In a windowless lecture hall in the basement of MU’s Middlebush Hall, Robert Turner II pulled no punches in describing the underbelly of college athletics.
Turner has come a long way since his days as a football player at James Madison University in the early 1980s. After stints in the now disbanded United States Football League, the Canadian Football League and the NFL, Turner eventually went back to school, earning a masters and Ph.D. in sociology. Today, he serves as an assistant professor of clinical research and leadership in the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Turner spoke Tuesday night as part of the MU sociology department’s black history month programming. Before a small group of MU students and staff, he articulated a view of college athletics radically different from that expressed in NCAA commercials.
“The administration is so committed to this idea that we’re doing things to help these athletes, but what I tell people all the time is that when you play major college football ... I guarantee you they have competing interests,” Turner said. “They may tell you that education is really important, but the truth is if you’re a coach that’s making five million dollars a year, it’s very difficult for that coach to think of anything other than, ‘How do I keep my job?’”
Turner argued that student-athletes today — especially those playing revenue generating sports such as football and basketball — are not given ample time to fulfill both their athletic and academic obligations. Such a system incentivizes athletes and athletic administrations to cut corners to keep players eligible, even if it’s at a detriment to the quality of the education they receive.
Turner used his own experiences as a college student to illustrate his point. He said when he was a student at James Madison, he majored in communications because many of his teammates were majoring in it. He also pointed to those of 140 college football players that he interviewed for his book “Not For Long: The Life and Career of a NFL Athlete,” which released in July.
“I was a first generation college student, like so many athletes are even today,” he said. “What I really realized when I was researching the book was I didn’t choose communication; I majored in football.”
Although coaches and administrators might say otherwise, Turner pointed to coaches’ salaries and improvements to facilities to argue that the first priority of the vast majority of college football programs is not the educational attainment of its athletes.
Missouri, for example, is paying head coach Barry Odom $3.05 million per year and is currently in the midst of a $98 million renovation to the south zone of Memorial Stadium.
“If that is what you invest in the infrastructure of your football program, what is the primary goal of that football program? It’s to win games and make money,” Turner said. “They might say it’s a nonprofit, but it’s not a charity. They’re there to make money.”
Going forward, Turner said he feels football programs should be more honest with their players about their goals and emphasize the team being a “money-making enterprise.” He also argued programs should invest more back into the communities from which they draw their players.
Former Missouri offensive line standout and now Assistant Athletics Director of Community Relations Howard Richards was on hand for the event. He said Missouri is in the midst of making those investments in St. Louis.
“In light of the protests in 2015 and a lot of historical issues that have happened between the campus and St. Louis, we’re trying to change that whole paradigm in St. Louis,” Richards said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re trying to make a difference.”
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