Saturday, October 11, 2014

Quitting Old State U

College football used to be my No. 1 sport. That's hardly a surprise as I grew up in Nebraska, a state that is something of a Lagrangian point for professional sports. Denver, the Twin Cities, Chicago and Kansas City are all fairly close, but none so close that they can seriously claim Nebraska as "their" territory. That leaves the University of Nebraska -- and specifically Cornhusker football -- to dominate the state's sporting attention.

I used to follow the Huskers with a passion. Going to games was a rare treat growing up -- I went to four or five games as a fan, mostly thanks to a family member who was a season-ticket holder -- but I made sure to catch every game on TV or the radio. (For younger readers, these were the days before every game was on TV and in HD. I know, I'm so old.) Wins were exhilarating and losses were crushing, especially the near-annual, seemingly inevitable defeat to a faster, more talented team from Florida in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska's run from 1993 to 1997, in which they went 60-3 and won three national championships, was spectacular and likely spoiled at least one generation of fans into believing Nebraska should always hold such pride of place in college football.

As I said, though, college football used to be my favorite sport. Now, I barely pay attention to it. What happened? In short -- time, distance, and seeing how the sausage is made.

For starters, my steady progression westward has made viewing games difficult. Out here, even the earliest of the early games (a.k.a. the Iowa State window) start at about 9 p.m., with prime-time games kicking off around 4 a.m. Even for someone who has worked nights for many years, staying up that late for games in which I have no professional interest is a big ask.

I've also noticed that the longer I stay in sports journalism, the more my sports fandom cools overall. I used to be into almost every sport, but that has been whittled down to the Chicago Cubs and the US national soccer team. The time and energy required to care about other teams, above and beyond my professional responsibilities, just aren't there. In addition, covering Nebraska football was a great way to dispel any illusions I had about the program or the people within it, and I had more than a few after growing up such an ardent fan.

Mostly, though, it was spending time in the belly of the beast and looking critically at how it behaves that put me off college football. It was seeing the outsized importance and influence of the sport and those who played it versus the reality on the ground. In an attempt to sustain the increasingly threadbare illusion of amateurism, the "non-profit organization" known as the NCAA portrays the players as fresh-faced student-athletes engaging in an extracurricular activity for school pride and the chance at an education from an institution of higher learning, yet at the same time these young men generate sometimes exorbitant amounts of money for their universities while playing on scholarships (those who receive them) that can be withdrawn at any time for any reason. Coaches can demand millions of dollars in salary and upgrades to facilities in the name of "staying competitive", even as the vast majority of Division I athletic programs rely on subsidies just to stay afloat.

That's just the surface-level hypocrisy, though. My greatest source of disgust is the lengths to which coaches, universities and city officials are willing to go to obfuscate and excuse the misbehavior of players deemed Valuable to The Program. For example, consider this in-depth report from Friday's New York Times on the leniency shown by the Tallahassee police toward Florida State football players.
Last year, the deeply flawed handling of a rape allegation against the quarterback Jameis Winston drew attention to institutional failures by law enforcement and Florida State officials. The accuser’s lawyer complained that detectives had seemed most interested in finding reasons not to pursue charges against Mr. Winston, a prized recruit who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead his team to a national championship.
Now, an examination by The New York Times of police and court records, along with interviews with crime witnesses, has found that, far from an aberration, the treatment of the Winston complaint was in keeping with the way the police on numerous occasions have soft-pedaled allegations of wrongdoing by Seminoles football players. From criminal mischief and motor-vehicle theft to domestic violence, arrests have been avoided, investigations have stalled and players have escaped serious consequences.
In a community whose self-image and economic well-being are so tightly bound to the fortunes of the nation’s top-ranked college football team, law enforcement officers are finely attuned to a suspect’s football connections. Those ties are cited repeatedly in police reports examined by The Times. What’s more, dozens of officers work second jobs directing traffic and providing security at home football games, and many express their devotion to the Seminoles on social media.
Does that third paragraph sound familiar? It should. The connection of self-image and economic well-being to State U's success is one that comes up across America. Just look at where college football is the most popular -- cities such as Lincoln, Nebraska; Norman, Oklahoma; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Tallahassee, Florida; Athens, Georgia; South Bend, Indiana; Eugene, Oregon; Columbus, Ohio; etc. These are "college towns" of decent-but-not-huge size that are largely free of the influence of professional sports, leaving the local college football team to rule the roost. Anything that would threaten said team, and by extension the community's self-image and economic well-being, must be stopped.

Remember the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State? Do you think that would have been allowed to continue at a university where the well-being of the football team was not first and foremost in administrators' minds? Would a university that had a healthy relationship with its football team (i.e. not Notre Dame) have been far quicker investigating who embarrassed their star player than the death of Declan Sullivan and the assault of Lizzie Seeberg? Remember when Dear Old Nebraska U decided that protecting a star running back who dragged a woman down three flights of stairs was more important than taking care of the actual victim? Those are just the foremost examples in my mind. The roll call of such incidents in college athletics is as long as it is awful.

There is no question the world at large has problems with sexism, misogyny and maltreatment of women. It's just that working in the field I do, the culture of entitlement around college sports and the revolting lack of respect shown toward women by men in sports -- particularly football -- jump out to me on a regular basis. When young men are told from an early age that their athletic talents make them special and they receive all manner of preferential treatment as a result of their physical prowess, it is no wonder they grow up believing the rules do not apply to them.

That, in an 1,100-word nutshell, is why I just can't get into college football anymore. My suspension of disbelief and ability to go along with the NCAA's charade have been irreparably broken. Go ahead and add "never see how the sausage is made" to the list of immutable truths such as "never start a land war in Asia" and "never meet your heroes". Hopefully soccer figures out its issues with match-fixing and gambling or I might have to consider giving up on sports altogether.

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