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The College Football Playoff won’t pay athletes, while its selection committee stays at the Ritz

These are the people who generate that money the College Football Playoff selection committee is spending so lavishly.
These are the people who generate that money the College Football Playoff selection committee is spending so lavishly. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Appearances matter — to some people. But apparently not to those paunchy administrators who cheat captive young people to the tune of seven figures, known as collegiate athletic directors. If you think this assessment is too harsh, check out the Ritz-Carlton oceanside resort where the College Football Playoff selection committee stayed last week, at the expense of the kids who actually play the game.

The 13-member committee won’t be issuing any rankings until November, yet somehow they required a multiday conference at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, a California beachfront hotel where the cheapest rooms start at $681 a night.

How did committee chair Rob Mullens of Oregon and his colleagues — who include athletic directors Joe Castiglione of Oklahoma, Scott Stricklin of Florida, R.C. Slocum of Texas A&M, Todd Stansbury of Georgia Tech, Gary Barta of Iowa and Terry Mohajir of Arkansas State — justify this summer convocation at the Ritz, you might ask? According to the CFP press office, the committee “reviewed the schedule for its weekly rankings, went over its protocol, and finalized the list of members who will be recused” from voting on certain schools. They also went over how to use their electronics and video.

Now, look. The schedule for weekly rankings is this: They come out every Tuesday. They always come out every Tuesday.

As for the “protocol” it was written in 2012 and has not changed. And recusal is pretty simple: you can’t vote for your own school.

But for some reason these matters required deep thought on the beach at Dana Point.

What Mullens and his colleagues could not have known was that they were being watched with mounting disgust by a couple of major collegiate donors vacationing at the same hotel. These two folks, a married couple who estimate they have sponsored 100 or so scholarships at their Big Ten alma mater, wrote me a description of what they saw because they were so “appalled” by it and believe the scene “captures what’s wrong with collegiate athletics.”

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“Meals on the terrace overlooking the ocean,” they wrote. “Meetings rooms with ocean views.”

No one can dispute the need for the College Football Playoff selection committee to meet — they certainly need to review their duties and introduce new members to their protocols. And they are certainly entitled to do so at a decent hotel, given that they are not paid to sit on the committee, and some of their members are not employed by athletic departments, such as former Army chief of staff Ray Odierno and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott.

But the Ritz?

This offends the senses — and it shows a telling carelessness if not a callousness toward athletes. The colossal billion-dollar revenue of the College Football Playoff are driven by the players — not administrators — and yet the system feeds everyone to excess except for them. Anybody with a conscience understands that scholarships are hardly decent recompense for their brutal workweeks. They face a yawning gap between what they create and what is withheld from them by the NCAA’s antiquated rules, and change is needed. Legislation such as California’s proposed “Fair Pay to Play” act seeks to rectify the injustice.

How entitled must these athletic directors be that they would go on a spree to the Ritz in this climate? Think about what it must have cost — 13 people for multiple days, plus meeting rooms and meals, plus the flights. The spa in the hotel, which hangs over the famed Dana Point beach, charges $245 for a 60-minute massage, and the restaurant menus are so elegant they do not list prices. However, the donor-couple — who said the CFP folks stayed for three days — helped me out with what they paid at the resort’s steakhouse. A salad, signature cut and one side dish, with no alcohol, coffee or dessert, cost $158.

You know what they say about menus without prices: If you have to ask, you must not be a member of the College Football Playoff committee.

“It just on face value seemed so wrong,” the donor wrote. “Seeing this group in action brings home the point that it’s really all about money — their money. I wanted to scream at them, but of course didn’t. Athletes deserve better.”

Who is in charge of oversight and approved such largesse, you might ask? Well, that would be the College Football Playoff’s board of managers and management committee: 11 university presidents and chancellors, including Greg Fenves of Texas and John Jenkins of Notre Dame, and 10 conference commissioners, such as Jim Delany of the Big Ten and Larry Scott of the Pac-12.

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In other words, the same old overstuffed suits who have been jacking athletes for years, hoarding the revenue for themselves and cronies, while enjoying fruits of free labor.

I wrote to some of them to ask what was accomplished at the meeting that could not have been handed in a conference call or email chain? And how do they justify such expense, given that committee won’t issue its first playoff rankings until after Week 10 of the season? And how do they square a stay at the Ritz with the arguments made by some of these same administrators, such as Castiglione, whose annual compensation is over $1 million a year, that there simply isn’t enough money to pay athletes?

The first one I tried was Mullens, because he is chair of the committee. Mullens’s base salary at Oregon is $717,500, and then there are his performance and retention bonuses, which will pay him another $100,000 and $200,000 in 2019-2020.

He did not respond to an email.

The second email went to Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner. After all, Scott sits on the “management committee” that oversees the business affairs of the College Football Playoff, and in 2018 he testified in an ongoing NCAA antitrust case that paying student-athletes would taint the “purity” of college sports, and also “create significant consumer confusion.” Scott’s compensation is $5.3 million.

Scott declined to respond. A conference spokesperson wrote, “Thanks for reaching out but we will defer to the CFP for comment.”

I directed similar questions to Mississippi State President Mark Keenum, chair of the “board of managers.” No response.

The only response came from Bill Hancock, the much-respected longtime administrator who serves as the executive director of the College Football Playoff, and who frankly deserves a raise for his willingness to be the public face for these cringers. Hancock defended the Ritz visit as “a detailed and extensive meeting that helps us get ready for the season, informing every member so they are familiar with the heavy amount of work required.” He cited the amount of data and statistics members are expected to review and the fact that, although unpaid, the members “are expected to put in significant time for work and travel this fall.”

Fair enough. But that still left some unanswered questions. Such as what it cost and whether future meetings like this have been planned. And if so where? Bal Harbour? Kapalua?

Which leaves me to form my own answers. The College Football Playoff generates so much money that these administrators don’t know what to spend it on. They mean to spend it somehow — on everything but the athletes.

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