College Football's Coaching Bonus Bonanza

Reporter Steve Berkowitz on how USA TODAY Sports covers the booming business of campus coaching incentive payments

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If Louisiana State University football coach Ed Orgeron leads his team to a victory in Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game, he will deliver the school its fourth national title—and first since 2007.

He’ll also receive an extra $500,000 for his trouble.

That tidy sum would come to Orgeron in the form of a contractual bonus. It would come in addition to the $1.275 in bonuses Orgeron already has earned for steering the top-ranked Tigers to a wildly-successful regular season and playoff semifinal win. And it would come separately from the $720,000 in combined bonuses his assistants could earn if LSU defeats Clemson University in the title game.

None of this is unusual.

For college football coaches, the extended winter holidays are a bonus bonanza. According to USA TODAY Sports, head coaches at Bowl Subdivision public schools earned nearly $9.5 million in bonuses for the 2019 season as of early December—a figure that doesn’t include subsequent playoff or bowl victory payouts, nor bonuses for assistant coaches, team staffers, and other athletic department employees.

Incentive-based compensation for campus coaches is nothing new: then-Georgia Tech University coach John Heisman (yes, that John Heisman) is believed to have signed the first contract containing a bonus provision back in 1904, a deal that added 30 percent of the school’s football ticket revenue to his annual base salary of $2,500.

As major college football has become a multibillion-dollar industry, however, bonuses have become bigger and more varied. Former Virginia Tech University coach Frank Beamer reportedly once had a clause in his contract that guaranteed an off-season cruise vacation for all coaches, wives, and staff after every successful Hokies season; after appearing in the playoff, Ohio State’s 10 assistant coaches qualified for nearly $2.5 million in combined bonuses.

If Clemson wins Monday night’s game, head coach Dabo Swinney will collect $250,000 on top of the $600,000 in bonuses he already has earned this season—all of which is separate from his sport-topping $9.26 million in school pay for the 2019 season.

To better understand the landscape of college football coaching bonuses, Hreal Sports spoke to USA Today Sports project reporter Steve Berkowitz, whose dogged reporting on the economics of campus sports not only underlies the publication’s annual surveys of major coach compensation, but also makes for enlightening Twitter reading during football and basketball seasons:

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).


Hreal Sports: So when and why did you start tracking college football coach bonuses?

Steve Berkowitz: 2015 was the first football season for which we asked schools about the amount of bonus money their coaches got for the prior season—so all of the info that [we published] was based on the 2014 season. But I previously had been informally tracking this stuff, mostly so I wasn’t fully dependent on the schools’ calculation of it.

We previously had published annual surveys of [coach] compensation. Those always had a figure about the maximum amount of bonus money a coach could get. We started looking at bonuses more thoroughly because an athletic director who had been reading our compensation surveys wondered how much coaches were actually getting. I and my editors thought that was an interesting question!

How did this go from being an annual article and database to something that you update live on Twitter during the season?

I was a relatively late adapter to Twitter. I didn’t join until September of 2012. I started making contemporaneous mention of bonuses for football that fall and winter. Then one thing led to another. Over time, I’ve tried to become more systematic about it. It’s a little easier to do with the NCAA [basketball] tournament.

What is feedback from readers and within the college spots community to your live Twitter stuff?

I can only address that anecdotally within college sports. People in and around it, coaching and administration, seem to find it interesting. Although I have to say, people who aren’t interested or think it is inappropriate will probably not come up to you and say, “wow, I’m really not interested in what you’re doing!” [Laughs]. So the feedback is pretty one-sided.

In terms of Twitter reception, I think it has done reasonably well. I don’t have a the same Twitter following as people with much bigger college football profiles have. But within my Twitter scale, it has gotten good reception. Some of the more re-Tweeted things I’ve done that are not breaking news are from this.

How do you go about getting this info?

The basic thing is getting the contracts for all of the coaches. We do that through sending open records requests to all of the public schools in the FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision]. We started that in 2006 for head coaches, I think we skipped 2008, and then in 2009 added all of the assistant coaches. And this is the fourth year we’ve been doing it for the strength coaches, too. That part has grown—originally it the staffs were limited to nine assistants, then that added an assistant to get to 10, now we are up to 11 with the strength guys.

For everything you see us publish in the fall, I start asking for those contracts in June. Most schools’ fiscal years start July 1. So if you ask too early, there are instances where a coach will be entitled to a COLA [cost of living adjustment] increase—and that is not an amendment to the contract. So you won’t find out about that until it goes into effect with the new fiscal year. Then there are many schools that employ assistant coaches on annual contracts or on an at-will basis. If you ask to early, you end up having to go back and ask again. That’s nobody’s fault, it’s just that the schools respond to records requests in the timeframe they are made.

With head and assistant coaches, having the right base salary figure is really important for calculating the bonuses. If you have a coach who is eligible for eight bonuses and they are all driven off the base salary, that max possible bonus figure will get increasingly incorrect if you don’t have that base salary right.

It takes the the better part of 4-5 months of grinding to get it out. But once we’re able to manage all of the analysis and fact-checking with the schools for the head coaches, we publish. That’s in early or mid-October.

Of course, I’m doing other things in addition to this!

Are the schools resistant to your records requests? Do they kick the can or make it hard for you? It’s not always easy or quick to get information through public records requests, even if the law is on your side.

I wouldn’t say the schools are resistant. Some are better staffed to deal with these requests than others. And the other factor in this is the timing of when various agreements—the coaching contracts—are fully executed and ready for release by the open records office. Some schools are extremely efficient about getting contracts signed and released. Others less so.

You mentioned analysis and fact-checking. How does that work?

Analysis is just reading through the contracts and pulling out the information based on the methodology we’ve established for this. 

The fact-checking part with the schools is something we do with head coaches. I send an email that basically says, here’s a thumbnail of our methods, and here are the numbers that we’ve put together for your coach. We then ask the schools to confirm those numbers or help us correct them as needed. And we say that if we don’t hear from you, we will operate as if these numbers are accurate.

It’s important to note that this is an entirely voluntary thing for the schools. It’s not like answering a public records request. And I would say about two-thirds of the schools respond to us saying that either “this is correct,” or, “this is a little bit off.” By and large, the schools are pretty helpful in responding one way or the other.

It sounds like, for the most part, schools are good with the way you calculate these numbers. 

There are people who disagree with our methodology. We do our best to uniformly apply it. 

What are the hardest things to analyze? 

During our open records request, we do ask for a list of bonuses the coach received over a specified one-year window of time, the season in question. But there are some bonuses I don’t track and can’t track. 

For example, some coaches have bonuses in their contracts that are connected to conduct or community service. There’s not a huge number of them, and the specific wording is variable. But they give bonuses for, say, nobody in the program—coaches or players—having any kind of personal conduct problem. In turn, that could be based on violating school rules. 

Less than a handful coaches are eligible for bonuses based on how involved in the community they or their players are. That’s usually assessed by an athletic director or the school’s administration. The object of those is to incentivize the coach and program to interact with the university community.

It’s impossible for me to track those. It’s same with some bonuses that are based on the team’s GPA [Grade Point Average]. Absent seeking that through an open records request, I wouldn’t be able to get my arms around it. 

You must be incredible at picking up a coaching contract and digesting in, like, five minutes!

I’m better than I used to be! But I’m not infallible. And these agreements are getting more complicated and creative—particularly with buyouts, which we also have started reporting on. Calculating those is really complex. And school approaches to those have gotten very creative in terms of how much of the contract they guarantee and the conditions in which those guarantees can be changed up or down depending on the team’s performance.

When you’re reading these contracts, there’s nothing but opportunities to make mistakes. Particularly when coaches’ contracts are announced by schools and people are reading through them quickly and putting stuff out on Twitter fast.

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Is there a particular school—or schools—that you want to get contract and bonus information for but can’t?

Sure. The private schools as a whole. I would be interested to see what those look like. We always offer private schools the opportunity—every year, I sent invitations to the university media contracts to participate. Almost all of them respond, and they are very polite, but they say, “we are not going to do it.” 

Included in that group are the military academies and a handful of public schools for whom the coaches derive the vast majority of their income from an agreement with a private foundation.

