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The business of college football has produced its own version of human trafficking

The business of college football has produced its own version of human trafficking

An Interview with Robert Green

October 22, 2017
Derek Helling

Every year, the passage of another college football season spans from August through January, and the economic machine keeps thousands of people in industries from foodservice to retail apparel busy. As with most businesses of this scale, there are stories of altruistic endeavors, along with tales of the seedier side.

For as long as homo sapiens have lived in groups, the narratives of competition for limited resources and the strong taking advantage of the weak have existed. College football isn’t immune to those storylines.

In several ways, that competition is exactly the focus of the sport, as can be said of all sport. If not for competition, there would be no reason to keep score or record statistics. On the field of play, competition is not only expected, but celebrated. It’s the entire reason why everyone involved, spectators to athletes, are there.

In major college football, excelling in that competition is very lucrative. Athletic directors and head coaches stand to gain performance bonuses of several thousand dollars if their teams reach bowl eligibility or achieve other significant milestones. On the other hand, failure to excel in that competition can lead to loss of employment among many other undesirable consequences.

Because the stakes are high and the top of the mountain so small, individuals who stand to lose or gain much in the business of college football have often resorted to unethical means in order to improve their chances to not only survive, but thrive. Unfortunately, the athletes who play the game are often the ones who become the means to the end.

Such was the experience of one former college football player, Robert Green.

Green grew up in Long Island, and had anything but a picturesque adolescence. His solace was found on the football field.

“I was a highly-rated athlete as a cornerback in my time, standing about 6’1” and weighing about 185 pounds, extremely strong and fast, growing up in an urban area where there weren’t a lot of opportunities for me to actually get to the next level,” Green said. “There was a lot of gang activity. My high school environment wasn’t about education. It was about survival. For me, football was everything. I was the person who was projected to have an opportunity. My grades, my family situation wasn’t there so I wasn’t able to finish high school.”

What could have been the end of the story on Green and his experience with organized football tied to education was just the beginning, however.

“I got my GED and I was recruited to a junior college. Nassau was the highest-rated JUCO program in the country,” Green continued. “So once again I’m going on that path, I start the next 24 games at Nassau, highly recruited, have offers from all sorts of schools like Clemson and NC State and everywhere under the sun. I took a trip to UMass to meet Don Brown who was the current defensive coordinator at that time and I had no intention at that time of going to UMass but I had never been on a plane before so I took the trip.”

It was on that trip that Green was introduced to all the enticements put out by college football programs to lure in young men.

“He [Brown] just stroked my ego like any other coach, he fed me that you can go to the NFL from here,” Green explained. “The defense that we play is an NFL-type defense, we blitz and rush the quarterback, you are a man-to-man corner who fits our style. We just won a national championship and you can help us come back and repeat this. I get to the school and I’m met with different things like other recruits. That trip involved alcohol and women doing things that I had never seen before. That trip involved a basketball game against Kansas with Dickie V there. I said to myself, if UMass beats Kansas, I’m coming to school here. Needless to say, UMass upset Kansas that day, the campus was crazy. I had never felt love like that before, I’m a kid from an urban area, with no family background believing everyone cared about me, as a kid there, I felt like they loved me.”

At his young age, that was all that Green needed to make a rushed and short-sighted decision.

“I made a decision and committed before I got back to New York. As a player, it was all about me. That was how we were taught, how we thought, what we believed. There was no thought of it as a business decision, about a degree or graduation, just that they loved me,” Green elaborated.

The storybook picture that had been painted for Green quickly started showing signs of fabrication, however.

“I get back to Nassau and the summer comes up,” Green stated. “I get a call from the academic advisor and he tells me that Coach Brown left and took another job. I didn’t get a phone call, I didn’t get any kind of wish you luck, I didn’t get any kind of you can come here, nothing. It came to my attention years later that every kid that Brown recruited was going to get f-ed over. Not because we couldn’t play, but simply because another coach wanted to make Coach Brown look inferior in his ability to make decisions. We’re talking about 12 kids that had nothing to do with anything, that came to UMass simply looking to make the best situation possible in life, and we were literally thrown away like trash. It got so bad for me, I sprained my ankle, had a cortisone shot and hadn’t practiced at all one particular week. They came to me the day before the game and said we need you to play against a team that ran a five-receiver set. I can’t even walk. They shoot me up and I go out there. I was a press corner, that was my game, and the coach told me to play off. How can you play off against a five-wide set? You can’t. I got destroyed and the next day I’m a kid doubting myself. The next week I got replaced by a kid that couldn’t even hold my jock strap so I’m really doubting myself.”

