Topics In Shoddy Journalism: The Media vs. Justin Combs

Justin Combs - UCLA Bruin, and justified recipient of a UCLA football scholarship.

We are now on the third day of the media's Justin Combs scholarship watch. Thanks to the fundamentally flawed ‘journalism' by CNN, LA Weekly and the (London) Daily Mail leading the way, the media is on a feeding frenzy dealing with the manufactured story of the son of rap mogul Sean (P Diddy) Combs accepting a football scholarship from UCLA. The idea that taxpayer money is being used to pay for a wealthy celebrity's kid to attend college has been used as the hook to make this a nationally relevant story.

There are two problems with this: First off, the storyline that taxpayer money is funding the scholarship is not true. Second, the Combs family is far from alone in the role of the famous, wealthy family who sees one of its offspring earn an athletic scholarship. They are alone in drawing the ire of the media, fueled by imagined ‘taxpayers', after seeing their child reach such an individual achievement. One has to wonder why this family has been deemed to be the test case - and to his credit, Michael Wilbon wondered the same thing yesterday on PTI.

The basic problem with the journalism of this story is the idea that the scholarship that Justin Combs has received is being paid for with taxpayer money, or that his scholarship is taking away financial aid opportunities from low-income students hoping to attend UCLA. The entire basis of this argument is false, and as I found, even a few minutes of research - just a little bit of googling - clearly shows just how Justin's scholarship is being funded.

Writing this as someone who hails from a low-income family, with my UCLA education having been funded largely by need-based funds like Pell Grants and university-based financial aid, reading and watching supposed journalists slander another Bruin in my name is incredibly insulting. Honestly, I was tempted to wrap up this post following this paragraph by questioning the cognitive ability and parentage of those writers spreading this mess. But that would not have done anything to stop the lies, or push back against the hypocrisy of this media storm.

While UCLA has come out with a statement explaining that funding for athletic scholarships come solely from privately raised funds, this pushback has been slow in coming and is not as forceful as I would like to see.

"Unlike need-based scholarships, athletic scholarships are awarded to students strictly on the basis of their athletic and academic ability -- not their financial need," the statement read. "Athletic scholarships, such as those awarded to football or basketball players, do not rely on state funds. Instead, these scholarships are entirely funded through UCLA Athletics ticket sales, corporate partnerships, media contracts and private donations from supporters.

"Each year, UCLA awards the equivalent of approximately 285 full athletic scholarships to outstanding student-athletes. The scholarships are used by the UCLA Department of Intercollegiate Athletics to pay students' tuition and fees, as well as room and board. In this respect, UCLA is no different from the overwhelming majority of Division I institutions."

The synopsis: funding for athletic scholarships at UCLA come from a specific set of revenue streams, none of which are derived from general university funds, or other state funds. Beyond this statement is the reality that Morgan Center as a unit does not draw upon university funds

On a wider note, calling an athletic scholarship a ‘scholarship' does not really do this financial award justice. An athletic scholarship is not like a typical need-based or merit-based scholarship, which are generally no-strings attached awards based upon a student having met certain criteria, or belonging to a particular ethnic/social/professional group. Students who receive these sorts of awards do generally receive them on a competitive basis - that is to say that by gaining a scholarship, a student is taking money that would otherwise go to another disadvantaged student, or particularly bright student.

While the NCAA will hate me for writing this, let's be honest. An athletic scholarship is the NCAA-approved way for colleges to compensate student-athletes for doing their job - preparing for and competing in sporting competitions under the name and colors of the university. In the same way that some students earn money during the school year through work study programs, scholarship athletes earn their education through their commitment to study their playbook as well as their textbooks, to practice their sport and stay in good physical condition, and to compete for their school when called upon. In accepting an athletic scholarship, these young men and women are not taking an educational opportunity from an under-privileged youth looking to enter the general student body - they are taking the place of another athlete who the coaches of that sport like slightly less than him/her.