That part is really interesting. We’re up front about it in the footnoting to our reporting. For example, at [the University of] Mississippi and Mississippi State [University], the coaches have public state contracts with the universities, and separate agreements with booster groups that operate as private, albeit connected, nonprofit organizations. The nonprofits do not provide contracts. But the schools do provide a summary of those financial terms. They will tell us what the bonus and compensation structures look like. But we don’t know, for example, what the buyout arrangements are at those schools. 

Let’s talk about the bonuses themselves. What are the most standard or commonplace bonuses, and what are the most unusual or unique ones that you’ve seen while reporting on this?

It’s pretty standard that coaches will get a bonus if the team plays in a bowl game. There are a couple where that is structured in a slightly different way. For instance, this past season, Indiana [University’s] coach didn’t get a bonus for participating in a bowl game per se, he got a bonus for each win during the season beginning with his sixth win. If you operate under the assumption that if you have six wins as a Power Five school, you will get into a bowl game, then that is effectively the same.

Some coaches have to win a bowl game or end the season with winning record to get a bonus connected to a bowl game.

There also are bonuses put into contracts that are clearly meant to be gettable. At Appalachian State University, there’s a $10,000 bonus for the coach if the team plays a guarantee game against a Power Five school at their stadium. They will play that game almost every year.

The most unusual bonuses are all over the place. There are some really creative approaches that schools take to providing incentives. Some schools take an approach where, relatively speaking, the coach’s basic annual compensation relative to the market is kind of low. But their bonus incentives, if they were to max them out, are high. 

Arizona State, for instance, is like this. And that is the school’s approach to coaches, broadly. It’s not a situation where [current football coach] Herm Edwards is betting on himself. The school dealt with its previously coach, Todd Graham, the same way. It deals with [current men’s basketball coach] Bobby Hurley the same way.

Jeff Tedford at Fresno State University made over $1.2 million in bonuses in 2018-19. His salary was $1.6 million. Is that kind of ratio of salary to bonuses unusual?

You have situations where there are guys who have bonus maximums that are much greater than their annual compensation. There are not a lot of them. But off the top of my head, this year, Herm Edwards is like that. His basic pay for the 2019 season was $2.25 million. His maximum bonus availability was just under $4 million. Matt Luke’s pay from Mississippi was $3.1 million. His max possible bonus total was $3.05 million.

By the way, with Tedford, his possible bonus max that year was $2.765 million. So he did not come close to running the table.

So I have to ask about University of Connecticut coach Randy Edsall’s extremely unusual in-game bonuses. For example, he receives $2,000 every time his team scores first or is leading at halftime. He also gets a bonus every time his team leads a game in total offense, and other stuff like that. Does he stand out?

As far as in-game stuff goes, he’s unique. There are coaches who get bonuses for winning specific games. A bunch have bonuses for rivalry games. [The University of California, Berkeley] coach gets a bonus for beating Stanford [University]. He also can get a bonus for beating [the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles, or the University of Oregon] depending on how many games those teams win. And some coaches outside the Power Five get bonuses for winning games against Power Five teams.

There are 20-25 schools whose contracts we can’t see. So maybe they have similar game-to-game statistical achievement bonuses like Edsall. But I’m not aware of them.

Something I noticed in your reporting is that some bowl bonuses tied to specific bowl games. Why is that?

The commonsense analysis of this is that it is based on the prestige or the payout of the particular bowl game. For some of the coaches, it’s set up that if the bowl game has a payout of X dollars, than this is the bonus—above that threshold, you get a better bonus. For example, the way [University of Alabama coach] Nick Saban’s bonus is set up, it’s a function of “are you playing in a basic bowl game, or are you playing in a certain level of game?”

Who actually comes up with these bonuses? Schools or agents?

People are very circumspect about the nature of those conversations. 

Are there any coaches who don’t have bonuses in their contracts?

I can only think off the top of my head of one coach at a prominent school who had no incentive clauses in his contact—back when Travis Ford was [the men’s basketball coach] at Oklahoma State [University] a few years ago.

It’s important to note that just because a coach doesn’t have a bonus in their contact, that doesn’t necessarily preclude an athletic director or university administration from giving them a bonus. That, by the way, is the case for a lot of assistant football coaches. Their contracts or employment letters have no prescribed bonus. But they can still receive them. When we publish the assistant coaches’ pay figures, we include in our methodology some language saying that they are not prescribed bonuses but they can be given at the athletic director’s or the head coach’s discretion. 

In some cases, they create bonus pools. If you win, the assistant coaches will share a pool of money. We don’t publish a maximum figure with those pools because we don’t know how the money is divided.

Speaking of assistant coaches, LSU’s assistants are also going to be cashing in with some pretty nice bonuses this year. How do assistant coach bonuses compare now to what they looked like when you started?

Honestly, I don’t think it’s a lot different than it looks when we first stated looking at them. The amounts of money have grown a little bit, but it’s not becoming a lot more or noticeably more or less prevalent. 

The schools that have prescribed bonuses, it’s roughly the same percentages for assistant coaches. At Ohio State [University], for instance, the bonuses for the assistant coaches have been based on a percentage of pay. The bonuses to those guys has been going up because Ohio State is paying its assistant coaches more money.

Do you have any idea if your stories have actually resulted in coaches getting more and bigger bonuses? Like, a coach read one of your stories, saw another coach’s bonus, and then marched into their athletic director’s office and demanded a bump?

[Laughs]. I don’t want to address that question!

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The Army-Navy Game Is A Tradition Living On Borrowed Time

How much longer can the service academies sponsor a sport that causes brain damage?

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Editor’s note: I originally wrote the following for Deadspin (RIP) in 2017. It remains fully relevant today, and there’s a good chance you may have missed it at the time. If so, enjoy!

In the fall of 1893, Joseph Reeves got some bad news. A midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, he also played for the school’s football team,busting wedges and butting heads as an undersized lineman whose nicknames—“billy goat” and “bull”—aptly described his on-field style.

But all those hits had taken a toll. Prior to Navy’s contest against Army, a school physician familiar with Reeves’ history of head injuries and knockouts warned him that the next blow he received could cause “instant insanity,” or even death. Similarly, academy superintendent Robert L. Phythian told Reeves that he couldn’t in good conscience allow him to participate in the game.

Reeves was undeterred. Soliciting help from an Annapolis shoemaker, he took to the field against Army wearing a padded, mushroom-shaped moleskin cap—possibly the first-ever football helmet. The Midshipmen won the game, Reeves went on to become an influential admiral, and the two schools continue to play football against each other. Yet as Army and Navy prepare to meet in Philadelphia this weekend—their annual showdown now doubles as college football’s regular season finale—the same vexing question that once faced Reeves increasingly hangs over both institutions. Given the inherent brain injury risks, does it make sense for America’s military academies to sponsor tackle football?


By now, you are familiar with the practical and moral case against the game. Schools have two fundamental missions: nurture young minds, and ensure student safety. Football runs counter to both, largely because participants endure multiple hits to their heads as a matter of course—and while helmets are good for preventing catastrophic skull fractures, they don’t do much to keep the brain from being jostled. Repetitive head trauma has been linked to a wide spectrum of acute and chronic damage, from concussions to white- and gray- matter abnormalities to neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which Boston University researchers have found in the brains of 48 of 53 former college football players they’ve examined posthumously.

Of course, this all applies to Alabama and Harvard just as much as it does to Army and Navy. But for the service academies, Air Force included, the trouble with football runs deeper. Civilian institutions are sending their graduates off to work on Wall Street and for Snapchat; the academies are sending theirs to fight in America’s ongoing wars.

The signature wounds of those conflicts, as it happens, are traumatic brain injuries. The Department of Defense and the Defense and Veteran’s Brain Injury Center estimate that 22 percent of all combat casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are the result of brain injuries, often caused by blast exposure from weapons like improvised explosive devices.

"2017 Army vs Navy March On" by West Point - The U.S. Military Academy is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

As is the case with football-induced brain trauma, there’s a good deal of scientific uncertainty about the underlying mechanisms of its blast-induced counterpart—as well as how those injuries manifest as clinical symptoms that can span a gamut from chronic headaches and ringing in the ears to mood disorders and suicidal ideation. Is a soldier who can’t sleep and has trouble remember things suffering from post-concussion syndrome? The early stages of a serious neurological disease? Post-traumatic stress disorder? A combination of all or some of the above? Some of this debate isn’t new: the term “shell shock” entered the medical lexicon during World War I, only to be subsequently dismissed by doctors who wrote off veterans’ debilitating symptoms as the result of emotional and psychological frailty.

