More questions than answers on college sports

Published 12:01 am Sunday, November 14, 2010

OXFORD — This column will have more questions than answers.

The first one, and I mean it, is, “Must college sports, especially football, continue down the trail of more and more corruption, cheating, questionable deals and general skullduggery?”

You can’t tell it from those grainy old black and white photos, but it does appear there was a day when Michigan played Notre Dame or Georgia played Clemson and fans went to the games to see excellent athletes in good-spirited competition. Fans, coaches and players seriously wanted their team to win, but if the other side did it wasn’t really a big deal.

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These days, the NCAA, which governs intercollegiate athletics, loves to run ads illustrating the fact that most young people who play baseball, tennis, football, volleyball or whatever for their schools end up in careers that have nothing to do with sports. The ads are accurate. Very few college athletes play at the professional level.

So why the pressure to win at any cost?

Universities, at least in that old, grainy black and white view, are supposed to be centers of honesty and integrity — places where we send our children not only to be taught in topic areas that will lead to employment, but also to instill values such as what it means to be a friend, how to be reliable, how to set and keep personal goals and reach high aspirations.

Yet almost every institution that puts so much stock in developing the character of its student body has experienced a “situation” or several “situations” in its athletics operation that is, well, shameful.

For the past several days, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who vaulted to prominence as this year’s frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, has been at the center of what The New York Times called the most recent “redemptive narrative.” Confirmed, unconfirmed and contradictory accounts allege his skills were shopped at various pricing levels to several schools and a timeline shows him bouncing from school to school.

At each stop, the familiar refrain has been, “He deserves a chance to get his life together.” Sure, but does a “chance” involve a starting position on a Division 1 team? And what about all the young people who’ve also become embroiled in drugs or cheating or theft or whatever “situations”? How’s the “redemption narrative” going for those who can’t run or pass a football with anything near Newton’s ability?

It’s wink and nod stuff. Everybody knows it’s wrong, but it’s accepted due mainly to the pressure to win at any cost. Hallowed university traditions of personal dignity and honor are shelved.

Some say this pressure comes due to the money involved.

No doubt that’s part of it.

Even without the exact figures, it’s safe to say an Southeastern Conference head football coach is paid at least five times the salary of the university president. The football coach makes as much in a week as a chemistry professor makes in a year.

The rationale for the multimillion-dollar paychecks is that a “good” coach brings in oodles of cash directly in ticket sales and broadcast rights plus overflow donations from alumni and others who love backing a winning school. The truth, however, is that most athletics programs are barely self-supporting. An SEC championship or even a national championship does not translate — at least not directly — into lower tuition, more classrooms or more pay for the beleaguered chemistry prof.

More pressure, it seems, comes from the aforementioned fans and alumni. People who may not have even attended a game while enrolled at the school suddenly become experts, start “fire the coach” websites and pile on shrill language after every loss. They build a defeatist mentality. A team can win eight games in a row and after losing the ninth will be targeted for termination by know-it-alls who demand and expect perfection and define perfection as winning every game.

If it’s correct that the combination of money and psychotic fans have ratcheted college football to the point where scandal has become as commonplace as it has, then it follows this trend can be defused.

Hat’s off to the college presidents — and they are out there — who will insist that athletic programs return to sanity. Hat’s off to fans and alumni who will cheer their teams for their efforts, not their season record.

Today’s situation didn’t arise overnight and it won’t be ended overnight. Somebody’s got to break the cycle of “we cheated because they cheated.” The question is, “Who will it be?”

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail