Appropriate Punishment?

The saga of the scandal at Ohio State University involving the head football coach seems to have reached its predictable climax. You may recall that Urban Meyer, the head football coach, was suspended on August 1st when it was disclosed that he had failed to reprimand one of his favorite assistants who had been accused of domestic abuse years before and was eventually fired — but only after the matter had become public knowledge. The coach’s job, apparently, was to deal with the inappropriate behavior of one of his coaches in a timely manner and he failed to do so. The assistant coach in question — Zach Smith, one of Meyer’s favorites by all reports — had been guilty of domestic abuse and his wife had appealed to Meyer and his wife to intervene and protect her against her own husband. Meyer’s response was to do nothing except lie to the media about his knowledge of the affair and erase all of his text messages for the past year from his mobile phone.

The debate on television has been going on for several weeks now about the possible outcome of the discussions going on by a special committee set up to look into the allegations and to make recommendations about how to deal with the problem moving ahead. Speculation was that Meyer would be fired as he was ultimately responsible for the actions of his assistants, especially in the climate of college athletics where various forms of abuse seem to be a matter of course. But the decision, finally handed down, was a three game suspension without pay. The football program will not suffer and Buckeye fans breathed a sigh of relief. I heard it all the way out here in Minnesota where Ohio State has very few supporters.

The issue is one I have blogged about (endlessly some might say) involving corruption in collegiate athletics, especially at the Division I level. There have been cases of child abuse, cheating on a grand scale, rape, and now domestic abuse. All of these seem to flare up and then quietly disappear, swept under the rug for the most part, and things go back to semi-professional sports as usual. At the Division I level of the NCAA where college athletics rules, education takes a back seat. (I wanted to say it sucks hind teat, though that seems a bit vulgar. But appropriate, somehow.)

In the end we must conclude that these scandals are merely grist for the mill as far as the news media are concerned, something for the talking heads to discuss with worried expressions while committees are formed and high-paid officials meet to discuss what punishment might be appropriate. With rare exceptions, the punishment seems little more than a slap on the wrist. One wag, in commenting on Meyer’s punishment expressed his surprise that Meyer wasn’t merely suspended for half of the Spring practice game! Indeed, others have said that they knew Meyer would be slapped on the wrist and that the Ohio State University would not jeopardize its football program in this case. Such is our cynicism in these days of semi-professional sports in the palaces and country clubs that now comprise the athletics facilities in the larger universities. Let’s not rock the boat; its bringing in the dough!

Football and basketball at the Division I level do indeed bring millions of dollars into the coffers of the universities that make winning a habit. And that’s the bottom line: it’s all about profits. So while education as a whole has become a business it should not surprise us that sports at the most prestigious universities around the country would regard the preservation athletic teams as a top priority. After all, money is what it’s really all about.

The moral questions are hidden behind the rhetoric that nearly always comes out of the committee meetings where “punishment” is determined. The fact that a man who heads up a massive football program in a major university in effect supported his assistant in his determined effort to abuse his wife, and later lied about it, is ignored because the central question is how to make the whole thing go away. We have become, as a nation, unwilling or unable to face up to the hard moral issues that confront us daily because we think morality is a matter of choice, simply, a gossamer fiction of mere opinion not to be taken seriously. The possibility that those moral issues we choose to treat so lightly — or ignore completely — are the warp and woof of a civilized nation has somehow been lost in the shuffle.

In the meantime, millionaire Urban Meyer will enjoy his unpaid holiday for a few weeks and then get back to work — if, indeed he isn’t working the entire time behind the scenes. And Ohio State University will return to normal, concentrating its massive efforts on guaranteeing that its football team makes the collegiate playoffs at the end of the year because there is a great deal at stake. A great deal of money.

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Play For Pay

Nick Weiler is a kicker for the football team at the University of North Carolina. A week ago, with 4 seconds to go against Florida State, he kicked a 54 yard field goal to win the game and was therefore raised in the eyes of the Tar Heel faithful to the level of hero. Throughout his four years at North Carolina he has been an extraordinarily talented kicker and will assuredly be drafted into the NFL after graduation — if he graduates. Graduation doesn’t seem be a high priority for those who play football in Division I of the NCAA.

In any event, after the game-winning kick ESPN decided to send one of their reporters to visit with Nick for a day and do a “piece” showing their viewers what it is like to be the Big Man on Campus. As it happens, Nick doesn’t spend much time on campus, preferring to keep a low profile in his off-campus digs and just “hanging” with this friends — when not on the practice field. As far as I could tell from the brief piece very little of his time, if any, is spent in class or the library. In fact, if this young man’s experience is typical of athletes in Division I football, going to class is not much of a priority. It’s all about the game and about emerging as a star in order to have a chance to play in the NFL.

The sense that the sport is of primary concern at the Division I level was driven home to me personally not many years ago when a transfer from the University of Minnesota played tennis for my team for one year. She told me that as a Freshman she was told at that Division I school to take her classes before noon. After noon she “belonged to the tennis team.” This is women’s tennis, folks!! In contrast, we practiced two hours each afternoon and played most of our matches on weekends in order not to miss classes.

But, back to football. There are other stories like Nick’s. I had a good friend years ago who attended the University of Illinois back in the day of Dick Butkus who, it was said, hung out in the student union until, in his words, it was time to “go to work.” He was there to play football and he did that very well — well enough to become a Hall of Fame NFL player. And he also made movies to entertain us all!

These are anecdotes, of course, and don’t allow us to draw reliable generalizations. But, none the less, they give us a glimpse into the life of the semi-professional football players in Division I football — who are, reportedly, also given to violence off the field, especially toward young women. But, again, we must be careful about generalizations. I am sure there are a great many young men out there who actually respect women, go to class, and end up with a degree in hand at the end of four years. A few at any rate. Division I football programs are not famous for their high graduation rates.

In fact, I recommended years ago in an article I wrote for the Montana Professor (http://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html) that the athletes in Division I football — and basketball — be paid to play and not required to attend classes at all. Folks don’t care about these young men and what they might or not do after college — unless they go on to play for the NFL or the NBA which is apparently their dream. If they were paid a salary to play football or basketball then they could, if they wanted to do so, pay for some classes and actually earn a college degree just like their fellow students. And they would graduate without the huge debts incurred by their classmates!

In any event, let’s stop calling them scholar-athletes and going through the rigamarole of making them attend classes just for show. So many are in college for just one thing: to make it into the pros. So let’s be honest and admit that these are semi-professional athletes in what are, in effect, the minor leagues of their sports simply working to achieve a level of proficiency that will make them attractive to the professional teams.

In a word, what we do at present, in addition to exploiting these young men, is a sham and dishonest to boot. Let’s pay these men — even let them join unions — to play the games they love and wear the uniforms of their respective colleges and universities. But don’t make them go to class at all, even to take underwater basket-weaving and other non-challenging courses designed to make their lives as easy as possible while they maintain their NCAA eligibility to play games. If they really want a college education, they can pay for it like everyone else. If not, they can simply “go to work” each day and hope to land a huge salary playing at the professional level after a few years at the Division I level. At the very least, it’s more honest than what we do at present.