Q+A: George Dohrmann
Pulitzer Prize award winner talks all things college hoops.
by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
College basketball is right around the corner, and while the product is tremendous every year, there are some obvious flaws and ominous dark clouds surrounding collegiate-level basketball.
George Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize author and Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, has a particularly vested interest in college basketball this season. Dohrmann’s novel, Play Their Hearts Out, follows a group of kids—many of whom will play major roles for their respective teams this season—through their formative years as they attempt to fulfill their dreams of playing NCAA basketball.
SLAMonline recently got on the phone with Dohrmann to discuss infractions, grassroots basketball, conference re-alignment and other controversies surrounding college basketball.
SLAM: It boggles my mind that a coach can commit a lengthy list of infractions, have multiple Final Fours stripped and leave schools at the drop of a hat, but can go get a job seemingly anywhere he wants. But a player can get suspended or kicked off a team for something as simple as borrowing a car. How do you feel about that, or can you shed any light on that?
George Dohrmann: It’s tricky, right? These coaches are these brands that colleges have convinced themselves that they need to win and the players are expendable and the NCAA when it hands out punishments often follows that line of thought. They punish the players, the coaches don’t often get punished. I think schools in some ways are silly—well not silly, they know exactly what they’re doing—but if they were genuinely serious about following the rules, then the coaches who have made infractions in the past wouldn’t be getting second and third chances, and when scandals do happen schools wouldn’t be circling wagons around a coach trying to keep him. It’s such an imperfect system and I don’t know that you can create a perfect system, but this one is just so imperfect and nobody’s happy and you sort of wonder when that boiling point is going to be reached.
SLAM: It’s almost like a double-edged sword—someone, either coaches or players, has to take the fall somewhere.
GD: I think the NCAA is trying to follow the old rules when it comes to penalties. I think the idea that you take away scholarships, for example, from a program, as much as that sucks for current players, that’s probably a good penalty. A coach cheated, he gained an unfair advantage, so you take away an advantage, you give him less scholarships it seems like the right thing to do. Things like vacating wins, and other penalties of that nature, just don’t do anything. They (the NCAA) seem to be getting that message, and trying to be smart about how they dole out penalties.
SLAM: Do you think that there should be some sort of stipend pay for these players or do you think a scholarship is sufficient?
GD: I don’t think there is any harm in providing some sort of stipend for the players. Its a very complicated issue—and I’m writing about this for Sports Illustrated now—it’s super complicated. There are so many considerations: tax, Titile IX, budgetary issues, it’s not so easy as to say let’s pay the players. It can be done, it can be done. I’ve talked to a lot of the kids from my book, who are now Division I players and I ask them, What do you need? What would the number that would make you feel like, you’re good, you’re not struggling at all. You’re in the top-5 percent of kids at your school as far as financial comfort.
It’s funny because the kids’ responses are all over the place. For instance, I just talked to one yesterday and his respone was, “$10,000 a month” and I went, Whoa! Whoa! Your tuition is being paid for, your room and board is being paid for, and you need an additional $10,000 a month!? And his response was, “Well I see what NBA first-round picks are being paid…” and I said, You’re not an NBA first-round pick! This is a kid who’s not even a starter on his team. So I rephrased it and asked him, What’s the number that would make you feel comfortable, like you have no money needs but at the same time you’re not buying new rims for your car every month? So it came down to about two grand a month, which is a more reasonable number.
The kids are all over the place, some will just say $500 a month, others say a grand, others say 10 grand. Some of it depends where these kids live and go to school, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that they are kids and they don’t have a full understanding of the real world. If we’re giving kids $10,000 a month for, let’s say, nine months, they would be earning $90,000 on top of their tuition and room and board. While that $90,000 may not seem like a lot of money if you’re talking about one of the top players in the country relative to his talent and what he brings in for his university, you have to pay every player the same. Now you’re talking about not every player on the basketball team, but every athlete—$90,000 to the backup lineman who hasn’t played in three yeras, I’m talking about $90,000 to a member of the men’s soccer team, and it goes on and on and on, and that’s obviously not realistic financially. Personally, I think there are ways forward to give these kids a little bit of money each month to make their lives a little easier.
SLAM: The way I look at it is, the school’s say, “OK, these kids get scholarships, room and board, etc…” But you look at teams like Cincinnati during the late ’90s and early ’00s when they had a graduation rate of 0 percent for the team. Even with the schools saying they’re providing them an education, at the end of the day the kids aren’t getting a full education. Is there anything that can be done, or does the whole system need to be revamped?
GD: I think there’s real value for the kids, whether they get a degree or not, to have been in a college environment even though there not “true” students. I don’t focus so much on the idea that they need to get their degree, I sort of say, If the kid can get some years in college, that makes a lot of sense. I’m not advocating making them go to college, I think kids should be able to go to the NBA straight away if they want. But if a kid does go to college it’s valuable experience.
I’m not saying it’s worth all that they’re giving to the university, but I think it is a valuable experience. I tend not to focus so much on graduation rates. Notre Dame for example—people always talk about their graduation rate being high and I look at that and think they should be taking more risks on kids. If they can keep that graduation rate high, then take more risks and give more opportunities to kids who are riskier bets academically but would really benefit from being in that environment. It’s such a tricky issue, and whether or not the NCAA is giving them an education, there is value in what they’re giving them. Is it full equal value to what they’re offering at the elite level (the NBA)? No, but there is value in the college experience.