With the fact that no taxpayer money is at stake with Justin - or any other Bruin student-athlete - settled, the other issue that jumped to my mind upon seeing the journalistic attention being focused on Justin and his family is why Justin? While his father is very famous and very wealthy, the same can be said of any number of recent student-athletes that have received athletic scholarships in recent years. None of these families have drawn the level of questioning criticism from the media that the Combs clan has been hit with in the past few days.

With this in mind, I am going to discuss a few of the children of fame and privilege that have accepted athletic scholarships to public universities in recent years. To start, there are a number of Bruin student athletes from recent years who have come from such family backgrounds. Kevin Love's family includes multiple members of the Beach Boys, while Jerry Rice Jr has recently earned a football scholarship after walking on to the UCLA Football team.

Jerry Neuheisel was offered a football scholarship by his father during his time as head coach. There was some controversy among Bruins over the offer, but the questioning seemed less about the inequity or generalized unfairness of the athletic department paying his tuition. The main points of dispute were whether Jerry was good enough to deserve his scholarship and the reality that had Jerry walked-on instead, the team would have an additional football scholarship to offer under the NCAA's limit of 85.

***

In addition to these UCLA students and their families, we have seen a number of other families with a level of wealth and fame celebrate their children's achievement of earning an athletic scholarship to a public university. Scholarship awards that were granted without a peep of protest from imagined taxpayers or from the media. Here are just a few of these student-athletes of recent years, from families that do not offend the sensibilities of our mainstream media.

Jack Elway - Football, Arizona State: Jack is the son of John Elway, one of the great NFL Quarterbacks but also a man who has seen great success on a personal level and in the business world. He got to see his son blossom into a leading high school quarterback, earning a football scholarship from Arizona State - though the younger Elway eventually burned out on the sport.

John was fortunate enough to play in the beginning of the big money era in professional football. Between the rewards from his playing career, investments and his current job running the Denver Broncos, he has found himself in a financial position allowing him to own a chain of Denver-area car dealerships as well as an Arena Football League franchise. In a time where we hear so much about football players who struggle to adapt to or succeed in life after football, it is great to see a player making life work. But for the ‘taxpayers' and talking heads who think that families like the Combs' should not take scholarship money, the Elways' seem to be in the same boat.

Trey Griffey - Football, Arizona: On the same day that Justin Combs signed his letter of intent to accept a football scholarship from UCLA, the son of Ken Griffey Jr formally accepted a football scholarship from the University of Arizona. Kyle from Arizona Desert Swarm wrote a post on comparing the media's criticism of the Combs family with the lack of media attention paid to Griffey's acceptance of a football scholarship, with his father having recently ended a baseball career which paid him over $150 million in salary, plus millions more in endorsements.

Keith Hornsby - Basketball, UNC-Asheville: Keith may not be a familiar figure in the sporting world, but his father is a pretty big deal in the Music Industry. Bruce Hornsby is a 3-time Grammy award winning musician with multiple platinum-selling albums to his credit. I would imagine that CNN's core audience is more familiar with his music - and better identifies with him - than P. Diddy.

Keith earned a basketball scholarship to UNC-Asheville, and worked his way into the team's rotation last season as a freshman. During Asheville's near-upset of Syracuse on the opening day of March Madness, the TV crew calling the game frequently mentioned the family connection, but without any expressed idea that this successful recording artist should pay for his child's athletic scholarship.

Chris Long - Football, Virginia; Kyle Long - Baseball, Florida State and Football, Oregon: Chris and Kyle are the sons of Howie Long, Hall of Fame football player and longtime co-host of Fox's NFL pregame show. Both were among the elite prospects in their sports: Chris was an elite Defensive Lineman in high school who accepted a football scholarship from the University of Virginia, and now plays for the St. Louis Rams. Kyle was a top prospect in Baseball and Football, choosing to play baseball at Florida State on an athletic scholarship. After facing personal struggles in Tallahassee, he left FSU and switched back to Football while attending Saddleback College. Last March, after two standout years at the JC level, he accepted a football scholarship from the University of Oregon.