Blasts are hardly the only source of brain injuries for soldiers, who suffer head hits and other insults in a variety of ways—one researcher I recently spoke with described examining a veteran with cognitive impairment who had made hundreds of jumps as a paratrooper instructor and never been diagnosed with a concussion, but said he had “his bell rung” every time he landed. Scientists have amassed sufficient evidence to prove that none of this is good, and studies have linked brain injuries in veterans to potentially premature brain aginglower levels of glucose metabolism in the cerebellumvision and hearing problems, and greater risk of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. Another researcher who works with veterans—and who declined to comment on the record about an ongoing study—recently told me that a significant percentage of patients have hormonal deficiencies consistent with damage to the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure that rests at the base of the brain.

Then there’s CTE. In 2012, researchers from Boston University and elsewhere found the disease in the brains of four veterans—three who had survived single or multiple combat explosions, and one who had a history of concussions from football and vehicle accidents. In the same study, the researchers conducted an experiment on mice to test the hypothesis that blasts could trigger CTE’s signature pathology, toxic tangles of a misshapen protein called tau in specific areas of the brain:

For the animal part of the study, [researchers] developed a 27-foot-long “shock tube” to simulate explosions. At one end of the aluminum tube the researchers attached a device that uses compressed nitrogen to explode a Mylar membrane, generating force equal to the explosion of a 120-millimeter mortar round. At the other end, they tied down mice, allowing their heads to move freely.

The researchers found that shock waves from the blast moving at more than 1,000 miles per hour had no perceptible effect on brain tissue. But the subsequent blast wind, traveling at 330 m.p.h., shook the skull violently in what the researchers called “bobblehead effect.”

When the scientists examined specially stained tissue from the mouse brains under microscopes just two weeks later, they found the telltale signs of C.T.E.

The scientists also found that mice exposed to blasts showed short-term memory loss and declines in learning capacity just a few weeks later.

Back to football. Many scientists suspect that brain trauma can be cumulative and compounding—that is, the more blasts or head hits you endure, the higher your risk of injury and disease. Various studies of contact sport athletes suggest as much; in Boston University’s studies, former NFLers have a higher rate of CTE than players who stopped in college, who in turn have a higher rate than former high school players; another recent Boston University study found that athletes who started playing tackle football before age 12 doubled their risk of developing behavioral problems and tripled their chances of suffering depression later in life.

For now, there’s no formula demonstrating that X number of hits, blasts, or years playing football increases brain damage risk by Y percent. Much more research is needed, and the science of head trauma is in many ways only recently out of its infancy. That said, we already know enough to ask a difficult question of the service academies: if their goal is producing sound-minded soldiers—and protecting those soldiers as much as possible while likely putting them into harm’s way—then why expose them to thousands of unnecessary hits to the head simply for the sake of a sport that’s wholly unessential to military preparedness and national security?

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As is the case at other schools, football is a source of communal entertainment, pride, and goodwill for the academies. In 2015, the local economic impact of the Army-Navy game was predicted to be as high $30 million; ratings for the contest were the highest in 15 years. “It delivers an incredible show for the entire country every year,” a Philadelphia sports official recently told the Baltimore Sun. The sport also serves as a military recruiting tool: last year, the Defense Department lifted the “David Robinson Rule”—a minimum two-year postgrad active duty requirement for academy athletes—in order to allow them to play professional sports immediately, provided they serve for eight to 10 years in the reserves. Why the change, which allowed Navy quarterback and Heisman candidate Keenan Reynolds to play in the NFL preseason for the Baltimore Ravens? Public relations. “The value that we get far outweighs the active duty service commitment,” then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told Sports Illustrated.

With football in particular, there’s a longstanding and sentimental sense that the game’s inherent violence helps prepare players for actual combat—or, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur once put it, “on the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.” Could the academies ever conclude otherwise? In the short term, it seems unlikely. Critics inside and outside the military have argued that football compromises admission standards, detracts from the core mission of preparing officers for active duty, and costs too much money. And still football goes on.

"Ram Vela Runs Back the Interception" by Kevin H. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Two years ago, Navy running back Will McKamey collapsed during practice and later died of brain swelling and a brain bleed; the 19-year-old had suffered a similar injury in high school. Football continued. That same year, the New York Times reported that full-contact boxing classes—which are required for first-year students at all three academies—produced nearly 200 documented concussions over a three-year period, leading some parents and policymakers to question the practice, which military leaders long have believed teaches courage and perseverance. “No brain trauma is good brain trauma — even if there are not diagnosable concussions, there can still be lasting damage,” Boston University’s Robert Cantu, a concussion and CTE expert, told the Times. “Maybe you could justify it if there is some crucial life-saving skill that can’t be taught in any other way. But short of that, it’s absolutely stupid.” Last year, West Point made boxing mandatory for first-year female cadets, too.

So far, so stupid. But it’s easy to imagine a future in which increased medical and scientific knowledge about the links between head trauma and brain harm—the steady drip of small studies all pointing in the same dismal direction; the ability to image CTE in living people—might change the academies’ contact-sport calculus. After all, they have to worry about combat readiness. “Executive function and multitasking are important,” one researcher told me. “This kind of ability to think is difference between life and death. [A solider] needs to make split-second, complex decisions—deploy this weapon at this moment at this time, decisions that could impact their mission at national and international levels… When you damage those parts of your brain, it’s very well known what happens to your ability to think. People make really crazy decisions. Do we want that? Do we want to damage our best assets? These are serious questions.”

Most schools can hide behind a NCAA concussion settlement that doesn’t cover medical care. They can duck paying worker’s comp to injured players thanks to the made-up, quasi-legal term “student-athlete.” But through the VA, the military is on the hook for soldiers’ long-term medical costs. And brain injuries are expensive. If the academies conclude that football’s brain risks can’t be mitigated—if the price can be deferred, but not denied—then the sport’s place at Army, Navy, and Air Force will become increasingly untenable, both as a matter of good conscience and as an upside marketing play with unjustifiable physical and financial downside. The Army-Navy game is a time-honored tradition. So were horse-mounted cavalry.


In early 1894, just months after Bull Reeves’s final college contest, Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont and Secretary of the Navy Hillary A. Herbert agreed to cancel Army-Navy. The rivalry, they agreed, was a “bad influence,” an overheated, out-of-control affair that had nearly provoked an actual shooting duel between an admiral and a brigadier general. Five years later, the game was reinstated; like Reeves, Army and Navy decided to strap on their helmets and roll the dice. Football’s allure was simply too strong, and has been ever since. The question is, for how much longer?

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This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.

What Sports Can Learn From New York's Refusal To Subsidize Amazon

When it comes to stadium welfare, cities now have the leverage

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Earlier this year, the good people of New York City did something admirable: they told Amazon to f—k off.

Actually, scratch that. They didn’t tell Amazon to f—k off willy-nilly. They told Amazon to f—k off, specifically, with its plan to collect nearly $3 billion in public subsidies in exchange for building an office campus in Queens—a scheme that fell apart under political pressure and scrutiny following the e-commerce and tech giant’s protracted national hat-in-hand campaign to see which of America’s cities would be willing to offer up the juiciest corporate welfare package to one of the world’s most valuable and successful firms.

When Amazon abruptly backed out last February, a spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo called political opposition to the subsidy “a terrible blunder”; meanwhile, one local business booster said that reluctance to shower an able-bodied company with approximately $112,000 of taxpayer money per each new Amazon job sent a “pretty bad message to the job creators.”

But guess what? Last Friday, Amazon announced that it would lease Manhattan office space for more than 1,500 employees, upping its New York footprint without the city paying for the, uh, privilege.

And yes, there’s a lesson here for every city that’s home to a sports franchise asking residents to spare a couple hundred million bucks or more for a new stadium. 

The lesson is this: cities don’t need teams. Teams need cities. And when the former attempts to extort the latter by threatening to move somewhere else—a smaller-scale spiritual sibling to Amazon’s Empty Your Pockets HQ2-apalooza, which saw Maryland offer a staggering $8.5 billion in goodies and Indiana officials allegedly manipulate an investigation into an Amazon worker’s death to protect the state’s bid—the truth of the matter is that You, The People, have way more leverage than you think.

After all, when it comes right down to it, where else is your local team gonna go? Omaha?


Look, sports stadium welfare sucks. Numerous studies have shown that the local economic impact of stadium construction is nil; more than one economist who studies the issue has told me that a city looking for a fiscal jolt would be better off literally dropping bags of taxpayer cash out of a helicopter hovering over downtown. (In fact, University of Maryland, Baltimore County economics professor Dennis Coates once calculated that “the professional sports environment”—that is, having stadiums and teams in a particular area—may actually reduce local incomes by as much as $40 a year for a family of four). Every public dollar spent on a stadium is a dollar not spent on a textbook or patched pothole. Worse still, stadium deals are typically regressive, funded by lotteries and sales taxes that disproportionately burden the poor so that mostly wealthy sports fans can pay $8 for a beer. As a society, we should tax stadium giveaways into oblivion, and then shoot the next able-bodied billionaire team owner who asks for a handout—because, apparently, banks no longer lend money nor want to do business with billionaires—directly into the sun, the better to set an appropriate cultural example for future generations.

However, lambasting the evil of sports stadium welfare is not really my point, here. My point is that said giveaways are an unnecessary evil. A price no current major league city has to pay, anymore than New York City had to bribe a major corporation to set up shop in … New York City, arguably the most important city in the United States, a city teeming with talent and infrastructure, the kind of place where Amazon wants to be and where people who work for Amazon want to live.

The same dynamic applies to pretty much every current big league franchise. Again: where the heck else are they gonna go? Columbus?

This wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, leagues, team owners, and armies of well-paid lobbyists could credibly threaten mayors, city council members, and state legislatures with some lawyered variation on real nice little local football team you got here, it’d be a shame if they moved to Baltimore in the middle of the night. 

After all, the Colts really did move to Indianapolis. The Cleveland Browns decamped to Baltimore. The St. Louis Cardinals skedaddled to Phoenix. The Los Angeles Rams peaced out to St. Louis. The Montreal Expos relocated to Washington, D.C. The Seattle Sonics reverse Oregon Trail-ed it to Oklahoma City. The Vancouver Grizzlies took a long walk to Memphis. The Oakland Raiders went south to Los Angeles, then north back to Oakland, then east to Las Vegas. 

A bunch of National Hockey League teams shuffled locations, too, mostly to the Sun Belt, but honestly, who can keep track?

Anyway, the upshot of these moves was that they gave extortion threats teeth. And those threats worked. Incredibly well! Indeed, the clear and present danger of losing teams to other locales willing to empty their coffers produced a multi-decade orgy of sports franchise money-suckling from a seemingly inexhaustible public teat. In 2012, an interactive map at Deadspin (RIP) estimated that the total cost to the public of the 78 pro stadiums built or renovated between 1991 and 2004 was nearly $16 billion—more than what Chrysler received in auto industry bailout following the Great Recession ($10.5 billion), and enough money to fund, in today’s dollars, 15 Saturn V moon rocket launches.

A few lowlights: Indianapolis spent $1.2 billion on a football stadium. My hometown of D.C. coughed up an estimated $1 billion for a baseball stadium. Miami forked over roughly $500 million up front for a baseball stadium by issuing bonds that eventually will cost the public $2.4 billion. Cincinnati dropped an estimated $555 million on a football stadium in an epochally dunderheaded deal that also puts the region’s taxpayers on the hook for current and future operating expenses, including a potential “holographic replay machine.”

When you’re afraid that the Bengals’ lousy stadium lease deal is quite operational. Image via YouTube.

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Only here’s the thing. The overwhelming success of this shameless grifting and plutocratic greedhead grubbing has produced an unintended and delightful consequence. The major leagues have basically killed their stalking horses. Major League Baseball can’t threaten to move a team to Washington, because the Expos already are there. The National Football League can’t wield Los Angeles’ vast, untapped media market like a Sword of Damocles, because the city is now home to two relocated clubs. The National Basketball League can bluster about Seattle, but that city’s taxpayers have shown little interest in funding a new stadium to lure a replacement for the Sonics.

There’s no more greener grass out there. Which means cities now have the upper hand, the same way New York had the upper hand with Amazon. Take my local NFL franchise. The team wants a new stadium, and would very much like people such as yours truly to pay for it. Thing is, politicians in Maryland, Virginia, and the District have shown no interest in picking up the tab. My fellow residents are similarly unenthused. And why wouldn’t we be? The Washington area is a large and lucrative market with deep affection for the team, despite owner Dan Snyder’s heroic and ongoing effort to smother that goodwil under a cholroform-soaked pillow of incompetent management.

Meanwhile, every other comparable area already is home to a franchise. What is Snyder going to do if local lawmakers tell him to pound sand—move to Mexico City? London? San Antonio? Ask New York to take on a third NFL club?

Oddly enough, some areas seem not to have realized that team owners have little left but bluffs. Atlanta spent hundreds of millions—or billions, depending on how you crunch the numbers—to give the Falcons and Braves new buildings. Indianapolis bribed the Pacers with $600 million in fresh handouts to make sure the team keeps playing in the same building where it always has. 

But times are changing. As friend of the newsletter and longtime sports subsidy scourge Neil deMause points out, Anaheim in 2014 rebuffed the Angels’ attempt to receive $200-plus million worth of stadium parking lot land for the low, low price of a buck, while the mayor of Calgary has insisted that any plan for a new hockey arena allow taxpayers to recoup their costs. Then there’s Los Angeles, where locals refused for decades to ante up for a football stadium—and were rewarded with not one but two franchises, one of which no one even seems to want. So much for sending the wrong message to job creators.

In a semi-reasonable world, you wouldn’t be reading this, because I wouldn’t be writing it. Welfare King billionaires wouldn’t be leeching off hardworking Americans in the first place. We wouldn’t allow it, and laugh at them for asking. Only that’s not the world we live in. From the occupants of White House to WeWork to some $80 billion of annual national corporate handouts to the Prosperity Gospel to private equity to whatever it is that management consultants actually do, our world is a griftocracy, all the way down. As such, Just Saying No to sports stadium giveaways isn’t just the smart and right thing to do. It’s an increasingly rare opportunity to tell the grubby, grasping forces of Too Much Is Never Enough—adult children who need to have every toy in the sandbox, and all of the sand in the Sahara, too—to f—k right off. And really, who can put a price on that?

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This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.

"So Dumb": How The NCAA Fines Athletes Into Submission

Memphis basketball star James Wiseman's $11,500 amateurism penalty is the tip of the iceberg

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Maybe you missed it. Probably you missed it. In January of 2011, University of New Hampshire center Dane DiLiegro was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. According to a news brief, no further details were provided.

But the details are where things get interesting.

New Hampshire is frigid around the holidays. There’s often a lot of snow. This is good for skiing; it’s not so great if you’re a college basketball player dragging your aching body from a distant parking lot to your home arena for practice. So during winter break of his senior year, DiLiegro came up with a lifehack: he made a photocopy of a friend’s faculty parking pass, and used it to park his car in an arena-adjacent lot.

One day, the team’s athletic trainer spotted him.

Why are you parking there?

Because it’s winter break and I don’t want to park in the snow.

“[The trainer] told an assistant athletic director,” DiLiegro says. “And then it all came down.”

DiLiegro was summoned to the office of the school’s athletic director. He was told that his parking caper violated National Collegiate Athletic Association amateurism rules by qualifying as an “extra benefit”—that is, a goodie that the NCAA forbids athletes from receiving because, uh, the association says so.

Money. Gifts. Flowers. Store discounts. Reduced rent. Meals away from the area around campus. And yes, Xeroxed parking passes. All these things qualify as extra benefits. All of them render athletes ineligible, too, because if athletes get gratis steaks or cash handshakes or the opportunity to avoid some Christmas slush, then pretty soon amateur purity will be despoiled and cats and dogs will be living together and the Big Ten conference will have to drop to Division III. Or something.

We have to report this to the NCAA, DiLiegro recalls being told.

Well, no, you don’t, he recalls responding. This doesn’t have to be a thing. It’s an issue that can easily be contained. 

No dice. DiLiegro was suspended. And that wasn’t all. New Hampshire’s NCAA compliance staffers had determined that the financial value of his ersatz parking was approximately $100. 

To make good with the association and return to the court, DiLiegro recalls being told, he would have “pay a fine”—that is, donate an equivalent amount, in actual cold, hard cash, to a charity of his choosing.

