Last August, I wrote about the two University of Nebraska wrestlers who were dropped from the squad after news became public that they had posed nude on a pornographic website that largely caters to gay men. The two wrestlers, Paul Donahoe and Kenny Jordan, were both interviewed (along with several other figures associated with the scandal) for an episode of ESPN's Outside the Lines which aired this morning.
While ESPN's reporting suggests that there may have been more to the story than was apparent 10 months ago, I nevertheless found the rationalizing of the Nebraska officials they interviewed about the dismissals both specious and self-serving. Their major concern, at least as expressed in the few public statements they have been willing to make about the incident and the very few documents the university was willing to release in response to ESPN's request under the Freedom of Information Act, seems to have been the damage done to the school's image by having two of its student-athletes appear in pornographic videos.
Considering that a third of the athletes on the Nebraska wrestling squad over the last two years have faced criminal charges--and yet were not dropped from the team--that reasoning seems mighty thin to me. When you consider that Tom Osborne, now the athletic director at Nebraska and head coach of its football team in the 1990s, handed out only token punishments to stars on his football team (suspension for one spring exhibition game for Christian Peter, who racked up eight separate arrests and at least one conviction, and an on-again, off-again suspension for Lawrence Phillips after he assaulted and injured an ex-girlfriend), the rationalizations look thinner still.
There has long been a perception, certainly justifiable in light of ESPN's findings in this case, that there is a double standard for athletes. They can get away with things that would get ordinary students tossed out or at least severely disciplined. (To be fair, that perception has sometimes led to unwarranted assumptions that athletes are automatically guilty of anything they're accused of: the most notable example in recent years being the 2006 lacrosse squad at Duke University.) However, the ESPN reportage of the Nebraska incident suggests that there may be another double standard at work here: specifically, the fact that Donahoe and Jordan were posing nude for a gay website--something which ESPN's reporting makes very clear did not sit well in the Bible Belt environs of Lincoln, Nebraska. Never mind that both men have stated that they are not gay. Never mind that what they were doing was perfectly legal. Never mind that the pertinent NCAA regulations both appear to be ambiguous and are absolutely not grounds for permanent ineligibility, as evidenced by the fact that Donahoe is back wrestling and Jordan hopes to be doing so next season. No, it seems reasonably clear that the thing which landed them in hot water was the gay connection--that, and the fact that since they posed for an internet site, there was no way to cover up the incident once awareness of it had begun to spread.
As I wrote last August, NCAA Bylaw 126.96.36.199 states that, after becoming a student-athlete, an individual is ineligible for participation in intercollegiate athletics if s/he "(a) Accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind; or (b) Receives remuneration for endorsing a commercial product or service through the individual’s use of such product or service." I don't claim to be an expert in the NCAA eligibility rules, but a plain-text reading of the rule does not appear to cover Donahoe's and Jordan's situation. As far as I know, neither athlete allowed his picture(s) to be used to advertise or promote the site in question. Neither do I see how simply appearing on a site could be construed as an endorsement of it, except to the limited extent that they chose to appear on that site and not any of the hundreds or thousands of others like it. (Which would, obviously, pose more than a little logistical problem.) From the fact that ESPN spoke to several people who felt that a violation had in fact occurred, and also from the fact that Donahoe had to pay back his earnings in order to regain his eligibility, it's possible that there is more context that I'm not aware of, or interpretations of the rules that are not in the NCAA rulebook that make this bylaw applicable. Or it could also be the case that the NCAA and its compliance officers are also engaging in a double standard. (I'm not saying that they are, mind you, but the possibility has to be considered.)
