No, Lafayette isn't charging kids to play football. But they are missing the point.
Lets go a little deeper than the Twitter hollerin'
I’ve got lots of cool stuff to share this week as we head into the start of the college football season, so you’ll get more newsletters this week, starting today. I have too much to talk about to try to squeeze everything into just two, and nobody wants to read a 3,500 word email, right?
Let’s talk about UL Lafayette for a second
I was not expecting for almost every college football person to spend Friday hollerin’ mad at UL Lafayette, but our world is full of wonders.
The gist comes from a story the Acadiana Advocate. Earlier on Friday, the paper reported that scholarship football players would be required to make a $50 donation to the Ragin' Cajun Athletic Foundation. Later in the afternoon, the paper took down the story and changed it to encourage, rather than require. That jives with a quote the school gave to Athletic Business:
Napier originally said during the press conference that joining the RCAF was required for scholarship players, but UL assistant AD for communications and digital strategy Patrick Crawford later clarified that the initiative is not mandatory.
"The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns Department of Athletics is thrilled that head coach Billy Napier’s football program and its student-athletes expressed their collective desire to give back and show gratitude to the Ragin’ Cajuns Athletic Foundation. Members of the football program have started an initiative to demonstrate their appreciation to the RCAF, including its board of directors, staff and investors, when they are able to do so," Crawford said in a statement.
"Additionally, student-athletes will be encouraged to join the RCAF at the introductory level during their college careers, an initiative the program and its coaching staff supports in order to give back to the foundation that has done so much to support the Louisiana football team and the department of athletics."
The response among some observers, such as Rodney Fort, an economist at the University of Michigan, was less than charitable. I think this sentiment was common among writers and other observers.
RedditCFB @RedditCFBRagin’ Cajuns head coach Billy Napier announces that all scholarship players will be required to donate to the school’s athletic fund ($50 minimum), optional for walk-on members of the squad: https://t.co/Xcqg1kGRhA
Let me at least attempt to look at this from Napier and the school’s point of view.
I think I understand what head football coach Billy Napier was trying to do here.
Even at a Sun Belt school, there’s a whole lot of behind the scenes work needed for a program to compete, sometimes even work that a football player may not be aware of. All of that stuff, from academic support to operations to travel to cost of attendance, takes money and since the school doesn’t enjoy a $50 million dollar TV deal, local fundraising is awfully important. I completely understand trying to show how that sausage gets made, the importance of donors, and how the school would like football players to have a relationship with the university after their eligibility expires. Having folks from the athletic fund speak to the program makes some sense to me! And judging from social media right after the talk, at least some players appreciated it too.
But there’s a big difference between explaining why booster clubs are important and why they hope players will help build a Lafayette legacy…and actually asking the players, who already give so much already, for a check.
The school says players are just encouraged to contribute, but I think we all know there’s a difference between encourage and encourage, especially if the guy doing the asking is your coach and has significant power over you. Is this encourage like, say, I encourage you to attend voluntary workouts? I’m using italics here because you can’t see me making huge quotation marks with my hands every time I type the word, but that’s what I’m doing here.
Billy Napier’s follow-up comments, even if this wasn’t his intent, didn’t really quash any concerns that this is about encouragement. Again, I’m making the quotation mark thing with my hands.
If the expectation is that you need to “opt out” of paying the fifty bucks by personally telling the guy that controls your playing time, not very many players are going to do it! Even if you don’t intend it that way, the power dynamics between player and coach are tilted so far in one direction that it’s very easy for encouragement to become encouragement.
Along those lines, some UL football players could wonder what happens if they say “no.” Could they fall out of favor with Coach Napier? Might they lose playing time? Could their athletic scholarship be taken away? Would they be treated differently than their teammates who said “yes”? Would the no-players be perceived as difficult or even litigious? Think of all the thoughts that might run through their minds: the more they feel that they have to give, the less of a meaningful choice it becomes.
Plus, it’s probably worth mentioning that football players were specifically singled out. Athletes for say, the tennis team, or swim team, were not asked to donate by their coaches. And that’s even more problematic, according to Ramogi Huma, the founder of the National College Players Association. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education:
“Targeting football players, who are disproportionately African-American, is likely a civil-rights violation,” Huma said. “When you don't include all of the sports, those that are traditionally white, you are in a very dangerous area.”
Add in the fact that most of Napier’s salary is actually paid by the athletic foundation, and the optics of this whole operation look terrible.
If a coach wanted to create a sense of service and gratitude within their team, a better idea would be to have them find time to volunteer with say, a local middle school program, or doing Habitat for Humanity, or work in the greater Lafayette community. And once a player graduates and starts to earn a real paycheck, asking them to contribute financially, as well as to come back to campus and physically be a part of the program, seems fine too.
But if you’re asking for those contributions now, even with the best of intentions, without external pressure, it looks awful. And depending on the execution, it could be worse than looking awful.
So much of the big stories this offseason, from declining attendance to TV times, is especially relevant when you look at it in the context of turning alumni into donors. TV checks or not, the brick and mortar for building an athletic department is donor involvement. People will send you a check because they had a positive, meaningful experience and want to help others have a similar experience.
Asking students to cut the check before they even finish their college experience, in my mind, is asking the wrong questions. At the point, the school should be asking what they can do help the student, not what the student can do for them. These kids are already doing plenty.
To paraphrase a popular online joke, every day in the college football offseason, there’s a new main character on Twitter. And you pray to God that it’s never you.
On Friday, Lafayette failed that test. And it isn’t clear that they totally understand why. If they don’t figure it out, they just might fail some bigger ones.
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