Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why the NCAA Should Drop the Hammer on the University of North Carolina

Editor’s Note: I don’t usually talk about sports on this blog (it is called Tyler Talks TV after all), but I haven’t written anything in a while and this is a topic that interests me and I had a few things to say.

I generally loathe the NCAA.  It is an ineffectual organization that is mostly concerned with maintaining the status quo of a cartel built on unpaid labor.  It pretends to uphold the morals and virtues of academic institutions but instead largely concerns itself with making sure the money keeps flowing to athletic departments and that student-athletes see none of it. 

The one foundational principle on which its concept of amateur athletics rests is the idea that athletes are being compensated for their labor and their bodies in the form of a college education.  It’s an idea that has proliferated and found support among both fans and the media.  “College athletes are already paid with their education [sic],” wrote Syracuse professor of sports management Richard Burton in the US News and World Report.  Charles Ellison of The Root, argued that “college athletes already earn anywhere from $55,000 to $125,000 a year in accumulated full tuition, room and board packages.”  “A free college education…expert coaching…free meals…[and] free medical consultation” are all touted as benefits of being a student-athlete according to the Lincoln Journal-Star, hometown newspaper of the multiple national championship-holding Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Even athletes  have bought into the story, with Florida State quarterback and reigning Heisman Award winner Jameis Winston telling reporters that  “We’re blessed to get a free education.”

The University of North Carolina would kindly like you to know that that is all bullshit.  A report, conducted by United States Department of Justice official Kenneth Wainstein and released today by the university, details a program coordinated by two university administrators (including a department head) in the university’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies that funneled thousands of students, almost half of which were student-athletes, into no-show independent study classes that required little to no effort on the part of students in exchange for grades ranging from A’s all the way to B+’s.  The athletic department and its academic advisors knew about these classes and intentionally steered their athletes, especially those needing to boost their GPAs, to these easy classes.  Faculty members and administrators at the university knew that these independent studies were not being overseen by faculty members, in violation of university policy, but said and did nothing.  The entire report and a pretty damning breakdown are available at Deadspin but the money quotation is this: “[T]he University failed to conduct any meaningful oversight of the [African and Afro-American Studies] Department and [the Office of Academic Support for Student Athletes], and Crowder's paper class scheme was allowed to operate within one of the nation's premier academic institutions for almost two decades.”

The first “core value” of the NCAA is a commitment to “the collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.”  The second value is a commitment to “the highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.”  The third is a commitment to “the pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.”  For the past two decades the University of North Carolina has flaunted and downright disgraced the term “student-athlete,” violating each of these three "core values" and it is for this reason that the NCAA should levy its harshest possible punishment against UNC.

If I haven’t made it clear by now, I firmly believe that student-athletes should be allowed to be paid beyond the cost of a scholarship.  I believe that the billions of dollars earned by universities every year from college athletes render the idea of “amateur” Division I athletics laughable.  But the NCAA has made the preservation of the collegiate model its raison d’ĂȘtre over the past few decades, coming down hard on athletes for such terrible violations of the amateur spirit as signing autographs (allegedly for pay), selling commemorative jerseys, and trading school-issued trinkets for free tattoos.  Hell, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was suspended for most of his junior year not for committing an NCAA infraction, but for lying about a meeting that could have been (but wasn’t) an infraction. 

The NCAA has, for years, waged war on professionalism in college athletics.  But if it every truly believed in the rhetoric it spews, this is the hill the NCAA must make its stand on.  The idea that student-athletes are being compensated for their labor with a college education is the one last barrier preventing a landslide of support in favor of paying student-athletes in real money rather than company scrip.  If that education turns out to be worthless because athletic departments are funneling their students into classes with no educational value, then what are these athletes receiving in exchange for their labor?

Let me be clear: I do not believe that UNC was unique in its offering of no-show classes for student-athletes.  I believe it was unique in the scope of its program, but every school has ways of getting its students good grades, whether it’s pressuring an impressionable, young graduate assistant into boosting a C to a B or enrolling its star, junior quarterback in a freshman-level history class.  This kind of academic fraud is not unique to the University of North Carolina, a university that “prides itself on…academic opportunities not found anywhere else).” 

That this is not a new phenomenon does not mean that we should ignore it, however.  That this is the most egregious such circumstance yet found means that the NCAA should do everything in its power to ensure that it does not happen again.  And that means dropping the hammer on UNC.  This scandal demonstrated a lack of institutional control at all levels of the university, from the athletic department to the provost.  For two decades, the University of North Carolina gave truth to the lie that college athletes are are students first and athletes second.  If ever the NCAA was a true bastion of amateurism in athletics, this would be the time to show the public why.  That is, obviously, if the NCAA actually cares about the “student” part of its student-athletes, and not just ensuring a continuing supply of free labor for its constituent institutions.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

2014-15 Network Television Preview - Fox: How Low Can You Go?

Fox desperately needs for "Gotham" to remain a hit

As I wrote last week in my ABC column, I wanted to wait a week to get some data on the new Fox and ABC shows because my projections had them finishing virtually tied this year.  And boy am I glad that I did.  While ABC got pretty much nothing but good news from its premiere week, Fox was mired in bad news.  Utopia and Red Band Society premiered very poorly, the former also seeming to drag down returning comedies New Girl and The Mindy Project.  Sleepy Hollow returned down quite a bit as well.  In fact, were it not for the overall awfulness of Fox’s stable of shows right now, I would be predicting that Utopia will be off the air before November sweeps.  As it stands, however, Fox has to be in panic mode, and all signs point to a deep last place finish in the final season ratings.

Replacing a schedule time-sink like The X-Factor is hard.  As I thought I'd mentioned before but maybe haven't, Fox has had a terrible time developing new drama hits* and losing a three-hour block of time in the fall requires finding three new dramas to launch on top of their normal development slate – or at least two new dramas and a reality show.  Last fall, Fox launched one new drama, Sleepy Hollow, and was able to put the full weight of its promotional department behind it, leading to a phenomenal debut and strong season-long ratings.  Fox took the same tactic this year with Gotham and has gotten good results, with the show debuting right around where Sleepy Hollow was last year.  

* Since the debut of Bones in 2005, Fox has only had one drama air more than 45 episodes: Fringe.

Unfortunately, the three shows Fox launched in place of The X-Factor have all pretty well bombed.  Utopia debuted early and was already a dead show walking when premiere week hit, drawing fewer than two million viewers and a demo rating of 0.8.  Red Band Society and Gracepoint, similarly, have debuted to disastrously low numbers that rate below pretty much everything aired on the other three networks so far this season. 

These are dire times for Fox.  They’ve got basically one good night (Sunday), and a couple of building blocks, but so much of the fall schedule is in tatters.  At this point, execs have to just be praying that American Idol returns up in the spring and looking to next year.  The good news is that chief executive Kevin Reilly was fired this summer, which means that the new programming execs can blame any bad news on him.  The bad news is that the network has no obvious way out of this mess.

Let’s take a look at the night-by-night schedule (new shows in Bold).

8:00pm – Gotham
9:00pm – Sleepy Hollow

The good news is that Gotham is, through two weeks, a legitimate hit, drawing more than eight million viewers and a 3.2 rating for its premiere and dropping only about ten percent to week two.  Those are really good numbers and worthy of celebrating.  The bad news is that Sleepy Hollow inexplicably returned down fifteen percent from last year’s finale and fell a further fifteen percent in its second week.  It seemed like Hollow was going to be a building block for Fox moving forward, but it needs to stop dropping now.  Granted, DVR ratings are typically very good for Sleepy Hollow, but the networks are still a little slow on turning those ratings in dollars.  I should be clear that, even down thirty percent from last year’s finale, it’s still the second-highest rated drama on the network, behind only its lead-in, Gotham. 

Tuesday –
8:00pm – Utopia
9:00pm – New Girl/The Mindy Project

And here’s the problem with waiting a week or two to write about the new fall season: Utopia, after posting several weeks of mediocre ratings, has already been pulled from the Tuesday night schedule.  In its place, Fox will air animated series repeats for two weeks, followed by the World Series.  In November, MasterChef Junior, originally slated to air on Friday nights, will move to the slot.  It’s desperately needed, too, because not only did Utopia’s terrible ratings sink it, but they clearly had a deleterious effect on the two comedies, whose ratings this year have been fairly pathetic.  Neither show is really in danger, if only because Fox has little with which to replace them, but this was a big hole for Fox last spring and it’s only growing bigger.

8:00pm – Hell’s Kitchen
9:00pm – Red Band Society

Hell’s Kitchen is a perfectly serviceable show for Fox.  It’s not drawing big ratings, but it fills a hole and is flexible, able to move around of needed, or premiere pretty much any time during the season.  Red Band Society, unfortunately, is another ratings hole, not as deep as Utopia’s and with a little bit of positivity thanks to a not insignificant DVR bump, but on any other network it would likely be on the brink of cancelation or moving to Fridays.  On Fox in any other year, people would be wondering if the show would make it to November sweeps.  But on Fox in 2014, it’s almost certain to air at least 13 episodes.  I don’t see it earning a renewal, however, because, again, there are new executives at Fox, who have no investment in Kevin Reilly’s shows.  Add to that the fact that Red Band Society is not produced by Fox and there’s no reason to invest in the show long-term.

Thursday –
8:00pm – Bones
9:00pm – Gracepoint

The eternal stalwart, Bones is now in its tenth season and feels like it could run twenty at Fox, so long as the stars want to stick around.  The show has long been an underrated player at the network, piling up ratings just above average while constantly being moved around the schedule (Bones has now aired regularly on every night of the week but Saturday and Sunday).  It’s not a huge hit, but should stick around for as long as everybody involved wants it to be. 

Gracepoint is something of an odd duck here.  It’s a remake (shot-for-shot at some points) of a British series that aired last year on BBC America to fairly dismal (though not for BBC America) ratings.  I’m not sure what audience, exactly, Fox thinks is going to turn up for this show.  It’s a moody, atmospheric crime drama that doesn’t fit in well with the procedurals of the world.  It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just, why not go watch Broadchurch, its inspiration, instead?  Gracepoint just feels unnecessary.  Apparently, viewers agreed, with the series debuting to fewer than five million viewers and a 1.2 rating.

8:00pm – Masterchef Junior
9:00pm – Utopia

As I mentioned earlier, Masterchef Junior will soon be vacating this night to take Utopia’s place on Tuesday’s.  Utopia, in turn, will be moving up to 8:00, followed by repeats.  This was always going to be a rough night, though at least with Masterchef Junior it would have competitive for an hour.  Now, though, it seems Fox is content to just put anything on.

Sunday –
8:00pm – The Simpsons/Brooklyn Nine-Nine
9:00pm – Family Guy/Mulaney

For the first time in a decade, Fox is not scheduling a night full of live-action comedies in the fall.  This is clearly a vote of confidence in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which won a Golden Globe last January, but struggled in the ratings on Tuesday nights.  It will have a much better launching pad this fall and might be able to turn into a hit, if it can avoid being a ratings dip between the two animated series.  Mulaney is clearly the runt of the comedy litter, shuffled off to the anchor slot on Sunday nights, but Fox has already ordered and produced a lot of episodes, so expect it to continue airing, even if its moved to another night.

This will not be a good year for Fox.  They were always going to regression in the ratings if only by virtue of losing the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship Game.  But having to replace The X-Factor and facing year-to-year drops for many of its returning shows means the former juggernaut, who won nine straight seasons during American Idol’s apex, will likely finish last only three years removed from its last championship.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.