MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael, with us from Cleveland. Here in our Washington, D.C. studios, sports writer and journalism professor Kevin Blackistone, Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root, and NPR editor Ammad Omar decided to stick around. What do you know?
AMMAD OMAR, BYLINE: Hey, why not?
JIMI IZRAEL: Ey yo.
MARTIN: Take it away.
OMAR: What's up?
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Great.
OMAR: All right.
COREY DADE: Thanks, man.
IZRAEL: The crew is all here - K.B....
BLACKISTONE: Right here.
DADE: Yes, sir.
IZRAEL: ...You the man. All right, well, you know what, let's get things started - talking about Sports Illustrated. You know, they dropped a bomb on Oklahoma State University's football program this week. Feels like it could be run by Tony Weiner with all this talk of money, drugs and sex. But...
IZRAEL: All these are allegations - all these are allegations, and allegations are that these things were used to kind of build a winning team. Michel?
MARTIN: Well, I mean - well, let's lay it out and then people can decide whether these are...
MARTIN: ...Allegations or not. George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans, who have a track record in this kind of reporting, said that they interviewed more than a hundred sources, overall, including 64 former players. All of the players they interviewed on the record. And the players say they received envelopes full of cash, professors fixing grades. They had a hostess program, which magically wound up with some high school recruits receiving sexual favors. Not sure quite how that happened.
MARTIN: Here's a clip from Sports Illustrated of former Oklahoma players, William Bell, Marcus Richardson and Kevin White.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
WILLIAM BELL: Sex is a main thing for a young man, right. I mean, a lot of people did get persuaded that way.
MARCUS RICHARDSON: Marijuana was very common among players on the team. It was - most of the time, it was given to us for free.
KEVIN WHITE: Might buy a new car or a new TV or a big flat-screen TV or something - get a new sound system in their room. That was what let you know who was getting money from the alumni.
MARTIN: And the whole point of this, Jimi, is to turn this into a winning program. Turn a program that had been a losing program into a winning program and to entice the best players to play there and stay there.
IZRAEL: Sounds like Snoop Dogg was on the board there. Thank you for that, Michel. It's a movie we've all seen before, but maybe not to this depth. K.B., you're around the horn with us today.
IZRAEL: I'm going to go straight to you. You write for ESPN. What do you make of the investigation?
BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, it's apparently a fine piece of reporting. I know one of those guys who did it. But the fact of the matter is, you know, 25 years ago when I arrived in Dallas to write for The Dallas Morning News, it was just before SMU got hammered for a second time and got shut down for a year for having a pay-for-place scheme for players that, in fact, was sanctioned by the governor of the state of Texas. You know, you showed up on Tuesday or Wednesday or whatever, walked into the secretary's office, got your envelope and carried on about your business.
So the bottom line is, this is nothing - none of this is new in college athletics, particularly, in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball. And back then, I was shocked and amazed. And at this point, I'm not. And you know what, this story, unfortunately, kind of deflects the attention from what's the real story in college athletics, and that is it being the most unethical business practice on the face of America right now. Where you have the average salary for a college football coach being closer to $2 million than not, where you have football programs pulling in $100 million in revenue and where you have players being remunerated with room, board, tuition and a pat on the back.
IZRAEL: Wow. Thank you. Corey Dade, we know you played some college ball, right? Do you even think it's possible to run a clean but winning program?
MARTIN: You're talking about the top levels. You mean a clean program that's Division I. Is that's what you're talking about?
MARTIN: People who are going to play in the pros. You're not talking about, you know...
DADE: Yeah. Division I, especially Division I-A. It's virtually impossible. It's virtually impossible. You know, to paraphrase Charles Baudelaire, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.
OMAR: Oh, awesome.
DADE: We are still in America under this, you know - under this fantasy that this is about amateur athletics, the sort of edification of young men and women trying to, you know, strive for the best and get their education at the same time. That's a joke. As Kevin just talked about it, it's been a joke for years. You know, this - what I like about this series, it shows the systemic issue here. This is not just about players and coaches. This is about educators, boosters, companies - this is a billion-dollar industry, a billion-dollar industry.
DADE: And, you know, there's so many different people, including the media who are complicit because their livelihoods depend upon it. And, you know, I don't know what else to say other than, why is anybody surprised?
