If you are not completely disgusted with college sports, you have not been paying attention in the last decade. Tonight, Jameis Winston won the Heisman Memorial Trophy, an award given to the nation’s best college football player. He accepted this award amidst rape allegations. Accusations of sexual battery were brought against Winston in December of 2012 when he was a redshirt freshman at Florida State. Supporters of Winston argue that he was only a suspect, never arrested or formally charged, and the reemergence of these allegations coincides too neatly with Florida State’s run for the national title game. It might also be worth noting that Cam Newton (winner of the 2010 Heisman Trophy) accepted his award amidst allegations that his father, Cecil Newton, had sought $10,000 in exchange for his son’s official commitment when Cam was being recruited out of Blinn Junior College. This, of course, came after Cam was expelled from the University of Florida when he was arrested for stealing a laptop. Then, as now, Auburn fans questioned the timing of these allegations – Auburn was poised to make a run for the national title that year, which they eventually won. To be fair, Cam was cleared of charges when the NCAA ruled that his father acted without Cam’s knowledge. Though any reasonable person might ask if this ruling did not set the precedent for any subsequent offender to simply claim ignorance (isn’t it always a Dad, or an Uncle or an AAU coach acting on the player’s behalf?) when faced with similar recruiting violations.
When it comes to allegations, timing is everything it seems.
You might also remember, in the same year as the Cam Newton scandal, five Ohio State players were found guilty of trading autographs and memorabilia in exchange for tattoos. The ruling came on December 22, the NCAA announcing that the five guilty players would be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season. This would have been a fitting punishment except for the fact that Ohio State was playing Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl that year in January. Naturally, the players were allowed to participate in that game. A later report by Sports Illustrated found that at least 28 players were guilty of similar NCAA rules violations. As a result, Coach Jim Tressel resigned after the 2011 season but not before he accepted a $52,000 severance package and was absolved of having to pay any of the $250,000 fine levied by the NCAA.
These are a few of the more notable cases in college football the past few years but college basketball, the other major college sport, has an equally long history of player and coach misconduct. Whether that misconduct includes receiving cash gifts (Marcus Camby allegedly received $40,000 in cash in 1996), grade tampering (Derrick Rose had someone take his SATs for him), or general disregard of the rules (UConn Coach Jim Calhoun was cited by the NCAA for “failing to create an atmosphere of compliance” after team managers committed multiple rule violations), it almost seems as though the selectively-enforced rules are merely window dressing.
This culture where athletes are treated as demigods, absolved of any wrongdoing because they can run fast, jump high, and hit hard has been created by our demand with media organizations like ESPN as the willing supplier. ESPN, whose television contracts with the NCAA is in the tens of billions of dollars, reports on cases like the ones above while simultaneously holding a major stake in a game or (cough) a Heisman Trophy presentation’s TV ratings.
ESPN, whose anchors frequently cite other ESPN reports as their source, has become the leading outlet for sports news in America. Sports fans wanted more and ESPN willingly provided it, now frequently airing high school football and basketball games, noting ESPN Top 150 Recruits during their broadcasts. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to begin deifying athletes once they were freshman in college, it’s now necessary to begin while they are still freshman and sophomores in high school.
The fanaticism of college fan bases in conjunction with the 24-hour news saturation by the media has created an inescapable culture where college athletes are simply held to a lower standard of human behavior than other students. And the two groups feed off of one another. A supply-side economist would argue that the growing media attention paid to these athletes is the result of lower standards. Simply, there is more coverage, more television time given to these athletes, because fans have undergone a sort of deregulation in their expectations: we don’t care what they do, so long as we win.
Media outlets – ESPN, CBS, etc. – are not the demon here. The lack of accountability placed on athletes has grown out of the desire for boosters and fans alike to see their team succeed. The garbage culture of instant-gratification is willing to sacrifice legitimate standards in order to achieve some small piece of a victory.
The problem is so deep and so complex that it can be explored economically, socially, and culturally. The economics of college sports don’t make sense: athletes bring in millions of dollars for their schools yet are not permitted to benefit financially in any way. There is the larger social issue that many of these athletes, lower-class minorities, are exploited by wealthy, predominantly white, athletic boosters.
From a cultural standpoint, we are the ones to blame. We have placed winning – a lot of fans have never set foot on “their” school’s campus, let alone graduated – above all reasonable expectations of decent human behavior. If not for paying fans’ and contributing boosters’ desire to win, Bobby Bowden would not have been the highest paid state employee in Florida, Cam Newton would have been told to take a walk, and any number of players (Andy Katzenmoyer who had to take Music, AIDS Awareness and Golf to retain his eligibility at Ohio State comes to mind) would have been told: “if you can’t pass your classes, you can’t go to school here because that is the standard by which all other students must abide.”
This quagmire of corruption and complete lack of any moral compass has turned me, a lifelong college football fan, completely away from the sport. As a teenager, I would spend my days watching game after game, cheering when Charles Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown, wildly clapping with my friends when Clinton Portis danced in the end zone, and covering my face when Warrick Dunn (again and again) shifted through our defense as though they were tackling dummies.
But no longer.
I cannot, in good conscience, watch a college football game, look at the screaming fans who hold up posters depicting the likenesses of 19-year-old kids and think that it is even remotely healthy for anyone involved. I have watched only a handful – no more than five – college games in the last three years and I am continually reminded, whenever I do catch a few minutes of television, of why I simply had to say “enough.” To spend three hours, cheering for an 18-year-old who cannot pass remedial English is a sad commentary on me and an even worse message to that player because, by watching, by cheering, by tuning into the Heisman presentation, I have tacitly shrugged at all his misgivings and said: “don’t worry, as long as you can still run fast.”
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