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The Week In Sports: The Evolution Of NFL Protests And The FBI's NCAA Investigation


Now we want to head into the Barbershop. That's where we gather interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for our shape up today are Pablo Torre joining us from New York. He's a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine, one of our regulars. Welcome back, Pablo. Thanks for joining us.

PABLO TORRE: Of course, Michel, good to be back.

MARTIN: Also with us from Atlanta is CNN writer AJ Willingham. Glad to have you with us, AJ.

A J WILLINGHAM: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least Gregg Doyel. He's a sports columnist for the Indianapolis Star with us from his home. Thank you so much for joining us, Gregg.

GREGG DOYEL: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me start today's conversation with a major story from the world of college basketball involving money, big-time schools, shoe companies and the feds. The FBI alleges that assistant coaches took bribes and kickbacks to steer players to certain financial advisers. Money was also allegedly provided by somebody at Adidas to steer players to schools sponsored by the company. Four assistant coaches at various schools have been arrested, as has been an Adidas executive, and legendary Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was placed on leave even though he hasn't been named or charged. So, Gregg Doyel, I'm going to start with you because you've been covering college basketball for more than a decade. You've been writing quite a bit about this and I'm wondering, well, first of all, it may sound like a ridiculous question to you, but for people outside of college basketball, how big of a deal is this?

DOYEL: This is the biggest gamble in college sports since SMU football was put on the death penalty in the mid-'80s. So four guys being arrested, that's big, but this is enormous because it's just getting started. Wait till people roll over and squeal. You're going to see - the perp walk is going to be glorious. This will impact schools all over the country.

MARTIN: So, Pablo, what do you say about that? I mean, I think there's always been this smoke, you know, even outside of the sports circles. There's always been a sort of long-standing criticism that somehow there just seems to be a lot of money floating around.

TORRE: To me, it really does underscore the larger issue with the NCAA, which is that the NCAA itself is built on this lie because the smoke that emanates from this story isn't just the smoke of oh, man, look at this money changing hands in this shadow economy. It's the fact that a school like Ohio State, for instance, just signed last year a 15-year, $250 million-plus endorsement deal with Nike. So there's all of this money, and so can the NCAA get around amateurism? Well, they're not just saying they can do that. They're saying they can get around amateurism while bathing in capitalism. And so now we're just seeing some of the effects rise to the surface.

MARTIN: AJ, what do you think?

WILLINGHAM: The biggest problem here is that even the most casual of college sports fans knows that this is going on. This is not, I don't think, a big surprise to anyone. Maybe the scope of it is, but we all know this is going on. And we all know it is built on a system that profits from students and from young adults who may not see that level of compensation back to them.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you - let's say these allegations, just for the sake of argument, are true and obviously this all has to be litigated and go through the court process. But let's just say for the sake of argument that this is true and that this whole thing comes to light as you believe it to be. What should happen after that, Gregg?

DOYEL: Well, I'm talking to university presidents around my state this week, and I'm already talking to one, President McRobbie at IU, Indiana University, who says that one way to help this is the NCAA needs to come down harder on folks. When they get caught, crush them, you know, so they will learn their lesson. But I - this is one of those deals where I saw the movie "Jurassic Park" and, you know, they thought it would - they could contain the dinosaurs by making them all male. But as Jeff Goldblum says, life found a way. And one of the dinosaurs switched to female, and they started having babies. And then they had three great movies out of it, and the fourth wasn't so good. So my point is cheater's find a way. You know, to ask what can be done, you can't stop it.

And one more thing. I imagine that there are a lot of folks listening and, AJ, you said that student athletes are being taken advantage of. And I can hear people rolling their eyes around the country. First of all, that's rude. But second of all, it's true in a lot of cases. For a lot of these kids, you know, their adviser, their friend, their coach, whoever, is nudging them nudging them nudging them to a certain school. And the kid goes to that school and thinks he chose it himself, has no idea that school or that school's shoe company paid your coach a hundred thousand dollars. That's why you're there. Albert Means, football recruit out of Memphis years ago, got sold to Alabama and had no idea until the news broke. He didn't know he got sold there.

WILLINGHAM: To your point, Gregg, I think when we're looking at the inevitable question of should we pay these college athletes, I think even if they were compensated and even if they were given a little bit more opportunity and a little bit more agency, as you said, money finds a way, cheaters find a way. And so to me, when we have these questions in mind, that is the larger question is how can we protect young players? How can we ensure that whatever does come to pass is in their best interest?

MARTIN: Pablo, what do you think? I mean, does this loop back then to the question of whether student athletes should get paid? At least it would be transparent.

TORRE: Purely on the basis of principle, they're refusing to pay labor. Like, it's not just that they're saying no one can drink alcohol. It's that you people who are making the alcohol aren't allowed to profit from it whereas everyone else gets to. And until you can admit that this is the market and here's the market value and here's who's profiting and here is who's not, you won't be able to address the fact that the people who go to advise these kids and get stakes in these kids - coaches, advisers, agents, all that - those people tend to be of the caliber that is problematic.

