The Lie in the Living Room

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“I wish I could have looked the other way. I really do. But I couldn’t. They told me we can’t make the NCAA look bad. I said, we sure as hell can.” John Shoop said.  He paid a price. But in the end, he says he gained far more than he lost.

Shoop was the youngest coach in NFL history. In 2001, his first year as Offensive Coordinator, the Chicago Bears were 13-3 and sometimes referred to their offense as the “Run n’ Shoop.”  After twelve years with four professional teams, he moved over to the University of North Carolina; yearning for the kind of player relationships he’d had when he first fell in love with football.  Less business.  More heart.

When he sat in living rooms, recruiting players, he’d meant it when he told their families he’d advocate for their son; that he would look out for his interests like he would his own son. He didn’t know that the NCAA had a different idea of advocacy.

John Shoop’s story is heavily featured in “Student Athlete”,  HBO’s scathing new documentary about the NCAA’s treatment of college athletes. He describes a system where players are exploited in a billion dollar industry propped up by mostly black players without any real rights and whose families live below the poverty line.  He believes his career suffered for speaking out. And yet, he wouldn’t go back and change a thing, despite being let go from two big time football coaching jobs; the first from UNC after an NCAA investigation and the second from Purdue. The N.Y. Times covered the story (See “Purdue Fires a Champion of Athlete’s Rights”)

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While Shoop has not advocated for players to be paid outright, he is troubled by the fact that everyone makes money except the athletes: the universities, TV networks, sneaker companies, merchandising, and clothing manufacturers.  It’s been Shoop’s experience that if athletes do get any tiny amount of money for incidentals, it is typically sent home to family. “When a student doesn’t have enough money to get home from school, pay the utility bill, or to eat in the off season, the NCAA forbids coaches (or any third party) from helping. If they do, the players are deemed ineligible; losing their scholarships and the hopes and dreams that came with it.” he laments.

Shoop grew more conflicted by the day. “I’m not sure I can say I was the person I wanted to be if someone comes to me hungry or in need, and I can’t help because the rules say I can’t.”

Representatives for the NCAA have stated publicly that student athletes are getting a free education in exchange. But, Shoop points to a grave injustice there, too. “These young men are promised an education. Just because you got the degree, it doesn’t mean you got the education. Athletes have a grueling schedule of weekend travel, daily practices, weight training, films, memorizing playbooks; all under the haze of a chronic lack of sleep.  So, there is little incentive to take challenging courses; the type that will set them up for a rewarding career. “

There are hundreds of NCAA rules that players can violate; some obvious – others not so. When a player violates one of them, Shoop says there is an appalling lack of due process. He talks of players being discouraged from having legal representation lest they “appear guilty” and being asked to sign documents that seal their fate, without counsel.

John’s wife, Marcia Mount Shoop, a Presbyterian minister, also published a book called “Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports”.  Together, their open advocacy of student athletes’ rights was described by the NY Times as being “…intolerable.”

fullsizeoutput_169bAfter leaving Purdue, the Shoop’s moved to a small horse farm outside Asheville, N.C. He took time to re-connect with his two children and reflect. Marcia became the pastor of a church. “When you coach in the NFL and college football, you’re a mercenary; a hired gun. If things don’t go the right way, you’re gone.”  Shoop took his masters degree in education from Vanderbilt and became a high school social studies teacher, helps coach the football team, and hosts a sports radio show for the NPR affiliate.

But, it is the change in his relationships with his two kids, and his faith, that has transformed him. By the time he left Purdue, he had not been a big part of his son’s or daughter’s life for 15 years. “If someone had asked me about my values back then, I would point to family and faith, but my actions said something completely different. I almost never made it to church because I was on the road. My kids are highly regarded athletes but I couldn’t be at their sporting events because I was coaching someone else’s kids at another sporting event.”

Shoop has become extremely close to his children who are in the final years of their education and athletics, and it has been the joy of his life. He became a deacon in the church which has given him the privilege to take home communion to elderly people who are shut in.

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John Shoop is grateful for his career in the NFL and college football. But in the end, he is most grateful for the life he is leading now. “Marcia and I wanted to make a meaningful life with our family and make useful contributions to our community. I think teaching high school is a strong contribution and I am overjoyed to be spending time with my children before it’s too late.” The Shoop’s still hold out hope for change in the NCAA. Marcia Shoop says they pray that one day, “…the players find their voice.”

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