Friday, January 21, 2011

School Daze


Last week, El Hombre had the opportunity to interview the only Iranian playing Division I basketball. Arsalan Kazemi is a spring-loaded forward who’s averaging about 17 and 11 for Rice, and he doesn’t mention “jihad” or “Great Satan” whenever he talks about America. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from being detained every time he comes to the country by security officials who think he’s in the country to collect some yellowcake uranium or detonate an IED at the Rose Parade. At least his wait time has dropped, from six-and-a-half hours the first time he arrived here, to three hours. Pretty soon, he’ll get sent on his way with only a body-cavity scavenger hunt by Sausage Fingers McGee.

After discussing Kazemi’s journey from the crowded Iranian city of Esfahan to Houston, El Hombre asked the Owl sophomore if he was still studying economics, as an earlier article had revealed. The answer was depressing.

“I changed my major to sports management, with a minor in business, because it was too hard to study economics and play basketball,” he said.

Here’s a kid from Iran, who is clearly pretty sharp – why else would he think to tackle economics in the first place? – and the rigors of his sport have forced him to find an easier way to navigate Rice’s academic waters. Nothing against sports management majors; they may some day be running athletic departments and NBA franchises, but it’s sad that Kazemi has surrendered his original major for something that makes it easier for him to bounce the round ball. At least he’s still in a course of study that has the potential to serve him down the road. Most players who are shunted away from serious paths in the pursuit of great athletic glory are directed toward concentrations like astrology or history of grunge rock.

It’s time for college athletics to drop the sham and admit that they have taken over many of this nation’s fine academic institutions. The idea of sports as an extracurricular activity is quaint. The thought that it is a way for universities to promote themselves is antiquated. Today’s big-time (and big-time hopeful) programs are corporations that rival the professional teams from which they once worked so hard to separate themselves. Wednesday’s announcement that espn was paying the University of Texas $300 million for the rights to produce 20 years of the Longhorn Network just about sealed the deal. Even though Texas threw the pointy-heads a bone by endowing a pair of professor’s chairs with some of the booty, the windfall is the latest and most damning argument against college sports.

Most astonishing, at least from espn’s point of view is what the channel will run. Since Texas has deals with Fox and espn to televise the vast majority of its football and men’s basketball games, the LN will get one grid contest, most likely against Amarillo College of Animal Husbandry, and eight hoop games, with the centerpiece likely to be the annual clash with Iowa State. Other than that, we’re looking at 24 hours a day of “Olympic” sports and the ever-popular “shoulder programming,” of coaches’ shows, hard-hitting newsmagazines, feature shows (“Bevo’s Blind Date”) and other pap. Texas gets $15 mil a year, on top of the 10 large it takes in from IMG for radio and on-line rights and $10-15 million from the Big 12 for TV, bowls and NC2A tournament appearances. Last year, the school’s athletic budget was a nation’s-highest $137 million. Expect that to grow considerably as athletic administrators find ways to use espn cash to buy their wives burnt-orange mink coats. And El Hombre won’t even get into the conflict of interest between espn, which still purports itself to be a news-gathering organization, and one of the schools it covers.

As the coffers fill to capacity, the Athlete-Students continue to take the brunt of it, whether it’s through phony-baloney courses of “study,” onerous NC2A rules designed to favor institutions or a continued refusal to share the revenue streams that are generated through their hard work and sacrifice. Guys like Kazemi are the lucky ones. He’ll likely get a degree from a fine university like Rice. That should help him back home or here, once his basketball playing days are over. Others will leave school with no marketable skill and an “education” that prepares them little for the professional world. Meanwhile, the cash registers at factories like Texas continue to ring at record rates, and the professionalization of college sports continues at a breakneck pace. The Longhorn Network is the next step in a natural progression, but it’s one that causes more concern than the usual money grabs executed by big-time programs. While it’s unlikely East Carolina will get its own network any time soon, the barrier has been broken, and soon all the other big boys will want a TV channel of their own.

