The flaw in David Shaw's utopian plan

The flaw in David Shaw's utopian plan
July 29, 2013, 12:45 pm
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Stanford University football head coach David Shaw led the Cardinal to a 2013 Rose Bowl victory. (AP IMAGES)

Stanford is Switzerland in a cutthroat nation, and Shaw is asking everyone else to be Switzerland, too.
Ray Ratto

David Shaw is that most fascinating of college football coaches – the true believer who really is.

The problem, of course, is that he stands nearly alone in an industry that has only three goals – winning, making money, and doing more of both.

Shaw has said more than once, and to whomever wants to listen, that he finds the debate over stipends for college football players to miss the point. For him, the problems with college football do not start with paying players a stipend, but end there.

The important metric for him is graduation rates. He believes that players are getting free tuition and contacts for the future, and should be allowed to make the pursuit of the education and contacts the real task. “Our job,” he says, “is to teach these guys how to make a living and not have them make a living in college.”

He is, in short, the highest ranking Quixote in the game – a man who believes to his very soul that all the virtues of college sports are already there to be had without paying players for being players.

And he is correct – for his situation, in his present job. Stanford is Switzerland in a cutthroat nation, and Shaw is asking everyone else to be Switzerland, too.

But most athletic directors, coaches and players understand how the system actually works. At the top levels of college sports, you win or you walk. Revenue sports trump school, and damned near every time. You can get an education if you can fit it in, but one must know one’s priorities –or hit the bricks.

Therein lies the major flaw in Shaw’s utopian plan (the minor flaw is that a stipend doesn’t negate the powers of education and contacts). The fact is, paying athletes cannot corrupt a process already spectacularly corrupted by adults. The Darwinian nature of the college athletics industry has been made all the more cynical and cash-driven by the way the large universities are congealing into a fist for a fight with the NCAA over who will control both supply and demand of this very lucrative product.

[RATTO: Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby calls for NCAA reform]

Stanford is a private and insular place, unusually so in the athletic world. It doesn’t fire coaches often, it rarely runs into legal problems with players, and it is such a secure environment that Shaw’s view is understandable. If you’re a Stanfordite, you are one for life.

That, though, is not the experience in the majority of schools. Most schools are chasing money and players with considerable aggression and with minimal regard for Shaw’s list of verities. Coaches do not save their jobs with high graduation rates, and athletic directors do not save theirs by backing coaches with high graduation rates and low winning percentages. In too many places, education happens almost by accident, and given the conditions that prevail, it is hard to make the case that those schools are wrong in their thinking.

Now maybe if the topic were less about stipends and more about guaranteed scholarships and free transfers, Shaw would find common ground with the reformers. As it is, players get squeezed on all ends, and between the stories about abusive coaches and players who are prevented from transferring to schools listed by the coaches they are leaving, the idea of paying players has become synonymous with giving them their rights.

It isn’t, of course. Paying players is the conversation that happens after their scholarships are deemed safe and their transfer rights defended. And calling education and contacts the real goal for any athlete is at odds with the visible evidence that winning games and making money to maintain the machinery is the real goal of every program.

In short, Shaw can be absolutely right (“I’m a purist on this,” he likes to say), but he is also standing in a very short line. The vast majority of his contemporaries operate on a more linear level. They know where the butter is breaded, how the butter is made and who wields the knives.

And there’s the downside of being a purist in a cruelly pragmatic world. David Shaw’s view of the world makes sense in his world, but the world outside his world is a very different and harsher place indeed.

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