It's tempting to say that Jim Harbaugh is at it again, but this implies that at some point in time Harbaugh ever stopped being "at it." So let's just state the facts: the University of Michigan football coach recently raised eyebrows by planning to have his team practice at the IMG Academy campus in Bradenton, Florida during Spring Break.
For those that don't know: IMG Academy is a high school-cum-sports training center that began as a tennis academy—Andre Agassi famously trained there, as did Monica Seles and Serena Williams—and now exists as launching pad for future college and professional athletes. Owned by IMG, a major sports marketing conglomerate, and one that has counted Michigan as a client since 2001, the academy basically transposes the big-time college sports formula into a high school setting. That is: put in just enough schoolwork to meet basic academic requirements, and then spend the rest of your time becoming awesome at sports.
Anyway, that's not the outrage. No, the public reason people like National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert have expressed deep Concern over Harbaugh's plan can be summarized as such: college athletes shouldn't have to devote their Spring Breaks to practicing football. At least not when they could be doing what other college students do during Spring Break, which we can only assume involves violating the alcohol laws of Florida, California and Texas, though probably not Mexico.
"There is a big debate going on among administrators right now about how to provide more time off for student-athletes so the use of Spring Break for practices caused a lot of people to be concerned about it, and that's an appropriate concern. ... We are trying to find ways to dial back the demands on student-athletes, not ramp them up. ... There's a difference between not being prohibited and being OK."
Are college sports power brokers actually concerned that Michigan's football players will be working on out patterns instead of holding down the business end of beer bongs? I doubt it. To the contrary, I think their supposed reservations are basically a tell—you know, the subtle tip-off a bad gambler does when he's bluffing—that lets the rest of us know just what actually matters in major college sports.
Hint: it isn't making sure football players have a relaxing Spring Break.
Let me explain. Let's start with the NCAA rulebook, and its description of our old friend amateurism:
2.9 The Principle of Amateurism.
Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.
What's an avocation? A hobby, basically. The literal opposite of vocation, which means job. This is where things get weird. Why would Emmert (or anyone else) be upset because college athletes are being asked to participate in their chosen hobbies during their free time? Isn't that pretty normal?
Sure, it would make sense to be deeply concerned if Harbaugh was asking players to work during their vacations. Especially without getting paid overtime. Most of us would want to punch our bosses—and/or the nearest available union card—if asked to do the same. Who wants to give up their vacation for a vocation? That's just wrong.
Compare the following two scenarios:
Student 1: Hey, what are you planning to do for Spring Break?
Student 2: Oh, me and my ultimate Frisbee team are going to head town to Florida, practice some during the day, and then do the usual Spring Break stuff at night.
Student 1: Sounds cool, bro. Can I come?
Student 1: Hey, what are you planning to do for Spring Break?
Student 2: Oh, you know that full-time football job I have during the school year where I don't get paid but they let me attend school at a steep discount?
Student 1: Yeah.
Student 2: Well, now they are making us give up Spring Break to work that job down in Florida.
Student 1: Will you at least paid for the week?
Student 2: Nope, that's still against the rules.
Student 1: That's messed up, bro.
In order to justify college sports amateurism before both federal antitrust judges and the general public, people such as Emmert pretend that big-time college football is like the first scenario. These are just regular college students who happen to love and be good at football. Please don't break up our economic cartel. Of course, everyone—including the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board—knows that major campus sports is really like Scenario No. 2. And that's why outrage, real or feigned, over Harbaugh's plan is such a tell.
To put things another way: nobody is expressing concern that kids pursuing Model United Nations or College Bowl trivia or Dance Squad or any of a hundred other geeky hobbies over Spring Break needs to be "dialed back." Why? Because those things really are avocations. By contrast, football practice is work. Emmert can't say that out loud, because then he'd be admitting that amateurism is a sham; on the other hand, he can't really hide the fact, because even colluding college sports administrators know that punching the clock during what's supposed to be a vacation really, truly sucks.
There's an irony here: if the complaint about Harbaugh's plan is that is it further distances college athletes from their student-ness, well, that has things upside-down. Football is a full-time job. Being a student—at least, being a competent one—is also more or less a full-time job. Both pursuits take lots of time and energy, and as such, finding ways to prevent sports and academics from overlapping should be encouraged by the NCAA and other people who proclaim that the purpose of major college football is, ahem, education.
Consider Stanford. The Cardinal are on the quarter system, and start their Fall Quarter very late compared to most schools. Some years, the first day of class comes in early October. For the school's football team, this means that all of August practice and three or four games of the regular season are played before school even starts. From what I've heard, players like this arrangement, because it lets them focus on perfecting their craft, and then allows for more study time on the back end.
That same quarter schedule results in the first week of the NCAA basketball tournament coinciding with Stanford's Winter Quarter exams. In the years when Stanford makes the tournament, we're usually treated to a "live look in" at the Cardinal locker room, where the athletes are taking exams before heading out to play their first-round games. In the years when Stanford advances to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond, the players always express delight about having their school work out of the way.
The less overlap, the less tension between one full-time focus and another. Simple concept. So if your public rhetoric is all about big-money college sports as an educational activity, what's wrong with Harbaugh's plan, again?
Here's my best guess: the hand-wringing has nothing to do with worrying about college football players having enough time to have fun in the sun, and everything to do with frustration that the maniacally competitive Harbaugh may have unearthed yet another recruiting advantage. Michigan's training camp is being held in front of a bunch of elite high school athletes, some of whom might end up choosing the school based on their extra exposure to the program. Fact is, there aren't that many IMG Academies out there. Other schools can try to replicate Harbaugh's strategy, but Michigan has the first-mover advantage and seems to have snagged an optimal spot in sunny Florida, near a lot of high-end recruits.
Let's listen to Greg Sankey, commissioner of the SEC, who is very, very concerned that:
" ... Michigan would be at a 'site full of prospects run by a business enterprise that has a lot of interests—but one of those is sports agents. It seems like very much the wrong tone.'"
Of course. That's the issue. Harbaugh is setting the wrong tone by exposing college football players to a business enterprise—and not by planting a big, fat Michigan recruiting flag in SEC country. Right. And how is the SEC Network working out, Commissioner Sankey?
As with a lot of the things the NCAA gets worked up over while pretending to care about athlete welfare, the best solution is just to let things sort themselves out the good old American way: through freedom of choice. If Harbaugh's goal is to attract high school stars, then a plan that ruins Spring Break doesn't seem like a great lure. "Hey, come play football at Michigan, where fun comes to die!" won't be the way into a five-star's heart. On the other hand, if what athletes want is to excel, and a week at IMG helps them do that, then rules to the contrary seem pretty lousy.
In truth, since the world is full of different kinds of people, the likely outcome of all this is that different kinds of offers are going to please different recruits. Some stars will pick Michigan because they practice during Spring Break; other stars will reject Michigan for the same reason. And if it's the case that somehow every athlete likes the Michigan plan better, why would we ever think it's pro-student to refuse to let Harbaugh do his thing?