“I didn’t even really [question it] at the time,” he says now. “Can the NCAA fine me? Can they take my money? What could I do? Say I didn’t pay it. Then what? Would I have to sit out for more games?

“It was so dumb. I’m a 22-year-old kid trying to not walk through the snow. It’s a parking pass. At the end of the day, who gives a s—t? I can’t even imagine the stuff that goes on around the country.”


Imagination isn’t necessary. Last month, the NCAA announced that University of Memphis basketball star James Wiseman would be suspended 12 games and required to make a $11,500 “donation” to a charity of his choice—the better to atone for the terrible, no good, very bad decision of his mother to accept $11,500 in moving expenses from Memphis coach Penny Hardaway in the summer of 2017, back when Hardaway was a successful high school coach and Wiseman’s family wanted to move from Nashville to Memphis so he could play for a former National Basketball Association star.

While Wiseman’s fame and the sheer size of his Not A Fine, But Actually a Donation prompted widespread incredulity—even Democratic presidential long shot Andrew Yang sounded off—the incident also exposed a little-discussed but immensely odious aspect of NCAA amateurism: how the association and its member schools enforce rules that take money from college athletes by taking even more money from college athletes by punishing them with fines.

Examples abound:

  • In 2018, a Clemson University recruit who was given ground transportation costs exceeding the school’s official mileage rate was required to pay $40 to charity, while school athletes who were mistakenly provided meals and per diems for the same meal were required to pay $10 each to charities.

  • Also in 2018, Michigan State basketball player Miles Bridges was required to pay $40 to charity because members of his family unknowingly had dinner with a sports agent.

  • In 2017, an Oklahoma State football player who received $65 to place a female student and her friend on the pass last for a homecoming game against Baylor—and said he returned the $65 the next day—ended up having to make a $65 donation to a breast cancer foundation.

  • That same year, the stepmother of an Oklahoma State basketball player who was undercharged by $541.26 for her stay at an on-campus hotel because her reservation was made through the school’s athletic department and received a discounted rate was required to pay that amount to charity.

  • In 2014, Stanford University wide receiver Devon Cajuste was required to donate $400 to charity after his summer landlord provided him with meals, movie tickets, and the use of a vacation home.

  • In 2013, three University of Oklahoma football players were required to donate $3.83 per person to charity after eating more pasta than NCAA regulations allowed during a graduation banquet.

  • Also in 2013, an Oklahoma soccer recruit was required to donate $9.95 to charity after ordering Internet service costing the same amount while staying in an Embassy Suites hotel during an official campus visit.

  • In 2012, an Oklahoma track and field athlete who was a midyear transfer and not eligible to compete was required to donate $179 to charity after he received a ring valued for the same amount commemorating the school’s Big 12 Championship.

  • In 2010, University of Alabama football player Marcell Dareus was ordered by the NCAA to pay $1,787 to charity after he received airfare, lodging, meals, and transportation during two trips to Miami to attend parties hosted by a sports agent.

“When I was playing [in college] you’d hear about this stuff pretty regularly around a lot of really bizarre rules violations,” says Luke Bonner, a former University of Massachusetts basketball player. “Stuff like it’s holiday break, you’re going home for a 48 hours, you catch a lift from an assistant coach or a [team] manager, and it’s a rules violation. ‘Oh, I got this $25 fine.’

“Typically, players aren’t even aware they’re violating a rule. It’s like a 300-page book. Nobody knows that the rules are.”

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If the practice of fining unpaid amateur college athletes in amounts big and small seems a bit unfair—if not downright predatory, similar to municipal governments fining the ever-loving s—t out of largely powerless poor people because f—k ‘em, they’re poor—well, that’s certainly not how the NCAA and its member schools see it.

For starters, the association doesn’t call payments such as Wiseman’s fines. True to the semantic spirit that brought the world perfectly clear, not-at-all-Orwellian phrases like student-athlete and collegiate model, the NCAA instead calls them “Student-Athlete Repayment Plans”—which makes it sound as if athletes are paying off the purchase of a new Honda or a iPhone 11, only in these cases no one receives a car or a smartphone, and the money goes to random nonprofit instead of Best Buy or a dealership.

Second, the NCAA’s “Student-Athlete Reinstatement Philosophy” states that player fines—excuse me, repayment plans—are part of “reaching an outcome that considers the well-being of the involved student-athlete while maintaining fairness.”

Again, that sounds pretty swell, akin to something Tom Hanks might say while playing Mr. Rogers. Who doesn’t like well-being and fairness?

Of course, that’s not how athletes tend to experience it. 

Consider the story of Matt Bonner, Luke’s older brother. Before he became a longtime NBA sharpshooter, Matt was a star at the University of Florida. And before that, he was a prep All-American.

According to Luke, his older brother also was “a huge dork,” the valedictorian of his high school graduating class. For earning that honor, Matt received a $1,000 scholarship from a local civic group. “I think it was the Rotary Club,” Luke says. “They gave it every year. It was basically, ‘here’s some money to get you started, go do great things and make us proud.”

Matt moved to Gainesville, Florida to start summer school and get an early jump on his college coursework. He used the $1,000 to help pay for his expenses. Fast forward to the fall. Shortly before the start of basketball season, Luke says, the school found out about the money—and believed it could be considered a NCAA rules violation.

“They basically told my brother that ‘this issue goes away if you pay it back,’” Luke says. “‘But if you don’t, you could be suspended for a pretty substantial length of time.’”

At the time, Luke and Matt’s father worked as a Post Office letter carrier. Their mother taught elementary school. For the Bonner family, $1,000 was a significant amount of money. But like DiLiegro, they felt they had no choice but to pay the fine. 

Luke remembers his mother picking up extra work, summer school teaching and supervising after school programs, “anything to pay the 1,000 bucks and make it go away.”

“It’s not like my family was a position to contest this in any way,” he says. “It might have been totally fine. Not an issue at all. But there was no way to know. The season was right around the corner. The school was not going to risk its season by playing my brother if he was possibly ineligible. And my parents couldn’t hire a lawyer and figure it out in that time frame.”


Luke Bonner doesn’t believe that Florida was acting out of malice. To the contrary, he suspects that the school was scared—frightened that if it didn’t take aggressive action against his brother, then the association would treat it even more harshly.

DiLiegro feels the same way about his alma mater. In addition to his $100 fine, he served a three-game suspension. That hiatus, he says, cost him a shot at becoming New Hampshire’s all-time leading rebounder.

“I’m thankful to UNH,” DiLiegro says. “I love the program. But they could have exercised some discretion. Three games and a fine? That is ridiculous. At the same time, I understand they were fearful of the NCAA. It wasn’t really their fault.”

This is how successful authoritarian regimes work. They foster compliance and obedience by creating a climate of ambient, unthinking paranoia. A climate in which institutions and individuals—in this case, schools and athletes—are afraid not only of breaking the rules, but also of appearing insufficiently committed to them. 

While Matt was being recruited, Luke recalls, he and his family went on an unofficial visit to an Atlantic Coast Conference school. On the way to meet with the school’s president, their rental car suffered a flat tire.

“It was the biggest to-do to figure out if it was okay under NCAA rules to ride in the SUV of one of the assistant coaches, who we had been following,” Luke says. “I think they had to send a photographer to take pictures to have evidence [of the flat], just in case.”

Speaking of evidence, Luke can’t remember what charity his family ended up giving $1,000 to. He’s not sure it mattered to anyone involved. “I have no idea,” he says. “The most important thing was, ‘do we have a paper trail that shows we addressed this?’” 

Similarly, DiLiegro didn’t give his—ahem—donation much thought. “I found a homeless shelter down the street from campus, walked in, and handed them a check,” he says. 

Why are you doing this? he was asked.

“I didn’t explain it,” he says. “How do you explain that? I just said I wanted to do something nice. And I told them I needed a receipt.”

Of all the indignities the NCAA and its members heap upon college athletes in the name of amateurism—remember when Ohio State University forced football players to let assistant coaches monitor their bank accounts as part of a $1.1 million compliance effort?—compelling them to give money to charities because they failed to fully submit to an illegal, immoral, and utterly arbitrary system of financial control is arguably the grossest. For one, it positions the NCAA, a tax-evasion scheme masquerading as a scholastic enterprise, on the side of actual do-gooding nonprofits. 

