Years ago, as a kid growing up in rural Arkansas, I didn’t just like college sports, I lived them. The days before big games went excruciatingly slowly, and game days had a special air – as if electricity was literally in the air. Back then, we had no cable in the remote area where I lived. This was long before the internet and streaming games or highlights on your mobile device, so some of the greatest sports events I remember came with a static screen and faint play-by-play commentary, but it did not matter. I was in heaven as long as I had my Razorbacks. No matter what, I was glued to the TV for pre-game, each play and the post-game (especially if we won). If we lost, I needed a full day just to recover.
As the years went by, my myopic sports dedication became weakened as I began to understand more of the evils of collegiate athletics. Innocence was replaced with my awareness of economics, social injustice, and commercialization.
Now in 2017, my heart has just had enough. I will still watch a few plays here and there and catch up on scores, but it will never be the same.
I cannot watch because of the hypocrisy. The ongoing wide-ranging FBI investigation into basketball recruiting practices directly challenges the status quo. When you have college coaches in basketball and football making millions, athletic departments awash in money, multi-billion dollar media contracts, shoe and apparel deals and even cash-making cable networks, you can lay to rest the myth that players are amateurs and students first. When Josh Rosen, UCLA’s starting quarterback, complained about the requirements placed on college athletes, he was admonished by his million-dollar coach and sports commentators, all making much more money than him. Famous sports personalities expressed hurt and surprise by the FBI findings as if a billion-dollar industry could feasibly not pay its most important commodity (ballplayers) and expect dark money to stay away – just like in some mystical fantasyland. Big-time college football has its sins, too, including countless play-for-sex recruiting scandals. At the center of it all is an industry (not an extracurricular activity) built on the backs of “student”-athletes who are expected to play it straight while others make millions.
I cannot watch because of the harmful effects, particularly in football. For years, we focused on the stars in football who make a decision to play in hopes of an NFL contract. Those not able to get into the league may have to deal with a bad knee or shoulder but could still make a living. The discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has changed this. Recently, a study showed all but one of 111 former NFL players analyzed posthumously had the disease. The conventional wisdom is that CTE only affects older NFL vets, but Aaron Hernandez only played 44 games in the NFL. He played his last NFL game at the age of 23, so the effects of CTE could arguably have started when he played his football in college. As society learns more about the disease, watching boys – some not old enough to legally buy alcohol – participate in this sport takes on a different meaning. This sport, which takes time away from athletes getting their only compensation – an education – in order for them to possibly kill themselves in ways we do not understand does not bode well. I guess the innocence of my younger viewing days is gone.
Most importantly, I cannot watch because of what it does to our collective values. When a woman accuses a man of sexual assault, in most situations, she can expect to receive due process. There are too many examples of the power and fanaticism in collegiate sports stopping this from happening Jameis Winston won a Heisman Trophy, yet his accuser found no solace from authorities when she was allegedly violated. Want more? At Missouri, a student committed suicide after her allegations fell on deaf ears. The University of Tennessee did next to nothing to investigate allegations that involved the great Peyton Manning (for whom a street is named in Knoxville).
Baylor University officials actively covered up its sexual-assault scandals. Now, every accusation of rape does not equal guilt, but each one does merit an investigation. If you want evidence of how ugly this can get, look no further than the case of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State. The tale of a powerful defensive coordinator working under a god-like college football coach (Joe Paterno) ended up with boys being abused in athletic department showers, while so many people knew and did nothing. The attitudes that led to such ugliness in Happy Valley still exist throughout college football – we must win at all costs!
Please do not let my change of heart affect your game-viewing pleasure. Enjoy the tailgates, enjoy the traditions, enjoy the bands and enjoy the games. It is that attitude that will stop all the changes we so desperately need with this system.