The NCAA and its universities continue failing to realize, there are problems beyond football.
All problems aren’t football problems. There are crises of the human condition that are far beyond the reach of Xs and Os, ticket revenues, scholarship sanctions, vacated wins, and suspension from a sport. To think anything else would be to wallow in a self-indulgence and egotism so immense, you’d be drowning in it.
Let me introduce you to the NCAA. And please, allow me to introduce you to Division-I football programs across the country.
Over and over, the pattern repeats itself. Something happens that should transcend the sport of football, that should never be considering anything more or less than a human concern, and right on cue, the NCAA or its biggest schools move in and impose their will. They decide that the ultimate punishment is to puncture the football. They don’t see people, victims, and perpetrators. They see coaches, players, and the damaged goods of their billion-dollar enterprise.
Never has this persistent football egotism been more ever-present than in the wake of the Penn State Scandal.
First, the idea that football mattered more than the human element led to the now infamous cover-up –a protection of legacy and revenues that let victims suffer in silence and let a sexual predator walk freely on the grounds of the university. That travesty is well-documented.
That travesty, once revealed, should have never again been made into a case about football. The actions of Jerry Sandusky, in the scale of humanity, had as much to do with football as this column has to do with butterflies. Yes, the cover up was an institutional failure, largely motivated by reasons related to football. But this scandal never touched the field. Penn State never won a game because Sandusky victimized young boys. The players of Penn State never gained a competitive advantage because their administrative superiors were abandoning morals for expedience. The young men that wore the navy blue and white didn’t even know it was happening.
In the wake of victims coming forward, Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 of the 48 counts brought against him. The guilty verdict solidified his legacy as that of a child molester and assaulter, and he’ll almost undoubtedly spend the rest of his life in prison. Joe Paterno not only lost his job as the scandal began to come forward, he lost his life. Penn State President Graham Spanier was ousted, and two other administrators lost their jobs.
Those ends should have been the story –those consequences should have been the beginnings of justice. This wasn’t about football. It was about men who failed to protect boys –men who failed to be leaders of other young men. They were gone. A new regime was arriving at Penn State. The university was moving on.
Then, of course, the NCAA made the Penn State Scandal a football scandal. When the above consequences of crimes against humanity should have dominated the headlines, the headlines were stolen by extremely harsh sanctions waged against the Nittany Lions’ football team. Millions of dollars in fines. Vacated wins. No bowls. The inevitable departure of players that had once belonged to a school, a fan base, and a jersey on their back.
In their chief moment of egotism, the NCAA made it about football. In an ironic twist, the NCAA proved that the culture that created Penn State’s heinous mistakes was a larger one –a culture of football means everything that existed at the very top.
When it should have been about the victims and finding justice for the men now severed from Penn State, the NCAA made scapegoats and examples out of student-athletes, fans, and lower-level personnel that had been kept in the shadows. And now, they were being kicked in the dust.
What did the move accomplish? It drew our focus away from the problem. It made us think that an institution had truly paid for abominable actions that took place on its campus. It made us applaud the NCAA for lowering the hammer on a storied school and saying, “This was wrong.”
I’m sorry NCAA, but you’re the one that is wrong. Yes, the crimes of Sandusky happened in a football facility. Yes, the cover-up was largely fueled by the desire to protect the legacy of a school and a coach that had built up the place as a moral high ground in a tainted college sports landscape. And yes, something had to be done.
But not this. This punishment, in all its severity, actually mirrors the philosophies that it sought to punish. This punishment assumes that justice resides in crippling the football program of a school, while simultaneously ignoring the human impact of its consequences.
Do you think the victims of Jerry Sandusky care if Penn State wins or loses on Saturdays? Do you think the victims of Jerry Sandusky care if student-athletes’ lives suddenly change as they try to decide if they should leave the school they love or play football for a team now crippled by sanctions? Do you think the victims wanted their courageous testimonies to be overshadowed by your pompous press conferences and overstepping of bounds?
The answer to these questions is no. Because this wasn’t about football. It never was.
On a much less serious scale, this problem continued to persist in Louisiana this past week. After continuing to violate LSU substance-abuse policies, star-defender and Heisman candidate Tyrann Mathieu was suspended from the football team.