If they don’t get that, they’ll find some other way to rake in extra cash. Meanwhile, tuitions soar, academic programs are cut, and most professors’ salaries don’t come near those of coaches. Enjoy it all now, because in 10-15 years, the whole thing will be undistinguishable from the professional ranks – with one exception.

The players will be getting screwed.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Mr. Metallurgy dropped a resounding “Nyet!” on the Carmelo Anthony-to-New-Jersey trade, no doubt upsetting Nets fans in the short run but helping the team in the long haul. Anthony is a selfish scorer who will never win a ring, unless he plays a supporting role on an all-star team. You don’t want him as a leader, and his petulance and lack of professionalism this season prove that…Here’s some more big NBA news: Brandon Jennings will be replaced in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest lineup by DeMar DeRozan. DeWho DeCares? If the league were smart, it would lower the rims to 9 feet and have a Legends Dunk Contest featuring Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Darnell Hillman’s mighty, mighty Afro…TV analyst Todd Woodbridge’s series of gaffes surrounding the shape of tennis star Kim Clijsters is priceless. First, he texted a friend that Clijsters seemed “grumpy” and that her “boobs are bigger,” indications to him that she was pregnant. Then, in a televised interview, he asked outright whether Clijsters was indeed in the family way. What’s next, telling Serena Williams that her outfit makes “her butt look big?” Wise up, Todd…Off of Oahu, surfing officials are gearing up for the possibility of a rare “Eddie,” the contest that only takes place when wave heights reach 20 feet. Boarders from all over will head to the islands for next Thursday’s contest. The only rule: First one to California wins…There was some big news in college basketball earlier this week when John Calipari cursed out one of his players. The horror! There were also rumors Tom Izzo yelled at a ref, Coach K made a sarcastic comment and Jim Boeheim whined. Please.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The only thing moderately surprising about Andy Reid’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was that the Eagles’ coach told assembled media five days earlier that McDermott was coming back for the ’11 season. Reid usually equivocates in such situations, preferring instead to consider situations, look at film and read Tarot cards, rather than give a direct answer. Offering up McDermott makes perfect sense for a coach who is unwilling to take responsibility for his team’s defensive shortcomings. No amount of “that’s on me” comments can mask his rear-covering decision to axe McDermott, rather than acknowledge that not even Buddy Ryan could have crafted a bloodthirsty defense out of the shaky personnel Reid provided. The Eagles lack playmakers at all positions, have a crashing dearth of talent at cornerback behind Asante Samuel and don’t care about signing or drafting impact linebackers. Jim Johnson was a master, but he had far more talent at his disposal than did McDermott. It’s no surprise the coach was picked up immediately by the Panthers, because everybody around the league realized Reid was merely trying to protect himself at the expense of someone else. In the future, he’ll have to do a better job with that.

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AND ANOTHER THING: As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell prepares for the lockout and the 18-game season designed to line owners’ wallets and cripple the workforce, he’s probably popping open bottles of champagne every hour to celebrate the league’s conference title game matchups. It’s almost perfect. No stupid uniforms like the Cardinals’ all-red jobs or any Titans combination. Both games will be played on grass. Outdoors. There is tradition. There are great QBs. Expect a ratings bonanza – and two pretty good football games. The Jets and linebacker Bart Scott “CAN’T WAIT!” for their trip to Pittsburgh, but that thinking may be a little short-sighted. Sure, the Jets beat the Steelers in December, but Troy Polamalu did not play that day for Pittsburgh. New York has been impressive in defeating Indy and the Bradys, but taking down three straight heavyweights on the road is too tall a task. Pittsburgh 23, New York 14. The 183rd renewal of the Bears-Packers rivalry is the biggest one yet and only the second post-season meeting between the historic foes. Expect a steady dose of old-school footage before the game – thankfully – and a pair of rough-and-tumble defenses once kickoff comes. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers gets the edge over Chicago’s Jay Cutler, even though Cutler has played well of late, but the difference in this one will be the Packers’ underrated D. Green Bay 24, Chicago 17.


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