Along with the continuing fame that his post-retirement media activities have brought, Howie Long's work for Fox Sports and endorsement contract with Chevrolet earn him over $3 million/year, in addition to other endorsement and acting opportunities. I lived in the same town as the Long family while Chris was playing college football and Kyle was being recruited - while I found that Howie really isn't that popular of a guy among the locals, I never heard a word saying that he should have paid for his kids to play at Florida State or UVa.

Nick Montana - Football, Washington: The younger son of Joe Montana played high school football at Oaks Christian High along with the children of Wayne Gretzky and Will Smith. He played well enough there to draw plenty of attention from collegiate coaches, with Nick deciding to accept a football scholarship from the University of Washington. Like his fellow HoF Quarterback, John Elway, his post-retirement finances are holding up rather well. Even with the selling price of his Napa Valley estate falling from $49 million to just $35 million, the Montana family's net worth is estimated at $80 million. I won't hold my breath waiting for the media outrage for him not sending tuition checks up to Seattle.

Chris Simms - Football, Texas; Matt Simms - Football, Louisville and Tennessee: Like the Long family, we have a pair of young men who truly excelled on the athletic field, earning attention and football scholarship offers from colleges throughout the nation. Their father Phil, like Howie Long was an NFL great who has extended his paychecks and time in the public eye by working as a football analyst and commentator for several television networks. While his media revenue likely does not reach the level of Long's salary from Fox Sports, his wealth and position in the public eye should be enough for a critical but consistent media to have wondered why these public institutions had to pay for his children's scholarships.

Marcus Jordan - Basketball, Central Florida: Last but not least, the younger son of Michael Jordan. Marcus accepted a basketball scholarship from the University of Central Florida, and has played pretty well for UCF. As for Michael's wealth and ability to pay for his son's education, I don't think anyone is in the dark on that.

If the media, or supposed ‘taxpayers' are going to make a fuss, or moral argument against a wealthy celebrity and his family benefiting from an athletic scholarship, MJ - the ultimate degenerate gambler of athlete degenerate gamblers - would be the one to start with. If there really was an honest discontent among taxpayers, the guy that places $500k bets on blackjack, as well as his own golf game would be the logical target. Marcus himself reportedly spent $35k - as much as a year's non-resident cost of attendance at UCF - on a night partying (underage) in Las Vegas.

***

The student-athletes and families that I have discussed here are just a just a few examples of players coming from positions of wealth and privilege who have earned athletic scholarships. Even while I was writing this post last night, some of the other editors and I came up with several others, not to mention players like Andrew Luck, Matt Leinart and Barry Sanders Jr, who have accepted athletic scholarships to private universities. And I want to reiterate that there is nothing wrong with that.

Regardless of whom their parents are and how much money they have, these kids have earned their scholarships based upon talent and hard work on the playing field and in the classroom. They will work for their scholarship funds during their four or five years on campus through time spent playing, practicing and training for the benefit of themselves and their teammates, the athletic department that actually pays for their education, and the fans and alumni like us who watch them play.

There certainly is a time and a place to debate the role of merit v. need based financial awards in higher education, but this is not it. The actions of CNN, the Daily Mail, and LA Weekly along with other media outlets in distorting - either willfully or through the negligence of their reporters and editors - the facts behind Justin Combs' football scholarship from UCLA, and in deciding to make an example of this child of a celebrity - one whose fame comes from the hip-hop culture that is easy to demonize for the folks who tend to watch CNN and the morning talk shows - they have been distasteful.

In suddenly deciding to make this a story - six months after his unofficial commitment to UCLA and three months after he formally accepted the scholarship - by peddling a falsehood that even I was easily able to debunk, they should be ashamed.

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