Thursday, August 18, 2011

Past Time for Real Reform in College Football

The recent scandal at the University of Miami in some ways does not surprise me. Miami was, for years, considered one of the dirtiest programs in all of college football. The phrase “thugs in uniform” was often assigned. Through its glory days in the 1980’s and early 90’s, the Hurricanes were the championship team everyone loved to hate. I was far from shocked to read about the case of a booster who claims he provided the team extensive "extra favors". If true, some have even asserted that these infractions are so massive and damaging that the team may receive the death penalty, or the inability to field a team for a full season.

I shake my head at this development, because it shows the lengths to which the sport has degenerated over the years. Granted, players have been paid under the table for years. Precisely who got caught and who did not is currently a job responsibility of coaching staffs and others on salary specifically hired to keep these sort of thing from becoming public knowledge. Babysitting service is one of their many hats worn. Some have gone public five to ten years after the fact, well after the long arm of the NCAA can mete out punishment. Sometimes rogue boosters talk out of bitterness, which is the source of this Miami mess. Whether the story is completely true or not, I know enough to believe that many of these allegations are entirely factual.

I will freely admit that I take the game too seriously. I may well be part of the problem, not the solution. The culture in which I grew up placed its hopes and dreams upon a group of 18-22 year olds in shoulder pads and helmets. To this day, nothing quite describes the way I feel as the players storm through the tunnel on their way to the playing field, the blaring fight song introducing the formal beginning of the game. I grew up bleeding Crimson (Tide), an Alabama fan from the womb, seemingly. When I look beyond, I think about my priorities and development at the same age as the players, and recognize how far I was from being capable of making good decisions. When boosters dangle sex, drugs, and money in front of players, I honestly can’t blame them for accepting the offer. Many have devoted their lives to playing the game and have no fall back of which to speak.

Though usually not discussed, there are distressing aspects of class and race present. Most of Alabama’s players are black, usually hailing from backgrounds that could never be described as affluent. The very best players among these seek to stand out on the playing field in such a way that they eventually enter the elite ranks of the NFL. Many are called, but few are chosen. One can choose to interpret this racial component as one will, but even now, the best way out of bad situations for a person of color is still to pursue a career in sports or entertainment. Some players have been known to leave college without a degree specifically to send money home. It isn’t all about narcissism, but the amount of attention, hype, and expectation focused upon a group of overgrown boys fresh out of high school makes me wonder how anyone can manage the pressure.

We are all rogue boosters of a sort. We may not be directly involved in the process, but we do not speak out against the problem. When the face value of tickets doubles in ten years, we fork out whatever it takes to buy season tickets. When even being able to receive tickets first requires thousands of dollars in donations to the university, we dig down deep and write a check. When we acquiesce to a double standard by which athletes can be treated like royalty, and average students have to do their own study without tutors, we are complicit in the system. When we forget that, at bottom, what we observe every Saturday in the fall is nothing more than a game, we do no one any favors.

Collegiate athletics is awash in revenue, but football has become its most reliable source. It may be too late to undo the precedent that has already been set. What we have before us now is an odd amalgamation. On one level, it is a semi-pro league, more like minor league professional football, but yet it is treated with all the same fanaticism and obsession of every NFL game. I am more and more inclined to believe that players need to be paid, since it seems futile to stop something that has been around for years. When universities and colleges make the decision to spend whatever it takes to hire the best coaches, knowing that successful teams produce consistent streams of revenue, we cannot ignore where they place their priorities.

Many arguments on this subject are predicated on a concept of fairness. Fairness ceased to exist decades ago. When college athletes were made to believe that they were important, special, and celebrities of a sort, equality went out the windows. What we have now among athletes is a kind of honor code arrangement that they will not stray. With much profit to be made, personal integrity only goes so far. I defend athletes because should they not manage to cover their tracks, the entire program suffers as a result. Not all offenses are the same and the university can be penalized in any circumstance, for any reason. I do not despise the NCAA, but I often feel like its policies and threats of punishment are based on assumptions that do not play out in reality.

Changes must be made. Sanity must be restored. We must concede that the sport itself rests upon multiple ironies and double standards. Whatever decisions are made will not provide a neat, tidy, concise resolution. Whenever money is involved, what is decreed will be messy. The past cannot be undone, but responsible actions can prevent growing corruption. The scab has been ripped off and everyone is sickened at the sight. What we cannot do is ignore the problem and hope that it goes away. The roots of this took hold long ago. We may not have created this monster, but we must intercede.

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