More nauseatingly, it promotes the notion that amateurism is somehow clean, honest, and virtuous, while college athletes enjoying the fruits of their labors is somehow dirty, corrupt, and morally suspect. After all, if the way to set the moral ledger straight after receiving more money than NCAA rules allow is to give the same amount of money to a good cause, then those NCAA rules must also be … a good cause.

This, of course, is bulls—t. There’s nothing noble about wage suppression and labor exploitation. Yet according to the NCAA’s reinstatement philosophy, player fines are part of an effort to “place the student-athlete back in the position he or she would have been prior to the violation occurring while maintaining the integrity of the Association's values.”

That last part is actually true: athlete fines really do maintain the integrity of the NCAA’s values. But only because those values came be summed up with a single word. Hypocrisy.

The NCAA insists in federal court that it shouldn’t be subject to antitrust law—but defends itself by hiring an expert witness economist whose own college textbook calls the association a classic cartel. The NCAA’s website states that it was “founded to keep college athletes safe” and is “working hard to protect them”; in court, the organization has argued that it has no legal duty to protect college athletes from harm. The NCAA touts education as its raison d’être, yet when University of North Carolina athletes filed lawsuits over the sham classes they took as part of a massive academic fraud scandal, the association insisted that it had no obligation to ensure educational quality

In 2006, former NCAA president Myles Brand unwittingly summarized the upside-down morality that allows a group of reverse Robin Hoods to steal $11,500 from Wiseman’s family—and countless dollars from countless others—while pretending to make the world a better place. Amateurism, he said, defines the participants in college sports. But not the enterprise.

None of this is lost on Luke Bonner. Now an outspoken advocate for college athletes’ rights, he says that Matt’s experience opened his then-teenaged eyes. “My brother was a really good college basketball player,” he says. “And Florida was a perennial top team. They had sold out crowds, were on national TV all the time. 

“I had this moment at one of their games. There was 15,000 people at the area chanting my brother’s name. That was really cool. But holy cow—there’s 15,000 paying customers chanting his name, and my parents had to pay a $1,000 fine essentially for him to be on the court?”

DiLiegro can relate. After college, he played professionally for eight years in Italy and Israel. During that time, he says, he was fined “hundred of times” by his teams.

“Mostly for things like being late to practice,” he says. “One time, I got fined 250 Euros for using ketchup on my potatoes during breakfast. It turns out we weren’t allowed to eat that because there’s sugar in it.”

DiLiegro laughs.

“It’s different when it’s your employer,” he says. “It definitely makes it easier when they’re paying you.”

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This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.

The Broken Culture That Broke Mary Cain

Runner and sports historian Victoria Jackson on Nike's Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar, and abusive coaching

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Mary Cain is speaking out. But will her story—and her message—bring about needed change?

In a New York Times video essay published last week, Cain, a former high school track phenom who competed in the 2013 world championships at age 17, claimed that she was physically and emotionally abused while training with Nike’s Oregon Project, a now-defunct track and field training group run by coach Alberto Salazar.

According to Cain, she was told by coaches in the program that she would have to become “thinner and thinner and thinner” in order to win races—and that Salazar would “usually weigh me in front of my teammates and publicly shame me” if she weighed more than 114 pounds.

Cain also claimed that Salazar attempted to give her birth-control pills and diuretics to assist with weight loss.

As a result of Salazar’s abusive coaching, Cain said, she missed her period for three years, broke five bones, and developed an eating disorder that prompted suicidal thoughts.

Cain joined the Oregon Project, she told the Times, because she “wanted to be the best female athlete ever.”

“Instead,” she said, “I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”

In statements to the Times, The Oregonian, and Sports Illustrated, Salazar has denied many of Cain’s claims and said that he supported her health and welfare.

Following publication of the Times essay, Nike said that it would investigate Cain’s allegations of abuse.

The Oregon Project, which was based in Portland and owned and operated by Nike since 2001, was shut down in October after Salazar was given a four-year ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for experiments with supplements and testosterone that were bankrolled and supported by Nike, along with possessing and trafficking testosterone, a prohibited performance-enhancing substance.

Also following publication of Cain’s essay, other runners and individuals within track and field—including former Nike coach Steve Magness, who worked under Salazar—have spoken out on social media and to Sports Illustrated supporting her contention that the Oregon Project had a toxic and abusive culture.

Meanwhile, The Sunday Times of London spoke to several British athletes, who said that:

… they were not surprised by Cain’s revelations and that they saw it as part of a wider culture that encouraged excessive weight loss in the name of performance and perpetuated the idea that “thinner meant faster”. Many had lost their periods at points.

One athlete, who wished to remain anonymous, said her coach had deliberately bought race uniforms in “small” sizes so that athletes felt pressured to fit into them. “If I look at them now, I’m absolutely horrified,” she says. “I hope to God I never fit into them again. They are like a child’s clothes.”

Holly Rush, a former marathon runner who competed at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games in 2010, told the Sunday Times that she:

… suffered from eating disorders during her sporting career and did not have periods for eight years from the age of 20. By 22, she had been diagnosed with osteoporosis in her spine and osteopenia in her hip, consequences of her weight loss. “If you’re looking tired or gaunt, that was always a great thing,” she says. 

She said the fact that she wasn’t having periods was perceived as a good thing because “it didn’t hamper my training”. She knows of many athletes who are told to lose weight. “I’ve heard stories of people being weighed at sessions, which is appalling,” she says. “It’s just degrading, will make you feel worse and then you restrict even more and overtrain even more. It’s a horrible cycle. Anyone who goes to a training camp or session where that happens needs to walk away.”

Just how common are stories like Cain’s? Will her coming forward encourage track and field to take a harder look at—and a harder stance against—abusive coaching and an unhealthy, dangerous culture around athlete body weight?

To get a better sense of why Cain’s claims resonated so deeply and what needs to change going forward, Hreal Sports spoke to Victoria Jackson, a history professor at Arizona State University and former collegiate and professional distance runner who has been outspoken on Twitter and elsewhere about athletes’ rights.

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).


Hreal Sports: You were a NCAA Division I distance runner. So was your sister. As far as I can tell, you’re still plugged in to the running community. When you first saw Mary’s story, was was your immediate reaction?

Jackson: Oh, goodness. We all knew there was something wrong with the Nike Oregon Project—because those of us who competed, both collegiately and professionally over the last 15 years, we all know somebody involved with it.

[Oregon Project runner] Dathan Ritzenhein, I knew him since high school. I didn’t know him well. But we went to the national high school cross country championships together. My senior year, he won and I placed second. He was one of those athletes who was known for his ability to push himself more than anyone. We all would be amazed at how he would run to the point of collapsing. That was all before he joined the Oregon Project.

After Mary’s story came out, I went back and read about a leaked interim report from the USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] into the Oregon Project. Some of Dathan’s testimony was in it. He talked about how he was going to be suspended by Nike because he was injured. I had heard rumors [as a professional runner] about Nike athletes being told, ‘you are underperforming, you have to join one of our programs.’

So I think Dathan knew that he kind of had to do this stuff—take hormones and medications and drugs to please Alberto. He knew that Alberto could go to his boss at Nike and say, “Dathan is working really hard and he is getting back on a path where he’s world class. You don’t have to suspend his contract.” That’s the messaging Dathan received. And the program has a secretive nature. The athletes in the Oregon Project were not even allowed to tap to each other about what types of medications they were taking.

So you have a rotten culture. What Mary describes is a system of emotional and physical abuse. Athletes already are pushing themselves so much to begin with. And then to throw a teenage girl into that and expect her to excel instead of being broken by it? 

The nature of distance running is pushing yourself and building a tolerance to pain, building a capacity to kind of transcend pain. It’s kind of what we do. And that holds the the potential to turn rotten—maybe more so than in other sports. I think this is a moment of reckoning for the elite running community. Rather than looking the other way, or enabling coaching staffs and collegiate athletic departments and other people who have jobs despite building rotten cultures, maybe we should be doing something about them in order to get them out of the sport.

Mary said that Nike “is not acknowledging the fact that there is a systemic crisis in women’s sports and at Nike, in which young girls’ bodies are being ruined.” Is she right, and if so, how and why?

I don’t know. That gives me pause. There is so much power—the potential for power for girls who engage in the sport is so rich. But that means creating a culture so they can tap into that power in a positive way.