If that was the entirety of Green’s story, that would have been tragic enough. Sadly, there are yet more ways that Green was fleeced for his physical gifts.

“I decided to transfer was because a guy named Mike Bailey at Virginia Union said you can come here, you can get your degree, I was a psychology major with a sociology minor, we’ll give you a full scholarship, it’s DII but it’s a full scholarship, room and board will be taken care of,” Green revealed. “I didn’t ask anymore questions, a friend of mine who I was at JUCO with was there, and I went there.”

Contrary to Green’s hopes, things only got worse.

“To make a long story short, I went through spring practice and I’m like these classes I’m in are not for my degree, I’m in with a bunch of 16-year-olds popping bubblegum,” Green remarked. “I went in and talked to Bailey, who got me to go there, and he just said we’ll take care of it. So my senior year starts, and it’s the same scenario. I told them I’m not going to class, you guys told me I could get my degree so you take care of it. The NCAA has by-laws about athletes having to maintain a certain GPA in classes in order for them to play. I played 12 games as a senior. I didn’t attend one class. I didn’t do anything. They knew why I didn’t go. But at the same time Virginia Union won the NCAA DII championship this year. We played in a postseason game against Tuskegee in Atlanta and I played in that game.”

Unfortunately, Green’s tragic story didn’t end with the close of his college football playing days.

“The real kicker is that not only me but two other players in this scenario, they literally ended up sticking not only me but five other kids I know of for a fact with loans that to this day we are all still paying back that was supposed to be covered by the scholarships we were told we were getting,” Green expressed. “Apparently I signed a loan agreement, but I had no idea what I was signing. The coaches, they just tell you to sign this, they tell you it’s a scholarship, and literally, as a kid you trust the person who got you there, because they are the reason you are there, and you sign it, and you find out later that it’s not what you were told, and there are no repercussions for the coach that told you those things because they are insulated by the NCAA. I called the NCAA seven years ago and reported this. They have never called me back.”

Green’s experience, along with the others he has witnessed during and since his time playing college football, is the reason why he began working as an adviser to young people in the same position and their families. Through Pre-Post Game, Inc., Green endeavors to protect athletes from suffering the same effects.

One of the things that Green educates athletes about is a lesson he learned from his own experience, what he calls the “gladiator mindset.”

“The gladiator mentality is that if I win, everyone is going to make me feel good. I was there. All these people, these coaches, these mentors, are basically just shooting fish in a barrel to see if they hit anything,” Green explained.

The people that Green referred to are similar to runners in drug dealings, or human trafficking rings. Green elaborates on what he calls “sports trafficking.”

“There are so many runners and other people who are getting paid cash to get in front of athletes, it can be someone in the kid’s family, an AAU or high school coach, but these state-funded schools that are getting money to these people without any trace because it’s all cash,” said Green.

There are a few different paths that the sports trafficking can take, but the most common involves the runners acting as intermediaries to start the process and then it gets worse.

“A runner is someone who wants to take pictures with a kid based off his athletic ability and then basically sell that relationship, which may not even be factual, to someone who believes it in order to get a monetary value off of it,” Green reports. “Let’s say you are a talented prospect and there’s a guy running around on social media saying ‘oh you came from here and we made you.’ Then this guy goes to someone who wants to talk to your mother or you and he is like ‘I can get you a meeting with him for $5,000.’ You aren’t aware and neither is your mother. This person sends you a message saying ‘you want to meet me at Arby’s?’ You’re like sure, with no idea that another guy is showing up and sitting down. You just figure it’s a friend of whoever you came to meet, but you have a conversation about going to a school. Now that the meeting has happened, the cash gets handed over and neither your mom nor you are any the wiser. Now the next time this gets set up for a different school, you don’t show up, that person is going to start rumors that you took money. That runner is out in the clear because he’s nobody anyway. These deals go on every day of the week.”

As with Green’s own experience, the rest of the recruitment process and the actual time spent as an athlete at an institution can often build on this shady deal.

“This thing is perpetuated from top to bottom,” Green added. “Everybody who is an adult in this business knows the game. The only people who don’t know how this business works is the kids and their families. It’s what I call sports trafficking. It’s exploitation and prostitution. Nobody is teaching these kids how to take care of their bodies or anything. They aren’t taking these kids to class to meet the chancellor or set you up with contacts for after you have graduated. They are getting you drunk. They are getting you high. They are getting you laid. How can you make business decisions in that state?”