I understand the principles involved. He broke the rules. Any student must suffer consequences when they break rules of the university, and it seems only fair that football players shouldn’t be exempt, no matter their level of talent or superstardom.
But shouldn’t an institution of higher learning and education have its focus in bettering the lives of their students –in doing what will help their students succeed and grow as people? If so, tell me this: How is this suspension helping Tyrann Mathieu?
Because, here are the truths that very much are about football: According to school reports, LSU earns nearly 15% of its total revenue from its football program. A large part of that is success. Last season, Mathieu surfaced as an elite defender, playmaker, and returner, becoming a huge facet of a team that made a run at the National Championship. That’s big money for the university. By association, they’ve made some serious dollars off of the success of Tyrann Mathieu.
And yet, they don’t seem to be returning the favor. Reports have surfaced today that Mathieu has checked into a rehab facility in Houston, seeking help for his drug problem, and for now, putting both academics and football on the backburner. But my question is this: With all he’s given to this program, why did this step toward a better life (hopefully) have to happen after LSU cut its ties? Why weren’t they doing all they could to see this happened while he was on the team?
Why? Because all they cared about, then, was football. Mathieu was performing. They were winning. It seemed like enough that they got him some counseling at the school.
It’s funny how an offseason and a huge depth of talent can change a team’s philosophy. It’s one thing for Mathieu to be suspended. Perhaps it’s even extremely fair. There are rules in place, and if those rules are violated (whether the consequences are truly in the best interest of the student or not), the due process should be followed. But this is what concerns me: After Mathieu professed interest in continuing his academics and LSU and trying to return the following season (rather than transfer), reports emerged that Coach Les Miles was encouraging Mathieu to transfer instead.
The ties were already cut. Mathieu no longer belonged to this football program. The person, be damned.
Like the NCAA, LSU’s policy seems to suffer from the same notion that to take away football is to solve human concerns. In both cases, the lessons actually learned may be very backwards and detrimental to the human beings involved.
In the case of Penn State, the sanctions might not only encourage the continuing philosophy that football is everything, but it might make other officials cover-up crimes on their campus. After all, Penn State, in the scandal’s aftermath, severed ties with the officials involved, commissioned a report that allowed more truths and details to surface, hired a new coach, tried to move on, and bam, got hit with the harshest sanctions levied since SMU.
In the case of Tyrann Mathieu, the punishment doesn’t deter his drug problem. If everything we like to believe about sports is true, it might actually make his problem harder to overcome. We’d like to believe that sports can be motivation to not do such things. But now, that’s taken away. Mathieu now faces more free time, a more cloudy future (as his NFL stock and football future falls by the second), and the current pause on his education. Are those the ingredients for an easier rehabilitation? Forgive me if I have my doubts.
LSU followed its policies. I get that. But maybe the policy is flawed. Maybe a policy should be more aimed at finding solutions for a player that helps contribute to your most steady stream of revenue rather than simply thinking that by taking football away, you’re setting an example that will help present and future players.
Because it won’t. Mathieu’s issues, on a smaller scale than Penn State, but still important, go beyond the sport of football. But that doesn’t mean that the solution has to include his dismissal from the sport he loves and a disenfranchisement from a team he likely considered family. Substance abuse isn’t a football problem…it’s a person problem. The solution should be a person-solution.
These stories aren’t so related. It’s literally the difference between felonies and misdemeanors –between heinous crimes and cover-ups and the actions of a lost kid.
But the punishments, and the troubling philosophy that breathes beneath, are very much related. I’ll never begrudge people for loving sports, or for believing that sports can transcend the field of play and touch lives. I’m one of those people. But some problems don’t belong between the lines. Some problems are too big to be solved by taking the kid’s ball and making him go home.
SMU’s pay-for-play scandal was a football problem. Recent incidents at West Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio State –those were football problems.
Some problems aren’t football problems. And until the bigwigs that run the NCAA and the big universities can realize that, and separate sports, revenues, and football prowess from suffering human beings and real human concerns…they need to stop trying to solve them.