knee injury. An outside law firm was engaged to investigate those charges. By announcing the firing before the investigation was completed, Athletic Director Mike Thomas confirmed that the complaints against the coach and his staff had merit. To emphasize that point, Illinois said Beckman would not be paid the $3.1 million remaining on the final two years of his contract nor would he receive the $743,000 buyout.
In a written statement Beckman professed “shock and disappointment” over the decision, denied taking “any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players” and claimed that “the health and well-being of our student-athletes is of paramount importance.” Beckman’s statement and his actions prove that he is oblivious to the changing environment that has enveloped collegiate sports. And he isn’t alone.
Earlier this year the NCAA voted to permit schools to pay student-athletes a stipend equal to the difference between a scholarship and the full cost of attendance. A number of institutions have taken advantage of that option, subsidizing their players with cash payments upwards of $5,000 per year. But not all colleges understand the purpose behind the stipend.
In a move right out of the Tim Beckman playbook, last week Virginia Tech (VT)—$10 for missing breakfast, $50 for a dirty locker, $90 for missing a class—and deducting the money from the new stipends. After word of the proposal, which violates NCAA rules, was leaked to the media rational heads prevailed and it was nixed before it could be implemented.
While VT’s coaches had a commendable goal—imparting discipline to their student-athletes—they were using the wrong means to achieve it. And their timing couldn’t have been worse. VT’s actions run counter to the NCAA’s argument that players are amateurs—“student-athletes” to use the NCAA’s preferred vernacular—and gives impetus to the governing body’s critics.
Many coaches are oblivious to current events. Last year’s O’Bannon decision requires colleges to compensate student-athletes for their publicity rights when their images are used by schools for marketing purposes. The decision also paved the way for the cost of attendance stipends. The NCAA and individual schools have been named as defendants in multiple concussion law suits alleging a lack of proper protocols to prevent and treat concussions. Additional litigation on both issues is inevitable.
Also in 2014 a regional NLRB hearing officer determined that Northwestern football players were employees of the University and entitled to unionize. The full board declined to hear the case but they did not say the hearing examiner was wrong in his conclusion. The misguided actions by Illinois and VT are further evidence that college players need the protection of a union to protect their rights.
Perhaps we shouldn’t blame coaches for not understanding the changing environment brought about by the O’Bannon case, the NCAA’s decision to authorize stipends and the effort to unionize college athletes. After all, coaches are used to having total control of their programs with the full support of the administration. Thanks in part to the use of social media—which is how we first learned about Beckman’s transgressions at Illinois— that is no longer the case. Beckman’s firing was a clear signal that coaches are operating in new territory.
The times indeed are a-changin’.
(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog SportsBeyondTheLines.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)