Refreshing critique of college sports model

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During a game at Soldier Field in 2002, Marcia Mount Shoop heard a Bears fan one row away boorishly complaining about her husband — then the team's beleaguered offensive coordinator.

"John Shoop needs to rot in hell,'' the guy yelled. "Someone needs to shoot John Shoop and put us all out of our misery.''

For three quarters, Mount Shoop, formerly a minister at First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, sat quietly next to her mom flinching at every four-letter outburst. When Mount Shoop finally heard enough, she tapped the fan on the shoulder and politely informed him who her husband was.

Didn't matter.

"Free country,'' he replied. "You tell him he's a …''

Even women of the cloth reach their limits. Mount Shoop stood up and, as described in her compelling new book "Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse,'' screamed so loud she bruised her vocal cords.

"SHUT UP!'' Mount Shoop shouted before she began shaking and crying.

Whether a big-mouth fan or a broken NCAA system, Mount Shoop seldom shies away from saying what she believes needs to be said no matter how uncomfortable it might feel. That passion for principle emerges in a critical but thoughtful examination of the redemptive power of college sports offered in her book, which includes a foreword written by former Bears coach Dick Jauron.

"The questions it raises about college sports are things difficult for people to hear,'' Mount Shoop said in an interview. "Sports are like a lot of things. Power and money blind us and create problems and when those problems become insufficient, then we have a blown system.''

Similar rhetoric will fly Thursday in Indianapolis where the NCAA Board of Directors expects to approve the autonomy of the Big Five conferences, which would address issues Mount Shoop and other critics have cited. While stopping short of paying players, the changes eventually could redefine amateurism and result in a modernized NCAA model that better serves today's student-athlete — whose voice will be louder under the revised system. In theory.

"That's all good (but) I'm really hesitant think, oh, great, everything is going to be fine now,'' said Mount Shoop, 45. "Unfortunately, within that shuffling, I still don't see a real willingness to share power with players. Because of the demographics of a lot of the stakeholders, until we deal with race and privilege, I don't know we're going to have the radical change we really need.''

Mount Shoop's experience at North Carolina, where an NCAA investigation into academic fraud resulted in the firing of the football staff that included her husband from 2007-11, revealed what she considered player injustices and created a "moral imperative.'' When the Shoops moved to West Lafayette, Ind., after John became Purdue's offensive coordinator in 2013, that personal commitment followed.

"For John and me to look in the mirror after what happened at UNC, we just couldn't keep quiet about things we think should be part of the conversation,'' Mount Shoop said.

In her book, Mount Shoop drives the discussion toward the way "white-run institutions" profit from revenue sports generating billions of dollars thanks primarily to African-American student-athletes who remain unpaid. She asks why they aren't free to benefit financially "from the revenue their labor generates.'' After citing research by historian Taylor Branch that concluded the NCAA is "a classic cartel,'' Mount Shoop writes: "This troubling reality is a haunting emblem of slavery's legacy.''

"The only thing I'm asking for is institutions be true to the values they boast,'' Mount Shoop said. "The way it's set up now in big-time sports, we have other measures in place that tell us whether we're being successful with young men of color. That system is called eligibility. That has taken the place of, what are you really learning? Are you growing?''

But what about the opportunities to escape challenging environments NCAA institutions offer minorities?

"It's a very familiar narrative but if you look at it head-on, it really isn't creating opportunities for young men of color that we profess and some of that is because of race and privilege being an unexamined layer of this — a complicated layer,'' Mount Shoop said. "Until we look at the culture that gave rise to the system we have, we're just moving furniture more than a major remodeling.''

If some people don't like Mount Shoop's blueprint for change, so be it.

"People underestimate how many people already are uncomfortable, upset and disenfranchised by the way the system currently works,'' she said. "While there might be some pushback or anger we're not afraid to deal with, the payoff is maybe a sense of relief to get some things out on the table.''

A woman who once got kicked out of an NFL wives' Bible study for her interpretation of scripture welcomes a healthy debate. And as Mount Shoop proved as the wife of a Bears offensive coordinator, she knows how to handle the noise.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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