Insofar as I'm able to tell, the NCAA rules seem to be motivated by a desire to keep amateur athletes from making money off of their athletic abilities. All arguments about whether such an attitude is either realistic or desirable aside, I'm still not seeing how Donahoe's and Jordan's actions could reasonably be construed as making money off of their athletic ability. Yes, as wrestlers they're going to have ripped, defined bodies. So do many people who are not wrestlers or athletes of any kind. Yes, both men are handsome. So are many non-athletes. Neither Donahoe nor Jordan appeared in wrestling gear to the best of my knowledge, and neither man made any claim to be a college athlete. They were certainly not engaging in athletic activities (at least not athletic activities sanctioned by the NCAA) when they appeared on Fratmen.tv's website. This is making money off of their status as an athlete how?
Moreover, I'm quite certain there are both men and women who have downloaded photos of Donahoe, Jordan, and hundreds or thousands of other athletic figures--in actual athletic competitions--and sighed lustfully over them. The only difference between those photos and the ones that got Donahoe and Jordan in hot water is that they weren't paid for the former, had no way of knowing that anyone might be using them to get off, and that they weren't completely nude in them. Is the naked human body so shameful, so disgusting, that displaying it (or viewing it) must automatically be censured? I don't think so--and I think that people who do think so should seriously consider why, because a fixation on the evils of pornography suggests that some deeper psychological issues might be in play.
It could be argued, as Kenny Jordan did in his interview with "Outside the Lines" today, that the Nebraska wrestling team (or any collegiate athletic squad, for that matter, though he didn't try to generalize his remarks) couldn't deal with the idea that some of its members were porn stars. In the context of America's puritanical attitudes about sex and sexuality generally, he's probably not far off the mark. That does not, however, change the reality that Donahoe and Jordan did nothing illegal, and that even if they broke an NCAA rule, they could have taken care of that violation by means far less drastic than expelling them from the team. Moreover, it seems to me that one of the reasons that universities exist is to educate the public and to challenge incorrect or outdated paradigms and ways of looking at the world. Perhaps, instead of cowering in fear at the potential backlash, the administrators at Nebraska could have used this incident as a teachable moment, to raise a few consciousnesses about the reality of human sexuality, nudity, and pornography. Instead, they chose to bury their heads in the sand and to make the problem go away by quietly dropping the two offending wrestlers from the squad with some inane--and singularly unconvincing--words about how their actions did not "reflect the standard of excellence we aspire to."
Those words would ring far less hollowly were it not for the fact that the Nebraska wrestling team (and the University of Nebraska athletic program generally) has tolerated--and implicitly condoned--far worse transgressions. As ESPN made reasonably clear in today's broadcast, both Donahoe and Jordan had several run-ins with the law and both had a troubled history on the wrestling squad during their time at Nebraska. Yet few attempts were ever made to discipline them, and no one ever suggested dropping them from the team, until it became public knowledge that they had taken their clothes off for a gay website, and allowed themselves to be filmed while masturbating. Oh, the horrors!
There is a persistent mythology around sports in America that suggests athletes are all pure, upstanding, morally and in all other respects "straight," and are only interested in competition for competition's sake. That this mythology persists in the presence of overwhelming amounts of evidence to the contrary on all points continues to amaze me, but there it is. I think an argument can even be made that this persistent, pernicious mythology plays at least some role in creating the kinds of conflicts revealed in this incident. If we were behaving and thinking rationally, we would understand that young men have sexual urges just like anyone else--even athletes. We would also understand that young men masturbate--and quite a lot of young men like to look at pornographic images while they do so. We would understand that it's damned expensive to go to college these days, and even if you're on a full-ride scholarship, there are still expenses that aren't covered. We would understand that money is a powerful motivating factor, and so is adulation. Perhaps, understanding all of that, we might be able to design a better system to govern amateur athletics, and a society that did not excuse virtually anything short of murder if the perpetrator is someone perceived to be powerful, wealthy, influential--or athletically gifted.
Were we to do that, we might see fewer athletes thinking they could get away with rape and sexual assault, assault and battery, and other similar infractions, and being justified in that expectation. Given what the responsible officials at Nebraska were willing to say on camera today, and the way they have responded both to the incident in the first place and to its subsequent investigation, I can only counsel my readers not to hold their breath on that score.