I was the epitome of the selfish college athlete. During my freshman year at Notre Dame, I led the team in assists and looked headed for a bright future on a team that was finding its legs in the Big East. I considered myself a leader on a team that many believed would have NCAA tournament potential in 1996-97, when I was to be a sophomore.
That was when greed and the dark side of human nature kicked in. After the season, sitting in a dorm room of a kid who let me use his computer, I stole a credit card, charged a couple items on it, and put it back in the same spot the next night. I did it to two other guys too. Why did I do it? Because I thought I could get away with it. I didn't need the money -- my parents weren't rich, but my dad always sent me $400 a month spending money in school, which was plenty. But I did it, I got caught, was asked to leave Notre Dame and was immediately confronted with just how selfish the act was.
Selfish to my teammates, who were now down a point guard. Selfish to my dorm-mates at Dillon Hall, who would now lock their doors after I stole the sanctity of what should have been their safe haven. Selfish to my family, which had sacrificed so I could have this incredible opportunity and would be stained by this. My coach, John MacLeod, never made the NCAA tournament the program seemed destined for, and was fired along with his entire staff after what would have been my senior year. Seventeen years have passed, and I still draw a straight line between what I did and the fact that MacLeod and his assistants Fran McCaffery, Terry Tyler and Parker Laketa had their careers impacted and families uprooted.
After Notre Dame, I transferred to Oklahoma State and had a great career under Eddie Sutton, who had his own demons but preached accountability for my past and the need to work to be a better man. I'm now 37, with a wife and kids and good job and am still judged by a lot of people for something incredibly stupid I did when I was 20. I'll probably be judged by those same people when I'm 67, though since the people I hurt have forgiven me, I couldn't care less what outsiders think. I keep with me a gold bracelet I bought with one of the credit cards as a reminder of my shame.
Which brings us to Johnny Manziel, also 20 years old, who is being called a selfish college athlete too and will probably come to regret the actions of his younger life. Common sense and logic dictates that, in spite of the lack of evidence needed to suspend him, Manziel didn't sign all those autographs purely out of the goodness of his heart. What he allegedly did wasn't criminal -- what I did was -- but we put our teammates, our families, our coaches at risk in much the same way.
Johnny has that same arrogance I had. The difference is nobody was putting me on the cover of Time Magazine, making me a poster boy for why college athletes should be paid.
Time's piece, published last week, is thoughtful and worth reading. It considers the current economics of college sports and makes the point that with schools and athletic departments making more money than ever, athletes are being slighted more than ever. That they deserve to be paid, above and beyond the barter of a scholarship. But the contention is wrong. The statistics Time cites are misleading at best, and remarkably undersell not only the value of a college education, but also the value of simply getting into a university.
How many scholarships are given to athletes who never would have received the chance to go to college, much less to have free everything while there? While there are some tangibles within the business of college sports we can put a dollar value on, there is no calculation on simply getting into college. I invite writers and fans to read, ask around and research how difficult admissions standards are for mid- to high-level universities, private schools and also high-level public schools, especially when those students come from out of state. Many college football and basketball players are simply not academically able to get into schools of this caliber, yet the sport they play grants them special admissions status. Cal, UCLA, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Michigan, Texas, Texas A&M, Florida, North Carolina, Duke and many others are ridiculously difficult to get into, and remarkably expensive once you get in, but no one puts a true financial value on admissions.
Once you're there, your scholarship is a contract that binds you to your school. One side of the deal is this: we pick up everything. All you have to do is show up, keep your grades at a marginal level, and you can be part of the most exclusive club on campus. You will be trained in both your sport and your post-athletics career path. If you begin grad school while you are eligible, guess who picks up the tab? Not you. Many scholarship football players are on campus for five years, during which time they receive free tutoring, the best counseling, priority enrollment into certain classes, new textbooks, the best dorms and meals, in addition to the training, coaching, and essentially work experience you can gain in your sport. Additionally, the NCAA essentially allows student-athletes who leave to return and get their degree on a full grant-in-aid at any time. Does this sound like a good deal so far?
OK, here's the part of your rights you sign away when you accept the athletic scholarship, which remember, entitles you to all of the above. If you're a star, we are going to sell you. We'll use your likeness in promotional materials, we'll use your talents to help sell season tickets and merchandise, and we'll sell you to recruit more athletes, and more students, to come to our campus. If you've made it big, we'll continue to do that after you leave.
Terms are thrown around like 'exploitation' and 'indentured servitude,' neither of which reflect the reality of what takes place, which is the marketing of a young men's athletic skills in exchange for training, promotion, competition and evaluation in their chosen sport, in addition to the best education the athlete chooses to receive from a university. You want exploitation? Try high-achieving students who earned their way into school, perform at high levels academically, graduate and achieve in the workforce, then are asked to join the alumni association and donate money in addition to whatever student loans they're attempting to repay. In this way, schools exploit all their students. If anything, athletes get off easy, as athletes can exploit (the action of benefitting from resources) schools, more often than vice versa.
Yes, you may also help the head coach of the program you signed on with make millions of dollars. But let's not lose sight of this: show me a coach making millions of dollars, and I'll show you someone who worked for years, usually decades, for that privilege. Coaches all have their degrees, and have worked their way up through the ranks of the profession just like hard-working people do in every profession. They have earned the right to be fully-vested partners in the firm. They have hired you, essentially, as an intern who gets paid in college credits and other amazing, non-monetary benefits as an important part of a lucrative business. They do not owe you a piece of their salary.
And of course all this is beside the point of the ultimate irony, which is Time casting Johnny Manziel as the martyr in this morality play, like he's the Curt Flood of college football. Please. Manziel could have joined the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit and sued the NCAA over using his likeness. Other current athletes did, Manziel did not. Manziel could have sat out the season in protest of Texas A&M profiting off his success. He did not. What he did, if the allegations ESPN put forth are true, is sign some autographs at a value of $25 a signature, netting a windfall of easy cash that by all accounts he didn't really need. What he did was to put the rest of his teammates, his coaches, his family and everyone who ever believed in him at risk. He thought of none of those people when he signed those autographs and allegedly received that cash, and he thinks of none of them when he mocks the investigation with immature gestures on the field.
Manziel is not a shining emblem of what's gone wrong with the notion of amateurism in college sports. But don't get me wrong, he is a poster boy. He's a poster boy for the classic, immature entitled athlete. I know what that guy on the poster looks like. I used to look at him in the mirror.
Doug Gottlieb is a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports. A former player at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State, Gottlieb is 10th in NCAA history in assists. Watch Doug on Lead Off, weeknights at midnight ET on CBS Sports Network, and listen to him on CBS Sports Radio weekdays from 3 p.m. - 6 p.m. Follow Doug on Twitter @GottliebShow.