IZRAEL: Wow, America, you will never hear Baudelaire quoted in your barbershop. Pop that collar, my dude, pop that collar. A.O., Ammad, weigh in as a fan.
OMAR: Yeah, so...
IZRAEL: Does any of this shock you?
OMAR: No, it doesn't. And like Kevin was saying, a few years ago, this stuff might have shocked you. But I think the most telling thing this week was there was this big five-part Sports Illustrated series, and on the day where part two came out, Yahoo Sports came out with their own investigation that guys at 'Bama and Tennessee and Mississippi State all got paid off.
OMAR: And it's interesting because one of the guys mentioned Alabama is their former offensive tackle DJ Fluker. He tweeted a couple months ago after he left that, yeah, I got paid, so what? And then he pulled the Anthony Weiner defense a couple days later like, no, my Twitter got hacked, that wasn't really me.
OMAR: And, you know, the bottom line is that these guys, you know, a lot of them, like DJ Fluker - he was reportedly homeless after Katrina and didn't have a lot of money - you come into this area where there are literally millions and millions of dollars floating about. People are obsessed. The 15 biggest football stadiums in this country aren't pro stadiums - they're college football stadiums. These guys are going to get money unless the NCAA changes things around. It's just an economic fact, really, at this point.
DADE: And the biggest stadium, I will add, is the one where Ammad Omar is from, the University of Michigan.
OMAR: Yes. I was there on Saturday. Holds 15,000...
MARTIN: He was just there on Saturday? Didn't you pick him out?
IZRAEL: Thank you, Corey.
MARTIN: Didn't you see him? Didn't you see him out there?
IZRAEL: Thank you, Corey.
OMAR: But we're clean, for the record.
DADE: Oh, but of course.
MARTIN: OK, but why are we still talking about this whole business about paying for players? Why is this still a conversation because, apparently, we are paying players.
BLACKISTONE: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I don't have a problem...
MARTIN: So why are we still on this conversation, where kids get sanctioned for selling a signed jersey?
BLACKISTONE: And that's the point. It has obfuscated the issue here. The issue is, it is time to treat these players as what they are, which is employees of the University.
DADE: That's right.
BLACKISTONE: I'm beyond talking about playing them. I'm talking about paying them, giving them health benefits, treating them like anybody else on the campus. That's what needs to be done.
MARTIN: Just for the record, what does the university say about this, Kevin?
BLACKISTONE: The university has pointed out that a number of those players they got rid of. They're disputing a lot of the findings, so forth and so on.
OMAR: And the university also issued a statement apologizing but not admitting guilt...
OMAR: ...Which is my favorite kind of apology.
OMAR: That never works for me, when I apologize but don't admit guilt. But, hey.
IZRAEL: OK. Well, we're not going to go there, A.O. But, you know, while we got you on the mic.
MARTIN: Word to all of you, it doesn't work.
IZRAEL: While we got you on the mic, A.O., we got to talk about this $100,000 hit that your home team, the Detroit Lions, caught. It's the highest fine ever for an on-field infraction, bro. A, what's up, man? What happened?
OMAR: Yeah. I mean, I might be being a homer on this, Ndamukong Suh, the defensive lineman for the Lions, on an interception return did a little crack-back, cut-block kind of thing against a member of the Minnesota Vikings. And if you read the reports afterwards, you might've thought he pulled out a knife and stabbed the guy on the field, like, this is the dirtiest play we've ever seen.
It wasn't that dirty, in my opinion, but this guy has a reputation for being dirty in the league - is really trying to say that we're looking out for player safety and we're looking after this guy - we're looking out for this guy who's been suspended and fined more times than I can count. But real quick, Lions fans, I think, there's a point where they say, when you've got a defensive tackle, you kind of want him a little bit violent. You'd rather have him on that side of the line than on the clean side of the line. So I think that's the balancing act that's going on right now.
MARTIN: Kevin, what do you thing?
BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, Ndamukong Suh has a reputation that, unfortunately, he's built for himself. He has villainized himself not only in the eyes of the league, not only the eyes of fans, but also in the eyes of his comrades within the NFL players union who, in a couple of polls, have voted him over the past couple of years, the most - the dirtiest player in the league. So he had that going for him.