At Nike, I think we can point to specific structural issues, like the fact that they were suspending contracts of people who were injured. That reinforces the potential for bad behavior. If you are economically dependent on people who are doing things that are putting athletes in harmful situations—like the medical stuff Salazar was doing from the USADA report, having runners on medications where there is a literal warning that if you take these two types of medications at the same time, the risk of heart failure is really hight, and also they are prescription medications, and yet Salazar is giving out both and he’s not even a doctor!—then that is a serious problem.

My professional introduction to Nike was at the 2006 track and field championships in Indianapolis. It was my first meet as a pro wearing a Nike kit. I went in there with blinders on, trying to focus on how I had signed with the coolest company in the world. And then I read about how at that meet a Nike employee beat up a massage therapist because—and I don’t know if they believed this or were trying to create a cover story—the therapist supposedly massaged [performance-enhancing drugs] into Justin Gatlin.

Oh, and another time one of the coaches with the Brooks Beasts track club was also threatened by a Nike employee at a USA Track and Field outdoor championship. That is not a cool culture.

I do think part of the reason that athletes have been reluctant to speak out about problems with Nike is that in our sport, Nike is USA Track and Field and USA Track and Field is Nike. And I don’t know how much USA Track and Field listens, anyway. My first time at a meeting organized by them as an elite, professional athlete was at a rookie camp in Cancun, [Mexico]. I went to that and then to a USA Track and Field annual meeting, and you literally had USA Track and Field employees shouting down athletes trying to bring up legitimate issues with the sport because they didn’t want to have a conversation. So there is something rotten there, too.

As far as Mary saying there is a crisis in girls’ sports, just thinking about it historically, there is a problem with young girls in that—as a society—we don’t know what to do with athletically excellent young girls. There’s a tension in elite youth sports: we have girls who already are at a level where they could theoretically be competing on a world stage, but all of the stuff that comes with that, all of the potential pressures, it’s virtually impossible to navigate the obstacle course of that. Yet we assume that it’s just what someone like Mary should do—and hopefully, she makes it out on the other side.

I don’t know the solution to that conundrum. But it’s certainly not throwing girls into an elite training situation that is also harmful.

I went back and read a [2015] New York Times magazine profile of Mary. She started running really fast as a freshman in high school—qualifying for the world junior championships, breaking an American junior record, kind of scratching at world class. She couldn’t really have training partners wit her high school girls’ team. Could she train with the boys’ team? It turned out that was a violation of New York high school federation rules. That rule might have been adopted with good intentions. It might not have been. Who knows? But Mary had no one to run with on her team. The article also said that her high school coach—for reasons no one would talk about—didn’t even prescribe workouts for her. She just made them up on her own.

So then Alberto Salazar calls her house. She’s somebody who isn’t being coached, has nobody to train with. Then she gets a call from a guy who says he can help. In the moment, he is heaven sent. It only turns out to be tragic in retrospect.

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Mary recalls arriving in Oregon to train with Salazar at age 17. She’s coached by an all-male staff. She says that they told her in order to better her performances she needed to become "thinner and thinner and thinner." She also says that Salazar would publicly shame her in front of teammates if she did not weigh 114 pounds, and even attempted to give her birth-control pills and diuretics to assist with weight loss. 

As someone who has been in and around the culture of elite running, why would any of that be considered a good idea?

It’s not! Lauren Fleshman—who is a former Nike athlete and is now a coach with Oiselle—Tweeted something that is so obvious yet needs to be said.

At the bottom she wrote, “weight fixation is lazy coaching.” I would argue that it literally is not coaching. The idea that Alberto Salazar was the world’s best coach for the word’s best company? We’re now seeing that is Nike marketing. There is not a real basis for that. If anything, the fact that some of his athletes were actually able to survive and succeed to do what they did is an amazing testament to them!

Like I said before, in our sport’s culture, we celebrate the pushing of ourselves and the pain that comes with it. And that can be great if done in a healthy way. But it has such potential to turn into something rotten so quickly. I can think of a handful of college programs that I heard about when I was in college where the coaches were abusing the athletes in this way. Telling them they had to lose weight. Weighing them in front of their teams. Buying uniforms that were too small and forcing bodies into them. Yelling at their athletes. 

We didn’t say it was abuse. But it totally was. And I really feel for the athletes who end up in programs where the coach is creating this sort of culture. Let’s say ou are a sub-elite high school runner. You don’t have your pick of where to go to school. Your family has financial stress. So you go to the school that offers the most money, and this school has one of these negative cultures. You’re now in college, and you’re trying so hard to not let it get to you. It’s hard to transfer. You are tied to the program because they offered you money. How do you survive that?

In what ways are athletes in general, and runners in particular—especially when they are young—mentally and emotionally vulnerable to the kind of abusive and unhealthy coaching that Salazar seems to embody?

It’s hard to generalize, so I don’t know if I have an answer to that. As a runner, I always found myself admiring and jealous of the runners who didn’t have these vulnerabilities, who still had balanced, healthy relationships with running and also well-rounded lives.

I do think there are parallels between excellent young athletes and young people who are prodigies in anything, the demands placed on those young people, and how we don’t know what to do with them.

I remember playing violin. I played in an orchestra. And I played with people who aspired to become the equivalent of runners for Nike, but in classical music. We were just in middle school, and already they were developing carpal-tunnel syndrome and had to wear wrist braces. They had the expectation of practicing hours and hours and hours a day. I don’t know if that is healthy at all.

In Mary’s case, the demands placed on her and the mental and emotional abuse she suffered didn’t actually make her faster or better—they badly hurt her physically and mentally.

So from a purely devil’s advocate, sociopathic, winning and performance-based perspective, I still have a hard time understanding why she was treated the way she was treated. Nobody even got the supposed short term benefit of her becoming a better runner! Not Mary, not Nike, not Salazar. She just got destroyed. 

Is there some sort of unspoken cultural understanding within elite running that we have to subject athletes to abusive training, and that some will thrive on the stopwatch, and others will be totally crushed, and so be it, that’s just the way it is?

I think there are people who believe that. Yes. There are people who have consumed everything about this story and will walk away thinking, “well, Mary Cain just didn’t make it. Too bad. She got a shot and her body couldn’t handle it. Alberto was trying to help her. That is what we do in our sport. It churns people up and it spits them out and the ones who make it are excellent and that is just what this is.”

First of all, that’s not ethical. It’s horrifying. But also, the science of running doesn’t back it up. People have created this myth about what they believe about what it takes to win, and they want to defend it, but it has no basis in reality. It’s a win at all costs mentality, without the winning!

And you see it in the day-to-day decisions that athletes make, too. I’ll check in with them when I speak at colleges. I’ll ask, “have you been injured in the last 12 months?” And 95 percent of the hands go up. Then I’ll ask, “did you feel sad when you were hurt?” Every hand stays up. It is so hard when your identity is tied up in that. As athletes, we want to push and push and push. You feel miserable and sad when you can’t. That doesn’t mean we should.

I’ve felt that way myself. Say I have a nagging injury or am feeling lethargic. I might know, deep down inside, that I’m about to overtrain. That overtraining will make my body shut down, and it will take months for me to recover. But I really want to run today! It’s so bound up in my identity. I need those endorphins. I’m irritable, I’m pissy, I don’t like myself, my body feels soft—I want to run today for that short-term jolt of feeling good. 

I used to joke that when I was recovering from an injury, I would go on angry marathon bike rides, because I was pissed off I wasn’t running. But the whole reason I was doing that was because there was a number of times I could have taken a day off from running and didn’t, because I chose the immediate benefit of running. I’ve spoken to other runners and they feel the same way. 

It can be so hard to say no to that. To say no to that for your future self. To have that discipline. And that is why we need coaches to protect us. It is so important to have a coach who is your champion, who makes those really hard long-term decisions for you. A coach who knows that a super-talented athlete training at 85 percent is better than one who is broken from having redlined for too long.

Mary Cain says that “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.” She also says that “we need more women in power. Part of me wonders: if I had worked with more female psychologists, nutritionists, even coaches, where I would be today.” Is she right?

I think she’s right about Nike and Salazar, specifically. It was gendered there. All the people who enabled it were men. And in college, you do end up with men coaching a lot of the combined gender sports programs like track. The people who make hiring decisions in athletic departments are more likely to hire men to coach across genders—the assumption is that men won’t want to be coached by women. It’s also the case that the women hired into supporting coaching roles are paid less. So women often leave. If you are a poorly-paid grad assistant or post-collegiate runner who is volunteering, you’re probably not going to stay in coaching.