“It’s a sad state of affairs, but again, the same people that they trusted up until that point never put anything in place to do so [put players in good positions],” Green continued. “I’ll give you a prime example, there’s a young man that we work with, that is going to be a top prospect one day. What has happened with this particular university that has not provided him with the housing he was promised when he first got there, this young man is so knowledgeable, that he knows how some girls at schools can be, trapping athletes in positions that they shouldn’t be in, certain situations can become he said/she said, and it’s a mess that can’t be kept quiet. Why would this university put this player, who is well known, in a coed dorm where there is no restroom in his room, where he has to go out his door just to use the restroom. If it’s 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning, these people know him. All he has to do is make one false move and everything this kid is trying to work for is in jeopardy. The parent didn’t even understand how these things go. The university is saying we told you one thing but now the compliance says another thing. In college recruiting sometimes, it’s good cop/bad cop. The coach will tell you everything you want to hear, and then once you’ve committed, they’ll say the compliance said no. That carries over to the professional level, where a team will say we love you but you got in trouble and they will low ball the kid without taking into account how the kid was set up to get in trouble.”

The efforts to manipulate circumstances so that young men with his athletic talent continue to be taken advantage of past their collegiate days has taken other forms in Green’s experience.

“Many situations currently today, there are a lot of athletes out there physically broken, not only from a concussion standpoint, you don’t get brain trauma from after two to six years in the NFL,” Green commented. “It starts way earlier than that, in high school. There are athletic trainers out there at these major universities who are scheduling consultations with NFL doctors in violation of HIPAA laws without the knowledge of the parents or the actual athlete who is hoping to compete in the NFL. In the last two years, there have been a lot of stories that come out right before the draft. This information and the way these kids behave is known way before the draft, but from a monetary standpoint, these things drop just before the draft to lower the value of the player on behalf of the team.”

“These are the same people who push them to sign a contract with an agent once their college careers are over,” Green expressed. “If you’re an architect or a graphic designer, you didn’t wait until three months before you graduated college to figure out what you were going to do as far as finding a job went. Now they’re asking kids from urban areas, who don’t have any money, have never had any money, to make a business decision on signing an agent just four months before they become millionaires? If the average career in the NFL is 2.6 years, and these kids had to pay an agent $800,000 and you asked the kid why did you pay him that money, he couldn’t tell you. If you asked the agent, what did you do to warrant being paid that much money for the kid’s first contract, he can’t tell you that either. There’s no negotiating, the first contract is slotted.”

Perhaps the worst ramifications are for those athletes at NCAA member institutions who genuinely consider themselves students first. The contingent of football players who realize that their prospects of playing in the NFL are slim or simply don’t want to pursue that, but merely use the sport to provide themselves with an education, often find themselves just as disappointed as Green was with that experience.

“A lot of athletes don’t have that focus at all, they are there to play sports, not for an education,” Green stated. “There are academic programs set up to allow them to do very little on the academic path. But these kids get to the schools and realize all that they have to do, and it’s impossible. The schools have people that they hire to convince these kids that these academic programs are actually legit in terms of their academic goals. In one case, two of these advisors were fired, but only after the kid had committed and enrolled.”

From Green’s perspective, the only way to combat these methods and allow young men like him to use these channels to achieve their goals is through education and vigilance.

“What we do is teach all the business aspects of athletics,” Green emphasized. “When these kids come into high school they come in to be a millionaire. I knew nothing about the business I was in, the people around me knew a lot so literally if you can go work out in sports you have to have the foundation that you need from an educational standpoint, because the universities aren’t doing it. If you look at the average annual income of an African-American person, it’s $26,000 a year. If 70 percent of professional athletes are African-American, why hasn’t that number gone up? It’s because athletes are not serving their own best interests, but the best interests of others. We teach these kids about intellectual property, about protecting their brands, everything they need to know to put themselves in the best situations.”

When faced with high-stakes situations and put in a position where there is little to no oversight, human beings can quickly become like vultures, taking advantage of the ill-equipped to defend themselves. Green himself has been the victim of such unscrupulous attacks, but through sharing those experiences with others in similar positions, is working to decrease the number of easy targets.


Freelance journalist

Derek Helling is a journalist out of Chicago. Illinois, who covers the intersections of entertainment and sports with business, law, media and technology. He publishes a newsletter, "The Ninth Circle of Helling," that focuses on labor issues in North American sport.

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