My only problem with this - the heft of the fine is the disingenuousness in part on the part of the league, given that you are still talking about a generation of football players who have been inculcated over the years through the promotion, marketing, commercialization of gratuitous violence by the NFL itself. And all of a sudden now because of lawsuits, primarily, you want to flip the switch overnight and get them to play by these new rules. And in fact, the rule that Ndamukong Suh broke in this instance was a brand new rule put in just in the off-season.
BLACKISTONE: So that's my only problem with it.
DADE: Right, there has to be a cycle through which these players are coached differently and they're drilled differently.
DADE: When they're on the field, they're not necessarily thinking that much. They're playing on instinct through muscle memory. And that particular kind of block, that's muscle memory. Now I'm not excusing it. The biggest issue is that the Detroit Lions as a team are the most highly penalized team in the NFL. Jim Schwartz is - this is the kind of thing that Jim Schwartz is on the hot seat for. He may lose his job at the end of this season if they're not winning. They're an undisciplined team and that's the bigger problem.
OMAR: Definitely true.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, journalist Kevin Blackistone, Ammad Omar and Corey Dade. Back to you, Jimi.
IZRAEL: Thanks Michel. OK. Let me see if I still got...
MARTIN: Let's hear it.
IZRAEL: That old...
MARTIN: That's pretty weak.
IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah. I know. I know.
MARTIN: That was very weak.
IZRAEL: Unless you've been under a rock, you know because he's made all the rounds. Arsenio Hall is attempting a comeback. Who remembers this?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW")
IZRAEL: Yes. That's then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton on the saxophone opening the show for Arsenio in those halcyon days of 1992. Arsenio kicked off his new show on the CW this - network this week. We know with a super-secret guest, Paula Abdul and Snoop Dogg. I mean, I'm sorry, Snoop Doggy - Snoop Lion - my bad. You know, and - OK, let me just say, you know, 'cause he's from Cleveland, so I got to give him his points. I guess, I have two problems here that I'm going to try to shrink down. I guess one of my problems is that he spun his narrative to make it about that he dipped out of the public eye to be about fatherhood. His son wasn't born until 1999. His show was canceled, canceled in 1994. So there's that bit. Also, Arsenio's like - you know what - you know what this is?
MARTIN: OK. Is he running for mayor? I'm sorry. What is all this? So what?
IZRAEL: We have to correct the record.
IZRAEL: But, you know, this also like that one time, you know, you got fired from McDonald's and then, like, 10 years later, you decided to go back with your uniform on and your hat and you just showed up for work and nobody called you in, B. And you come in and you want to make a new McLean burger? And you know,
DADE: McLean burger?
IZRAEL: ...You're totally baffled by the McRib. I mean, you're trying to pick up where you left off but nobody asked. Nobody called you back, B. Seriously, what are you doing here? You know, and I'm all - look, look, look, I'm all about the comeback. I'm all about the comeback. But see the problem is, Arsenio picked up, literally - he literally picked up where he left off. But lest we forget, dude, got canceled. Why would you pick up where you got canceled from, my dude? Seriously.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. If you haven't been canceled, you haven't been in broadcasting, if I could just...
OMAR: That's right.
MARTIN: ...Mention that...
IZRAEL: I mean, but having said that...
MARTIN: ...To any of you.
IZRAEL: ...But, OK...
OMAR: That's right.
MARTIN: All right.
IZRAEL: ...I got two words for you, re-tool.
IZRAEL: Re-tool. Don't pick up from that exact same spot, wearing the exact same suit. No, my dude, come back harder. Seriously, man. Corey Dade - Corey Dade, jump in here, man.
MARTIN: Does anybody like it?
DADE: Hey, hey, Jimi, tell us how you really feel.
OMAR: Yeah, seriously.
IZRAEL: But I love Arsenio, having said all that.
OMAR: Did Jimi get his piece?
DADE: No, I do. I mean, same theme song, same house band name, you know, same Men's Wearhouse suit. I mean, you know...
OMAR: Nothing wrong with that.
DADE: I gave him like two days this week, two days to reminisce about the '90s, and after that it's turn up. You got to turn up, homie. I mean, I'm all for his success. What made him successful back then was that he introduced black culture to American pop culture. Today, American pop culture is black culture. There is no niche that he can fill that's not being filled right now. I mean, Jimmy Fallon's house band is The Roots, a hip-hop band.
DADE: So the question is, how does he make himself viable now? To me, I think he has the potential to be sort of the TV version of "Tom Joyner Morning Show," you know, his core market is going to be the grown and sexy - the grown and sexy generation.
MARTIN: Why do I feel hurt all of a sudden? I feel I like you're hurting my feelings and I'm not sure why. I don't know.
IZRAEL: That's not even a Men's Wearhouse suit, bro. That's like a Chess King suit. K.B., go ahead, man.
BLACKISTONE: Yeah. No, I agree. I mean, there was a vapor of nostalgia when I turned on the show and checked it out a few times. It was music from the '90s. He was talking about bringing back New Edition and somebody like that. Even down to the low-top hair - low top fade that he was wearing. It really was like that, and I was kind of trying to figure out, like, where is he going to go to with this? Is he going to update this message? But you know what? I'm not even going to call it a comeback 'cause he is picking up where he left off.
IZRAEL: The next guest is going to be Karl Kani.
MARTIN: And Ammad's really quick 'cause he wasn't old enough to stay up that late when Arsenio was on the last time, right.
OMAR: I mean, I'm not hurt by that. I'm not young. Let me just say, I don't get carded when I go out anymore. I'm in my thirties, balding, but when Arsenio was canceled, it was past my bedtime. I had to get my Trapper Keeper ready to rollerblade to fourth grade the next day. But I think even with people my age, there're definitely a little bit interest there and the ratings bear that out. He's actually done pretty well this first week.
MARTIN: Exactly. Could we throw that out there, haters. Haters. Boomer haters - all of y'alls.
IZRAEL: Everybody wants to see you your first time out, you know, when it's been a while, so.
MARTIN: All of y'alls, boomer haters. I don't even know why. Look in the mirror, you. All right, it's been a week full of just - very, very briefly - week full of news. George Zimmerman is in trouble again. Police were called on a domestic violence issue. Anthony Weiner had an interesting sign-off from politics in his mayor's race in New York. Vladimir Putin took on The New York Times editorial page. Now our fellow barbershoper, Arsalan Iftikhar, is not here this week. He usually bestows the ri-donk-uloust of the week award. Since he's not here, Ammad, I have to ask, who do you think gets the award this week?
OMAR: I've got to give it to Mr. Vladimir Putin - the op-ed he wrote in The New York Times. It's been a tough few weeks for President Obama over this whole Syria situation. He hasn't gotten the support of Congress or the U.N. or NATO or anyone. And after all that, Vladimir Putin, you know, kind of drops the mic and kicks him when he's down, and says, you know - and he ends it with this little bit about American exceptionalism, saying that's a dangerous idea. America, you're not that exceptional. Thank you. I'm out.
BLACKISTONE: Yeah, I will second that emotion. You know, Putin had the timidity to try and suggest to this country and this president what to do in Syria after we know what he's done to his own people, particularly in Chechnya over the years. So I'm trying to figure out, where is this coming from?
DADE: You know, if I mention Anthony Weiner or George Zimmerman, I'm going to have to take a shower after this. So I've already had my shower for the morning. I got to go again with the guys, Putin. I mean, he's poppin' wheelies on the White House lawn. You know, it's just smacks of hubris, you know, for Russia to weigh in here. The truth of the matter is, you know, this is the first time Russia has been relevant in years on an international issue as far as diplomacy.
MARTIN: They have a vote on the Security Council.
DADE: Yeah, but they've not been...
MARTIN: And they have nuclear weapons. All right, well.
MARTIN: There it is. I got you. I got you. Jimi, very quickly, one word. Who's yours?
IZRAEL: Tony Weiner.
IZRAEL: Hip-hop salute. Don't hate. Don't hate.
MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College, with us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Here in Washington, D.C., Kevin Blackistone, sports columnist and professor at University of Maryland - Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root, and Ammad Omar, one of NPR's finest, our editor with our program. Thank you all so much.
OMAR: Thank you.
BLACKISTONE: Thank you.
DADE: Thank you.
MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.