MARTIN: Let's turn now to another story about the whole take-a-knee-or-not controversy around the national anthem, which is still going on. It's still being talked about and tweeted about. CNN has some new numbers that found that 49 percent of Americans say professional sports leagues should require players to stand during the national anthem, but 47 percent said they should not require it. And there was, as you might imagine, a deep partisan divide on this between Democrats and Republicans. And there was also a racial divide between African-Americans and white respondents. And also there was a bit of a generational divide too. Now, AJ, you wrote a piece for CNN saying take a knee protest has always been about race - period. And do you think people don't know that? And tell me more about your thoughts about this.

WILLINGHAM: Well, let me tell you, of all the things that I've ever written for CNN and all of the reactions I've ever gotten, I have never gotten a more emotional, more vitriolic response to a topic than this one. People just - they don't particularly care if it's about race if they do not think that the method of protest is legitimate. I thought Eric Reid who originally knelt with Colin Kaepernick when he was on the 49ers last year put it best in The New York Times when he said, I felt like we were representing a flag at half mast. I felt like we were representing America in a time of tragedy. I don't know how you could have a patriotic outlook and not identify with that. But for a lot of people, they just say this isn't the way to do it. And in their mind, that delegitimizes the protest.

MARTIN: Gregg, you wrote a piece for the Indianapolis Star about this looking at a lot of different vantage points, including your own, and you yourself are from a military family. You talked to players who knelt, players who stood. What's your takeaway from all this?

DOYEL: What's going on here is hundreds of almost entirely black athletes are kneeling, and white America doesn't like it. And they move the goal post and find reasons. It's about the - it's about the military. Until about five years ago, the flag meant everything. It's our country. It's this, it's that, and the military is part of it, but it wasn't just the military. But now all of a sudden you're disrespecting the military. They moved the goal posts. Like, here's the goal posts. Oh, you think it's about this. Let me move the goal posts over here. It's really about that because I'm going to get mad at you about that. It's not about race, though. It's about everything but race.

MARTIN: Pablo, what do you - what's your take on it?

TORRE: Colin Kaepernick has been extraordinarily clear about what he is addressing here quite clearly from day one and Eric Reid, his teammate, their decision to kneel after a conversation with Nate Boyer and veterans who asked that as a signal to the veteran community could then the military - could they kneel instead of sit? That's more respectful. They agreed to do so. There is an expectation that you have an obligation outside of your own intent to demonstrate a safe space that has been erected because we want to show or signal to our veterans and to our military community that they get this time of day to be free from intrusions.

And so the basic question, the big question, is simple - do you consider these concerns expressed by Colin Kaepernick and those dozens and dozens of teammates and colleagues that Gregg mentioned, do you consider those concerns serious enough to warrant that kind of intrusion into that space? And that's what people have to ask themselves. You consider it real or you don't.

MARTIN: So I'll ask each of you, where does this go next? Or do they start a player pack? Because, as we know, a number of these NFL owners have contributed to political candidates who these players might not support. I mean, Pablo, where do you think it goes next?

TORRE: Well, there are all these commissioners who are signaling - Adam Silver of the NBA signaled that he would prefer that guy stand. And so we're going to find that it's very problematic to rely upon people whose foremost job is to market and sell black athletes to America to be thought leaders on protest. It really is at this point on us. It's on everybody else. Are you listening to the substance of the protest, or are you getting lost in all of the noise and confusing this controversy over platform for a discussion about the issues?

MARTIN: Gregg.

DOYEL: One thing that can happen is they'll stop letting the teams be on the field or the court during the anthem. We've already seen some NFL teams just not go out there. I can see it eventually moving that way. Last thing I'll say about this - what I can't do is listen to white America tell black America how they can and can't protest if they're not breaking laws.

MARTIN: AJ, final thought from you.

WILLINGHAM: I do think that it's going move off the field, and I do think that that was actually the aim of a lot of NFL players who adopted this early. There is currently a petition out to the commissioner, to Roger Goodell, saying, you know, if you support our right to protest, if you support the ideas that we're bringing on to the field, then put money behind it.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, does anybody know what kinds of conversations the athletes had with each other about this?

TORRE: Oh, my understanding is that people are discussing this. Like, inside of locker rooms, there is the discomfort that you would find at some Thanksgiving tables, you know, and this is all part of the intrusion, allegedly, of politics into sports. But what it's really about is people in and around sports reckoning with what it means when you're confronted with a challenge. Do you care? Do you trust these people who are telling you that life in America is not the same for them?

MARTIN: That's Pablo Torre, senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. Gregg Doyel was also with us, sports columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and CNN writer AJ Willingham. Thank you all so much for joining us. Hope we'll talk again.

TORRE: Thank you.

DOYEL: Thank you.

WILLINGHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.