That being said, men and women who coach should know about young women athletes’ bodies and normal changes and what a healthy body looks like. Part of that means pretty dramatic bodyweight fluctuations in the course of a week! They should know about the female athlete triad.

[Hreal Sports note: According to the National Institutes for Health, the female athlete triad is an interrelationship of menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability—with or without an eating disorder—and decreased bone mineral density that is relatively common among young women participating in sports. Diagnosis and treatment of this potentially serious condition is complicated and often requires an interdisciplinary team].

If we think about young athletes, especially ones going from high school to college, they are undergoing a number of changes. One, biological changes in their bodies. Two, the pressure of elite sports. If you feel all these changes in your life and you feel out of control, that is when you see disordered eating habits. Athletes turning to restriction of their food as the one thing they can control in their life. And also to harm themselves—I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I feel badly about myself so I will hurt myself.

If you don’t have a nutritionist on staff who understands what a teenage woman’s body looks like or a teenage athlete’s body looks like, a healthy body, that’s a problem and it can contribute to this. And it’s not just a problem for women—there is as much disordered eating in male distance running communities as with women.

Let’s talk about your story. When you were an undergrad at the University of North Carolina, you stopped competing in track and cross country after two years because of disordered eating. What happened?

I was very fortunate. I was in a healthy culture that saved me from myself.

My depression and eating disorder were separate from my love of running. I developed anorexia when I was nine years old. I stopped eating. I was hospitalized when I was 10.  I didn’t know what it was. My mom told me. I literally walked to the public library to read what it was. Didn’t learn from TV or teammates or cultural signals. 

I was depressed, and I think restricting my eating was a way to hurt myself. That transition from high school to college was another trigger. I was lucky to have healthy teammates and a good culture at Carolina. Two of those teammates, Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky, are now making these cookbooks that I think are so important and part of the solution to this. They’re providing education to young runners that food is fuel, and food is health, and food comes from a place of love. They’re creating wholesome, positive energy around cooking and eating with people you love. I needed that when I was struggling.

And how that Shalane is transitioning into coaching, I know she’s creating a healthy culture at the Bowerman Track Club. That training group all qualified for [The Rio Olympics]. So they are kicking ass, and doing it from a healthy place. It’s not a coincidence. Success flows from culture. It’s not the winning; it’s making sure people are okay. And the the winning comes from that. But also, who cares about winning? You have these great relationships.

Recently I retired from professional running and I’m now in the position of leader and coach, for The Nike Bowerman Track Club. This new role has had me think about the contributions I intend to have on my athletes, community, and sport.

I am deeply saddened and shocked to learn about the struggles Mary Cain faced while running professionally. Unfortunately many male coaches don’t understand the importance of nourishing the female body. An athlete as young as Mary needed more support and guidance and it’s heartbreaking that her team didn’t have female role models and a nutrition coach. I’ve been lucky to have positive support from women throughout my career and coaches who understand the importance of maintaining a healthy weight.

As a new coach, I vow to be a positive role model for the next generation of young women. Time and again in my career, I’ve seen how disordered eating habits can quickly break women with so much potential. That’s what inspired me to write cookbooks for female athletes. I hope I can help put an end to harmful body shaming in sports and teach coaches everywhere that food should be celebrated not feared.
At Bowerman we have created a culture that is safe, loving, caring and compassionate. We invest in one another and care deeply about each other’s well being and happiness.
We have leadership that holds us to the highest standards and the message is clear. It’s great to be fast, but better to be a great person.
November 10, 2019

Going back to Mary’s story—the reaction from the running world and from the public at large was, I think, momentous. It seemed to me like an outpouring of support, and also of other people stepping forward and saying this is the tip of the iceberg. Did you get that same sense, and is this the tip of an iceberg?

I think so. I think a lot of people thought this kind of abuse is just part of the sport. But because of the way Mary spoke so powerfully, and used specific language, and didn’t dance around it but called it what it was—people are thinking about their own experiences and realizing what it really was. That it was harmful, that it was not okay, that it’s not inherent to the post. That sports do not have to be that way.

And this is happening in the broader context of conversations we’ve all be having the last few years. This awakening to abuses of power and power dynamics, inside and outside of sports. 

Nike took a lot of criticism—and I think rightfully so—for their statement in response to Mary’s story. Let me read it:

“These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before. Mary was seeking to rejoin the Oregon Project and Alberto’s team as recently as April of this year and had not raised these concerns as part of that process. We take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes. At Nike we seek to always put the athlete at the center of everything we do, and these allegations are completely inconsistent with our values.”

Olympic runner Kara Goucher blasted Nike, writing on Twitter that the company was victim-shaming Mary. I think she’s right! What did you think of Nike’s response?

I’m glad you brought that up. To me it signaled, okay, there has not been a corporate culture change at Nike. Not yet. Because this did not get before someone who understands what it is like to be a victim of abuse. It came from a bully culture. If you have put out a statement like that, you clearly have not thought about Mary Cain as a person. You’re in defensive mode, and you’re going on the attack.

Nike says it will investigate accusations of abuse. What level of confidence should any of us have that it will be a real, hard-nosed, find-the-truth investigation, and not just a way for Nike to bury a bad story and avoid any potential legal liability?

It’s gotta be an independent investigation. It can’t be USA Track and Field. It can’t be Nike themselves. They have to hire an outside firm with no connections to the company, the culture, the sport. I think that is the only way to have a legit investigation.

I have no idea if we will see that. There has to be ongoing pressure from the outside. From what I understand, Nike won’t do that on their own.

Essentially, Mary was whistle-blowing. You’re a historian. History teaches us that things usually don’t turn out well for whistle-blowers, no matter how right they are or how important their message is. Mary says she plans “to be running for many years to come.” Is she going to be ostracized in the running world going forward?

It certainly helps that Alberto is serving a four-year ban [for doping violations]. He can’t be around track meets. And I think there will be a rallying around Mary. I hope so. 

Thinking about, historically, all the high school girls who were cast aside when they didn’t make it through, all the people whose names we have forgotten—well, the running community hasn’t forgotten those names. And I think that even people who are skeptical about Mary’s story—and they shouldn’t be!—I think they have the awareness that you can’t go after somebody who has shared that this has happened to them. I think potential critics will keep that to themselves. That would be good. It will crate a space for those who will embrace and help Mary if she continues to compete.

One more thing that really stood out to me about Nike’s response—because it reminded me of something we’ve seen in stories of physical and sexual abuse brought to light by the MeToo movement, something we’ve seen in stories about surviving and escaping cults, something we’ve seen across a wide spectrum of human existence. Nike noted that Mary was trying to rejoin Salazar and his Oregon Project this spring. Why? Well, Mary wrote that:

“I wanted closure, wanted an apology for never helping me when I was cutting, and in my own, sad, never-fully healed heart, wanted Alberto to still take me back. I still loved him. Because when we let people emotionally break us, we crave more than anything their very approval.”

I feel like this is the key psychological dynamic to all of this. That the core abuse here—the core betrayal of trust here—is the twisting, manipulating, and hijacking by Salazar, by other abusive coaches, by the bigger systems of exploitation around them, of the deeply fundamental and fundamentally healthy desire we all have to be accepted and loved. 

What do you think?

I totally agree. Steve Mangess [a former Oregon Project assistant coach] called the Oregon Project a cult.

It could be that Alberto believed that he cared about Mary. I don’t think that really matters. Regardless of whether he was doing what he did from a place where he thought he was helping, he obviously wasn’t and he should have known it. Especially when she told him everything that was going on.

Going back to that leaked USADA report, what you see is this strategic deployment of affection and withholding of affection by him. If you weren’t performing well or weren’t—in his mind—at the right weight, he would ignore you. But then if you won a race or lost a little weight, you were back in his good graces. That’s not good coaching. I don’t know what that is. It’s crazy not to talk to someone because they didn’t hit the times you wanted them to hit.

Athletes are so craving of that positive feedback. I think some coaches really believe withholding it, playing games with it, that is the way you get them to break through to the next level. So if we really think about Mary’s story and have the hard conversations we need to have about it, it’s going to force us to reconsider a lot of the practices of coaching that we think mean success in our sport. Just because some athletes are resilient and can handle that, it’s still exhausting for them. You shouldn’t be physically and psychologically exhausted from a hard workout. It’s not the right way to coach just because some athletes can survive it.


This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.

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