When Bob DeMars was a football player at mighty USC back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he wanted to major in the school’s prestigious cinema program. Since some of the prerequisite classes interfered with football practice time, however, DeMars says that the athletic department wouldn’t allow it. So he majored in business instead.
In order to show up on time for a required statistics course one semester, he says he had to leave spring practice twenty minutes early, once a week. His defensive line coach, Ed Orgeron, wasn’t happy. You motherf—-r, DeMars remembers Orgeron, who went on to become head coach at Ole Miss from 2005 to 2007, and is now back at USC as assistant head coach, shouting at him. “He M-F’d me all over the place,” says DeMars. “He made me feel like a bad person for going to class.”
USC did not make Orgeron available for comment. “While the alleged events happened before my time as athletic director at USC,” school athletic director Pat Haden said in an email statement, “I can say that all our football practices have been open to the media and players’ families since before Bob was here, and have been open to the public for most of that time as well. The transparency of practice would have brought to light this type of alleged inappropriate behavior. We also have high standards for our coaches and monitor and evaluate them as we would any of our employees.”
“Additionally, we have always been proud to support our student-athletes in a full range of academic pursuits. Majors represented in 2012 among football alone included Theatre, Business Administration, Psychology, Communications, Economics, Chemical Engineering and Political Science.”
With the news coming out of Rutgers this spring — Mike Rice hurling balls and homophobic slurs at players, new athletic director Julie Hermann allegedly verbally abusing players while coaching volleyball at Tennessee in the 1990s — coaching behavior is under intense scrutiny. DeMars calls Orgeron “one of the most brilliant defensive line coaches in the country.” He acknowledges that he helped DeMars improve as a player. But he believes Orgeron could have been just as effective without undermining education. DeMars says that when other players ran sprints for missing class, Orgeron would give DeMars the “stink-eye,” as if DeMars let him down for actually going to class. “I still remember him as someone who got paid a lot of money to care about football,” says DeMars, who went to high school in the Los Angeles area. “When I signed with USC, no one said good luck on your degree. No one said, go to school and get good grades. You’re not a student-athlete. You’re an athlete-student.”
DeMars, who spent most of his career as a backup before starting two games his senior year, may have missed out on the major. But he still managed to fulfill his dream: DeMars is now a filmmaker. The first documentary that DeMars produced — Adjust Your Color: The Truth Of Petey Green — aired on PBS’ Independent Lens program, and won the show’s 2009 Audience Award, given annually to the film to which audiences give the highest rating. Now, he’s using his skills to try to change the college sports culture in which coaches like Orgeron thrive. DeMars is seeking Kickstarter funding for a new film questioning the direction of college sports, called “The Business of Amateurs.” Nineteen days into the film’s 35-day funding period, DeMars has raised nearly $18,000 toward a $30,000 goal. “The NCAA was originally founded on the principles of protecting and benefiting the health of the student athlete,” DeMars writes on the film’s Kickstarter page. “This documentary will challenge the NCAA’s current role in the marketing and selling of their cheapest commodity: amateurs.” You can see a trailer on the Kickstarter page here: the film’s mission seems promising. Former USC star quarterback Matt Barkley, who was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft, tweeted his support for the film last week, giving it a funding boost.
DeMars doesn’t say that schools should pay players salaries, though he thinks that, like Olympic athletes, they should be permitted to secure individual sponsorships and sell their likeness on the open market. “The Olympics are a great example of what the NCAA could be,” says DeMars. “People look at Olympians with great pride, and not as if they’ve violated some sacred amateur ideal.” His major cause is long-term health benefits for college athletes. DeMars says that thanks to his college football career, he has a severed posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in both knees. He also suffers from frequent neck pain. These conditions will drive up his future health care costs. Shouldn’t a higher percentage of the ever-ballooning television revenues that schools receive be allocated toward health care for the unsalaried players who helped create the financial windfall?
Come August every year, DeMars often wakes up in the middle of the night, sweating, after dreaming about his hellish summer practices. He says that coaches would keep him on the field in scrimmages for 50 plays in a row. “Fifteen plays is too much,” says DeMars. “I was expendable.” (The Pac-12 has announced that it will adopt a new policy limiting contact in practice). DeMars says he collapsed in the shower after one summer practice. “I remember a 96-year-old guy standing over me to help out,” says DeMars, “and thinking, ‘shouldn’t it be the other way around here?’”
DeMars thinks that so-called “student-athletes,” who have actually seen the college sports cesspool up close, have the strongest–and most underutilized–voices for change. He hopes to share his experience, and interview dozens of other players for the film. DeMars says playing for USC was a “dream come true.” But it came at a cost. “You get brainwashed by your coaches,” says DeMars. “You don’t want to let anyone down.” According to DeMars, in practice Orgeron would unleash verbal assaults on him, calling him every curse in the book. “He would push his brow into my head while he was screaming at me with his fist balled up,” says DeMars. “How am I not supposed to think this is a coach yelling at me and not someone trying to fight me?”
Todd Keneley, who also played at USC in the late 1990s, also says Orgeron was an intense — and brilliant — coach. Keneley cherishes his time on the USC football team — football relationships have helped him personally and professionally (Keneley is an MMA commentator). He has no regrets about playing. But Keneley also knows it took a toll on his academic experience. Football demands once forced him to sprint from practice in full pads, hand in a paper that was due before a lecture, and sprint out of the classroom and back to the field. “To Bobby’s point, you sacrifice a lot at that level in terms of your education,” says Keneley. “Football overwhelms every part of your college life.”
DeMars knows that some teammates may think he’s breaking a code by sharing his story. But he wants to see his school, and all schools, treat their athletes fairly. “I love my school, I love my teammates,” DeMars says. “But I want my kids to play sports–and not go through the things I had to go through.”