Football is back! I never really worried it wouldn't return, but still, sitting through the first week of preseason games, I was reminded of why I like this sport so much and I'm certainly glad the owners, players and NFL could work out how to divide that pesky $9 billion pie. (Yes, that last bit was sarcasm.)
However, the start of professional football season brings the advent of the college football season. Considering the amount of moving and shaking that has happened between January and now in that profession, you'd think everyone would be a little green from seasickness. And maybe there are, because things are getting out of hand.
LOOK HARD ENOUGH AND YOU'LL FIND DIRT
I learned this lesson from my mother (and she learned it from her mother before her). If you're looking closely, you're bound to see the dirt, the stuff that got swept under the rug, the layer of dust thick enough to write your name in. The NCAA seems to either have forgotten this or has decided that spending their time investigating athletes and the gifts they may or may not receive from fans, agents and the community at large is more important than doing something related to college, like, say making sure those athletes graduate with a degree and an opportunity to do something after their ten year career comes to an end.
The Ohio State University is maybe the most recognizable offender in this latest round of NCAA scrutiny. Their storied couch, Jim Tressel, resigned. Their quarterback, Tyrelle Pryor is trying to make it into the supplemental draft this week. Kids who had committed to OSU before this mess have rescinded their letters and are looking for other, more stable places to play.
And all of this is because a handful OSU players signed some memorabilia and had the audacity to receive tattoos and maybe cars as payment. Miami is the latest school to be painted with the guilty brush, as apparently, some of their players (most of whom currently play in the NFL) also accepted inappropriate gifts.
This latest round of scrutiny, can probably be traced back to Pete Caroll's Trojans, including Reggie Bush, and the USC basketball star, O.J. Mayo.
I understand where the NCAA is coming from. Obviously, they don't want kids to feel pressure to perform or get rewarded for performing or underperforming because of some deal they've struck with a very influential booster (let's leave those backroom dealings for high school football.) However, the idea that the NCAA should place all of the responsibility, and therefore, blame on these college athletes is unfair.
Let's think about it for a minute: most of these kids get full rides to schools that they probably couldn't get into based on their high school transcripts alone. They are often out of their element, away from home for the first time, training year-round, including two-a-day practices in the blazing summer heat and more than likely come from fairly middle to lower class families. (I am generalizing here, but I would attest that these traits are more common than not.)
So, with all of these factors in place, we expect an 18 or 19-year-old kid to refuse a SUV? Or a dinner at a nice restaurant where they serve food on china and not a cafeteria tray?
I don't know about you, but my freshmen year at college I did a few things I'm not too proud of. Made some decisions that, without the watchful eye of mom and dad, were probably ill-advised. And I didn't have half the pressure on me that these athletes do.
Now, I am not advocating that college football players should be completely exempt from the responsibility. A big part of college is learning how to be an adult; it involves a maturing of your beliefs and general understanding of the world that will help you once you leave the institution. However, I personally feel it is the coaching staff and trainers who should also be head accountable, and probably, more accountable than the players.
It's no secret that people are crazy about their sports teams. Go to any stadium parking lot before a game in September and October and you'll see plenty of evidence: chests painted, cheesehead hats, temporary tattoos, etc. There's a reason the word Fan is derived from Fanatic -- we can take our sports teams and their wins and losses pretty seriously.
So, knowing this, why would the coaching staff at colleges and universities, especially those with a long history of winning, neglect to teach their players what is right and wrong? Maybe give them advice on how to gracefully decline an offer. Maybe even reward them for reporting when they have turned down a gift or free meal.
ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH
I'm aware that many programs do have some educational sessions like these, especially for new recruits. But once is not enough. Teaching a kid about the dangers of taking a gift in a sterile classroom environment in no way replicates the situation that player will be faced with in the real world. Similarly to training our children how to avoid getting into a car with a stranger, and teaching them all the different lies a predator might tell to lure them, we have to give these athletes better weapons to fight the battle with overzealous fans and opportunistic agents.
And let's start to put more of the onus on the coaches who should be doing more than obsessing over Ws. They should be monitoring their players, offering them a place to talk and discuss situations without threat of punishment or retaliation.
There should also be stricter penalties enforced if it's determined there was an infraction. Sure, USC got stripped of their Rose Bowl title, but what happened to Pete Carroll? He got a job coaching the Seattle Seahawks--in the NFL ... wait a minute ...
Reggie Bush returned his Heisman Trophy, but wouldn't admit to any guilt. Personally, I don't think he needs to. He was accused of taking gifts, not steroids. In my opinion, accepting a car or a good meal does not impact how good of a player someone is. Now, if he'd been stellar and then started throwing games, we might have a leg to stand on. But the Heisman is awarded based on talent. Reggie Bush has talent.
I want our college athletes to be fine, upstanding citizens, as much as anyone, but placing them in a spotlight that hot makes it infinitely more difficult. Look at what happens to professional athletes when they are also thrust into the spotlight. Not all of them behave like angels.
THE GREAT PAY DEBATE
There's a show airing on ESPN right now that discusses the current state of college athletics. It's a panel of current and former coaches from a wide range of sports, ESPN anchors and former players who are now commentators for the network. In a recent segment, Jay Bilas, former Duke and Coach K team member, made the point that other students who are given scholarships based on talent (i.e. music students) are allowed to pursue outside gigs and more importantly, make money. Bilas uses this as argument to pay college athletes.
I don't want them pulling down a six figure salary in college--they're already making that in tuition and room and board. But a stipend wouldn't be out of the question. Many of these kids come from nothing, and when they're practicing, traveling, playing and studying (hopefully), there is little time left for them to get a part-time job at McDonald's to earn some fun money. These scholarship athletes are expected to work for the team and that's often a full-time job even in the off-season.
As a former music major at a fairly renowned school, I can tell you that between practice, lessons and performance, there is little time to do much else. Nurturing a talent like playing the cello or running the 50 yard dash is a full-time 365 days a year proposition.
So, let's remove some of the temptation for these kids and give them some money, so they don't have to worry about how they're going to pay for a new shirt or gas to make it home for break.
Colleges are making an inordinate amount of money on these teams and the athletes. Ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, free publicity, marketing clout--some of these things are readily measurable in dollars and cents while others are more qualitative. But ask any school with a strong athletics department if it helps them recruit students without sports aspirations and they'll emphatically tell you 'yes.'
Let's ditch the double standard--that players must be held accountable, but coaches don't have to be--and try to remember what it was like to be 19. How many 'less than smart' decisions did you make? And I'll bet no one was offering you a tricked out ride, a professional sports contract or Kobe beef served off of gold-rimmed plates.
Although, if they were, you must have been doing something right.