March 24, 2014
I hear the endless college football chatter about a players union, about the supposed lack of emphasis on academics, about what some like to call the exploitation of players.
And then I see DeMarco McNeil.
McNeil grew up poor in Prichard, Ala. It would have been difficult for him to go to college at all without a scholarship. He was the state’s Mr. Football and played defensive tackle at Auburn from 2000-2003. He was an All-Southeastern Conference selection as a senior.
Like most college football players, McNeil dreamed of playing in the NFL. He tried, but he was plagued by injuries and it wasn’t to be. Disaster? Not even close. McNeil was almost as good in the classroom as he was on the field. He lived his life the right way. He earned his degree and returned to Auburn as a graduate assistant and coached at Birmingham-Southern. Today, he and his wife, Lanicia have two daughters, Madison and Allison. He is the defensive line coach at Alabama State.
McNeil would probably have been successful in his life even if he’d never played a down of football, because he’s a good person with good values. But Auburn football opened all kinds of doors for him, and he’d be the first to tell you that.
Some players, like McNeil, are well-grounded when they arrive at Auburn. Some aren’t. Most grow greatly in their days at Auburn and leave far better prepared to face the world than when they arrived. Some don’t. So it is with any segment of students at any university anywhere.
Across the landscape of college athletics, there are thousands of stories like McNeil’s. But it’s only athletes who have federal government officials talking about their grade point averages.
Here’s what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on “Meet The Press” on Sunday:
"The incentive structures for coaches and the incentive structures for ADs have to be changed so much more of their compensation is based, not upon wins or losses, but around academic performance and graduation. University presidents and boards have been very complacent and soft in this issue, and you have to really look at the leadership of universities here."
I wasn’t there, but if I had been my next question would have been this: What about the rest of the students? Who is looking after them? Who is being held accountable for how they perform?
Throughout the SEC, university athletics departments spend millions on academic support. That support has helped untold numbers of young people earn degrees they might otherwise not have earned. Watching that happen is rewarding for anyone who is part of the process.
For most, a hard-earned athletic scholarship is a priceless opportunity go compete and to grow as a person.
Some don’t take advantage of the opportunity and move on. To hold Nick Saban or Gus Malzahn or Mark Richt accountable for every athlete who, like close to half of the average university student body, doesn’t get a degree really doesn’t make any sense. Should they provide resources? Should they stress the importance of academics? They should and they do.
So many people seem to believe they have so much figured out about college athletics. They really should spend more time around the young people who compete. Their outlook might change.
It’s become all the rage now to file lawsuits that basically label college football players or basketball players as employees. Is that really about helping athletes or is it about enriching the lawyers who file the lawsuits? I’ll let others be the judge of that.
In 44-plus years of covering college athletics, I’ve seen a lot of bad things happen. I’ve seen a lot of athletes who didn’t make it. I’ve seen athletes do terrible things and end up in prison. But I’ve seen far, far more grow into good and responsible adults who go on to live good lives.
And that is worth more than money.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: