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An Employer-Based View of the Steelers' Mike Adams

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May 4, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers second round draft pick Mike Adams (right) participates in drills during rookie minicamp and orientation. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
May 4, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers second round draft pick Mike Adams (right) participates in drills during rookie minicamp and orientation. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

It’s been really interesting to see the reactions to discussions about the ‘character concerns’ with three of our newly-drafted players. For a distinct subset of our community, the issues with these players are non-starters. They don’t see anything wrong with smoking marijuana, and they think the NCAA rules are stupid. The people who feel this way apparently haven’t noticed a critical point, though—the Steelers organization consider them to be a problem.

One member of this subset is SteelCityRoller. He left a long and impassioned comment to my previous article, and my reply to his comment was getting so long I decided to make it a post.

A minor issue for SteelCityRoller was as follows:

And as far as Spence and Adams receiving "gifts"…I don’t really care. They don’t get paid to play college football...

David DeCastro went to Stanford University on a football scholarship. The current value of a four-year education at Stanford is $160,200 at the 2011-12 rate. (Tuition is increasing by 3 percent this year.) A football scholarship to a Division I school like Stanford or Ohio State generally also includes full room and board and fees, which can amount to as much or more than the tuition costs at a less expensive school than Stanford.

Let’s say you are a musician instead of a football player, and decide to go to Northwestern University because of the great horn teacher there. Let’s say your audition impressed the school enough to garner you one of their music scholarships. If you’re lucky, it might cover 10 percent of the tuition (which is about the same as Stanford’s.) Let's also say your father works for another university, and said university provides partial tuition assistance for the children of university employees under the right circumstances. This is fantastic, but you’re still on your own for the remainder of the tuition and your room, board, fees, books and so on. As a result, you may well accumulate debt approaching six figures.

DeCastro left Stanford with a degree, no debt, I presume, and will receive a contract from the Steelers for somewhere around $7 million over four years. Our hypothetical Northwestern student left Northwestern with a degree and was fortunate enough to get an orchestra job about six months after graduation. This job, which is putatively full-time, will have paid him $7 million as well—in about 233 years. Unless he gets a pay cut, or the orchestra goes bankrupt, as so many have recently. And only if our hypothetical student can keep playing well for the next 231 years. In the meantime, he has a large pile of student loans to pay off. (The 233 year figure is not an exaggeration, unless my calculator is broken.)

Our hypothetical student is one of the lucky ones. Many music students go to school with essentially no financial assistance, and are unable to find a job in their chosen field after they graduate. Thus the old joke: "What's the first thing a musician says to you when you meet?" "Would you like fries with that?"

David DeCastro is a serious kid who took full advantage of his education. Mike Adams may or may not have taken advantage of his—I don’t know. The monetary value of an education at Ohio State is lower than at Stanford, in the strict sense of how much money you would have to disburse to go there without assistance, but it is still an impressive chunk of change.

The question of whether football even belongs in universities is one for another post. But under the current system, while a player may not be receiving cash payments, he is living at the expense of someone else for four years while he is trained and honed in the craft he supposedly loves and wishes to make his career. During that time he also has the opportunity to receive an education. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Our hypothetical Northwestern music student would probably agree.

The majority of the comment from SteelCityRoller was reserved for this issue (substantially edited for brevity):

I still find it interesting that Adams is a “character issue” It amazes me how differently the world looks, depending on whose eyes you view it through. Did he break a rule? Yes, he did...I have personally watched alcohol destroy the lives of friends and family, people I cared deeply about...Yet, because most of society likes to drink, we deem it acceptable; and the young man who smoked a joint, is a nuisance to society. I respect Mike Adams tremendously for going to Pittsburgh, and taking accountibility for his actions, I’m just sad that our society put him in that position to have to do so. Perhaps, next time he should just go drown his stress and anxiety in the liquor aisle of the local 7-11, so at least we can feel good about his character.

I think SteelCityRoller is letting his feelings about the whole very tricky issue of alcohol vs. marijuana get in the way of seeing the problem. So let’s look at it from another angle altogether.

I write grant proposals to help fund my group. There is a lot of competition for this money. All foundations who fund the arts get more proposals than they can possibly fund, and the largest foundations in particular are swamped with applications. One of the ways some foundations narrow down the applicant pool is to set nit-picking requirements in addition to the usual hard and fast deadline.

A proposal may contain ten or more items—a proposal narrative, background information, a list of the board of directors, an annual budget, a project budget, demographic information about the makeup of your group, your board, and your audience, and so on. The application may stipulate that each one is to be so many pages and no more, in a font no smaller than 12 point Times, organized in a certain manner, and stapled in a certain fashion, or not stapled, or some bits stapled, but not all. Multiple copies of some documents but not others may be required. If the application gets to the foundation [literally] a minute late, or some of the papers are in the wrong order, or missing altogether, or if any of the stated requirements are not met, the application may go in the trash. If the application going into the trash is mine, two or three weeks of work is now worse than useless, because I could have been working on something else instead. It will probably be six months to a year before I can re-apply.

This may not seem fair. I'm a musician. I don't have an MBA. I don't have a degree in accounting, or any training in financial planning or grantwriting or data accumulation.

But if you look at it from the foundation’s point of view, you begin to see why these sorts of nitpicky rules may be relevant and not just a way of annoying everyone.

The first consideration is the convenience of the panelists. The panelists who review the applications and make the final decision as to what is funded have to go through a great many applications. If everything is laid out properly and in the same way in each application it is much easier to compare them directly. And if there is a limit to the amount of reading required for each application, and if the font is large enough to read without a magnifying glass it make their lives easier.

The second consideration is more critical. One of the things a foundation is most concerned about is what is going to happen to their money once that check leaves their office. They need to know the groups they fund are going to be accountable and actually use the money they have asked for in the way they say they are going to. As a foundation, you also have to prove to the agencies who oversee you that you funded the sorts of things you say you are going to fund and then exercise some amount of oversight as to the use of the funds. As a result, foundations require a final report, including a final budget. The foundations have to present these to the agencies who oversee them to prove the money has been used properly.

Foundation money is typically a big chunk of initial funds which are then invested. The proceeds of the investments are available for disbursal. The original money donated would have been taxed by the federal government had it remained the property of the donor(s). It has occurred to more than one person to create a foundation with a certain amount of money, put together a sham board, and then fund worthy projects such as, say, a yacht for the original donor. The government doesn’t see any reason why a person with a lot of money who wants a yacht shouldn’t buy it in the usual way and pay their taxes as well. Thus the oversight. A foundation who can’t prove they used the money appropriately, and made sure the recipients did as well, is in danger of losing their non-profit status.

But whatever the reasonable purpose of their rules is, from my standpoint as a prospective fundee it doesn’t matter. What matters is if I wish to be considered for funding by a certain agency, I have to abide by their rules. I have done absolutely nothing illegal if I put the various bits of the application in the envelope in the wrong order, or staple them if it says don’t staple, or if my proposal arrives one minute late. But I have broken their rules, and as a result my proposal might not even be considered.

So let’s compare this to the questions about our draftees with "character" issues. Does the fact I didn’t put the bits of paper in the envelope in the right order call my character into question? From the standpoint of the foundation, yes. They probably wouldn’t say "You have obvious character flaws, so we aren’t going to fund your organization." But if I’m the person held responsible for the use of the money, my inability or unwillingness to follow their rules in the submission of my proposal may well affect the amount of confidence the foundation has in me and my organization.

Am I likely to take the money and run off to Acapulco to hang out on the beach? Probably not—it isn’t nearly enough money for that. But it is entirely possible my lack of financial savvy or ability to plan properly, or follow through, may mean the money doesn’t get used in the way the proposal said it would. And if those differences are substantial enough to change the nature of the project, and/or if my organization can’t show how the money was used, it doesn’t matter whether my intent was good or not. Part of the purpose of a proposal is to give the funding agency a certain level of confidence about my organization’s ability to actually carry out the proposed project. So whether my organization and I failed because of bad faith or because of incapacity is moot.

The "failure rate" between college and the NFL is quite substantial even for players who are drafted. It’s entirely possible some of the NFL's rules are designed to cull the herd a bit. They may be trying to reduce the risk teams take, particularly with high round picks. But beyond that, the recreational use of marijuana is illegal in every state. However unreasonable this may be is entirely beside the point. The NFL is well within their rights to set up any rules they like, and it’s pretty hard to argue about rules forbidding the use of an illegal substance. The NFL hates it when players get arrested, because it makes them look bad. If the laws change, it’s a different argument. But even in this case it is still possible for the NFL to prohibit marijuana use, or to prohibit whatever else they wish, legal or illegal.

Mike Adams is a big risk, both because of his draft position and because the number of violations he had. He knew the things he was doing could jeopardize his future in the NFL, and still he did them. This means he either thought he was above the rules, he thought he wouldn’t get caught, or he couldn’t help himself. Any of those three are character flaws, just of different sorts. Any of them call in question his ability to give reasonable value to a future employer. As an employer, I would hate to be asked to choose between an arrogant employee, a dishonest one, or one demonstrably lacking self-control.

Nobody except the principals know what Colbert, Tomlin and Rooney said to Adams in that discussion before the draft. But I can guarantee you they didn’t say "By gum, you’re right, those were dumb rules and we can’t believe we took you off our board for something so silly. Sorry about that, old chap." They clearly believe these things were a tremendous cause for concern, and aren’t entirely convinced the experiment will turn out well.

We can only hope Adams is willing and actually able to fulfill the promises which led the Steelers to take a chance on him. It may be a great pity he can't "drown his stress and anxiety" by lighting up. But if he can't find another way, one acceptable to the NFL and the Steelers, to deal with the stress and anxiety resulting from being drafted by the team he grew up wanting to play for, then Mike Adams does indeed have a flawed character.