Monday, January 4, 2010
On The Worst Thing to Happen to College Sports in the 00's
Warning: Disjointed Rant Ahead.
It's been almost five years since the NBA officially rendered college basketball into a mercenary exercise. By arbitrarily declaring that no player under the age of 19 could join their ranks, professional basketball managed to confirm what most of us already knew, which is that college sports are an elaborate and expensive charade in which everyone is making a good deal of scratch, with the exception of the players themselves. For me, that one decision essentially defined the sporting ethos of the '00s; everything about college basketball got just a little bit worse after that. Even the NCAA tournament, the greatest single sporting event in the world, began to feel a little more like an AAU showcase, like we're all just rooting for laundry.
Now, don't get me wrong. I still love college sports; I will always love college sports more than professional sports, if only because college sports are what I grew up with, if only because the product on the field/court remains less sterile and regimented, if only because Jets fans are some of the most ridiculous people I've ever seen. But honestly, I don't know where we're headed anymore. I've been thinking about this lately, as the bizarre and ignominious season of the college football coach nears its end; if it seems like more coaches are losing their minds, it's because, on the whole, they probably are. They're losing their minds, in part, because they have been set up to act almost entirely in their own self-interest; they're losing their minds because the culture has now been set up to encourage them to be as authoritarian and self-aggrandizing as possible, to work themselves into a late-night crying fit onto a hotel-room floor, to raise their profile so as to guarantee themselves a future position when their current school tires of them. Brian Kelley leaves Cincinnati for Notre Dame and people decry his disloyalty, but why should most coaches care about loyalty when it is abundantly clear that their bosses don't care at all about them, except as a commodity? Wouldn't this growing institutional distrust between administrators and coaches and players explain why Mike Leach, a weirdly engaging coach who actually seemed to care at least a little about such things as graduation rates, "turned for the worst" just in the past few months? Isn't this at least partly the fault of the colleges who continue to engage in mercenary behavior in order to land their institution a thirty-second jingle at halftime of the Outback Bowl?
I know that at some level this has been true at least since the 1980s,* and more accurately since the late 1800s, but here's where I think that college basketball one-and-done rule kind of sent us all over the edge: More than anything that's happened since freshman athletes were made eligible in the first place, one-and-done allowed everyone in the process, from top to bottom, understand that they are merely cogs in a machine. It elevated the value of coaches who are great recruiters, but are also truly terrible people. It was a naked admission that big-time college sports are now willing to be used as tools for the professional game, and that they are entirely about the moment at hand rather than any sort of gauzy fantasy of shaping one's future. But hey: It was that kind of decade.
Now, of course, we are at a moment in our American existence when populism is all the rage, and these are the moments when football (and organized sports) tend to arise as scapegoats. When Bobby Bowden retired, everyone in America lamented that there would be no more Bowdens or Paternos anymore, and I'm sure there will be calls for coaches to stop being such overbearing, singularly-focused jerks, and this will no doubt lead some second-tier bozo on Fox and Friends to lament the wussification of America, and no one will bother to question the wisdom of a system that encourages nothing beyond one's own self-interest.
*In fact, I write it here, in this book, which--conveniently!--is now available for pre-order.
(Photo: Danielle Levitt/New York Times)