MSU’s Hollis, Izzo featured in HBO special

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The issue of college sports as big business and what is amateurism is the topic of the latest episode of “VICE” on HBO, and Michigan State plays a big role.

The investigative series will air a new episode at 7:30 p.m. March 31 and Michigan State’s basketball program is featured prominently, along with footage from last fall’s football game against Rutgers and interviews with athletic director Mark Hollis.

The report covers many aspects of the issue, including the NCAA’s usage of players’ likenesses, money spent on facilities, the size and restrictions that go with conference television networks and financial restrictions high school athletes face.

“We have some challenges that we have to fix in college sports,” Hollis said. “I’d like to see student-athletes get something — if it’s getting apartments, getting a car, if it’s being able to live. Can we do better? Absolutely.”

Early portions of the show follow Michigan State’s basketball team as it made a trip to New York in November to play Kentucky in the Champions Classic.

Aboard the team’s chartered plane, reporter Gianna Toboni talked with several players, as well as coach Tom Izzo.

Junior Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn and senior Ben Carter were asked about life as a student-athlete.

“I think that’s what a lot of people don’t see. You know, being a student-athlete, missing a lot of school,” Nairn said. “One time my freshman year, we played Duke, and we got home at 3 in the morning and I had an 8 a.m. (class), and I had to be there. A lot of people don’t see that kind of stuff. It’s a sacrifice, but it’s worth it.”

Carter was asked if being a student-athlete was akin to having a full-time job.

“Yes, fully,” Carter said. “And if you ask anybody on this team, they would tell you that this is their job because that’s what it is. I mean, we put in just as many hours as someone who works a 9 to 5. That’s what it seems like. Through school and weights and film and travel and all the different things and working on your game, you know, putting in the extra time. All those different things, it just adds up.”

What’s unique about the situation is nearly every college player believes they’ll play professionally, but the reality is far different.

Both Nairn and freshman Joshua Langford said that was their goal, but Izzo offered a bit of a different perspective.

“I got managers that think they’re going to the NBA, you know? It’s just the nature of the beast,” Izzo said. “And it’s not an easy task to accomplish. But even if you do become a pro, you’re probably gonna live another 50 years. And having your education, your degree, I think will help you in a lot of ways.

“You know, every guy that you recruit thinks he has a chance, and yet, less than 1 percent of the people make it.”

Whether that free education is taken advantage of depends on the student-athlete, and a big focus of the program was whether that was enough.

As coaching salaries skyrocket — “VICE” used Jim Harbaugh’s $9 million per year as an example — and revenues increasingly go back into facilities, some believe players should be compensated.

Hollis was asked why the players aren’t drawing any benefit from the money they’re helping generate.

“I think our players are benefiting from it,” Hollis said. “Student-athletes today are provided with the opportunity to receive a lot of benefits, from apparel to travel to medical, food. You give them every opportunity that you can — academically, athletically and socially — to be successful.”

Hollis was then asked if the student-athletes are really getting an opportunity for an education.

“Can you guarantee a degree? No,” Hollis said. “Can you guarantee they’re getting the right education? No. You give them the ingredients and opportunity for success.”