Friday, September 16, 2011

The End of the Innocence


Before Michigan took advantage of yet another Mama Cass job by Notre Dame last Saturday night, 114,804 partisans (save a couple thousand poor bastards from South Bend) roared as the school honored 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard. U-M declared him a “Michigan Legend” and decreed that the number 21 jersey would forever feature a patch signifying Howard’s new designation. It was a touching moment, and Howard’s tears appeared real as he reflected upon his time in Ann Arbor. For a few moments, Wolverine fans were transported back to a time before luxury suites, gigantic video boards, ear-splitting music pumping through stadium speakers and Tressel’s Tattoo and Pawn T-shirts.

Now, El Hombre is not so na├»ve to think that college football 20 years ago was a clean sport, filled with players who majored in Metallurgy Studies and for whom the laboratory was as important as the gridiron. Nor is he such a rube to believe the unsavory people circling programs back then were merely colorful, Runyon-esque characters who were largely harmless and didn’t sully the game’s credibility. (Hello, Uncle Luke.) One need only read John Sayle Watterson’s exhaustive history of the game, “College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy” to understand that there has not been one moment since the game’s inception in 1869 (or, for you Harvard fans, 1874) that was without stain.

But as Michigan attempted to reach back into its vivid history by honoring Howard before its first-ever night game, there was a palpable sense that the magic and wonder of the sport’s first 135 or so years was forever leaving us – even if much of that charm was perpetuated by a myth-making media that refused to tell us that George Gipp never went to class. A cynic might note that the tribute to Howard came primarily because he is part of espn’s self-aggrandizing pre-game synergy-fest, and that caravan just happened to roll into town for a day of broadcasts. As the school staged a sporting spectacle that was admittedly dazzling, it was hard not to see it merely as a slick expansion of the Michigan brand.

The events of the past several months – and certainly of those to come – have forever torn away any illusion that this is a full-fledged business enterprise, no different than what goes on at General Motors, without the bailout, of course. In fact, it’s even money NCAA schools will outsource their operations to India within the next 25 years, provided that exchange student from Bangalore can run a 4.25 40.

This is not a new refrain; the marvel of college sports has been dissipating rapidly over several years. But with each new conference realignment rumor, each new report of a scandal and each criminal attempt by the NC2A to consolidate its power at the expense of powerless athletes bring us ever closer to a complete surrender of any of the ideals on which the concept of college sports was built.

El Hombre isn’t just talking about Miami and the revelations that the owner of a sports agent concern was playing Bacchus to Hurricane players. It’s not just about Texas A&M, which in an effort to escape the shadow of its big brother is in effect signaling the end of the Big 12 and the history (Big 8, SWC) that came before it. It’s not just about how disingenuous TV networks are promising billions to leagues for broadcast rights and turning college football and basketball into programming that has the same feel as a Wednesday night sitcom.

It’s all of the above. And more.

There’s an article in the recent Atlantic Monthly that examines what it calls the “shame” of college athletics. It’s absolutely recommended reading, even if the sucker runs about 7,000 words and requires some serious endurance to complete. In it, Taylor Branch reveals the decades-long effort by the NC2A to build strength at the expense of the young men and women it’s supposed to represent. For instance, the term “student-athlete” was not coined to describe the hard-working men and women chasing the Homeric ideal of a sound mind and sound body. Instead, it was created to differentiate said folks from university employees, the better to prevent them from suing for workman’s comp benefits in the event of an injury. How’s that for a diabolical plan?

Branch carefully lays out the NC2A’s successful attempts to exploit the images and likenesses of its athletes for gigantic profit. He details the attempts by crippled former players to get compensation for their suffering and how the NC2A continues to avoid any significant payout. And finally, he describes the coming days, when the larger, more successful schools will break away from the organization to govern themselves and reap even more significant financial windfalls.

That last part is what should truly trouble college athletics fans. Within even a year, we may see a completely different big-time landscape, one that cares little for historical rivalries and tradition. Everything will revolve entirely around money, and once that becomes the aim, nothing else is the same. Again, not too much of this is new, but it appears we’re heading for the final reckoning, and that’s too bad.

Last Saturday night in Ann Arbor was a fine convergence of old and new. The band classics meshed well with “Welcome to the Jungle,” and pumped-up Michigan Stadium, with its big screens and luxury seating, looked great under the lights. But as the mingling took place, it was clear what was on the horizon, just as the events of the past several months have given us clues of the world that awaits. Those of us who remember the days when college sports had an element of romance – even “hundred-dollar handshakes” seemed quaint when compared to Nevin Shapiro’s Love Boat junkets – can be sustained by the memories. The next generation, however, will have none of that at its disposal, only a manufactured excitement created and funded by TV networks that creates the illusion of pageantry.

Oh, and the athletes will still be getting screwed over. At least that much won’t change.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: So, we’re supposed to consider the recent efforts by player agents to decertify the NBA Players Association as a positive step toward ending the labor strife that threatens to scrub the 2011-12 season? What’s next, letting players’ posse members sit in on the negotiations? NBA commissioner Uncle David Stern is ready to go to the mattresses on this one, even if that deprives us of Timberwolves games. Inviting the agents in can’t do anything but weaken the players’ position…All those years Sarah Palin was yelling “Go Blue!” in Alaska, we thought she was talking about the cold weather. Turns out she was a Michigan fan all along and that given her choice of side dishes, she’ll always choose Rice over potatoes…How about the way those Colts rallied together after learning Peyton Manning wouldn’t be playing much, if at all, this season? The last time a team showed that much fortitude, the Mets were gagging away the 2007 NL East pennant. Or was that the 2008 crown?...Nice “apology” by Serena Williams after her most recent petulant on-court outburst. Nicer “fine” by the USTA. Wow, a whole $2,000. Next time, she won’t be allowed to watch TV for a week.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Eagles are just 17 wins away from deserving the ludicrous “Dream Team” moniker awarded them by backup QB Vince Young, he of the career 42 touchdown passes and 42 interceptions. Last Sunday’s season-opening win over the Rams was impressive because of the Birds’ big-play potential, but the continued inability of the team’s $100 million quarterback to recognize blitzes and run the offense with precision is disheartening. Vick is indeed a marvel in broken-field situations, but he demonstrates limited skill in sniffing out complicated defensive schemes and getting rid of the ball quickly. He was hit 21 times last week, and even right tackle Todd Herremans said Vick needed to get better at understanding when blitzes were coming. The most damning evidence of Vick’s limitations came when he said earlier this week that the final part of his QB development was learning how to identify that part of the defensive approach. Final part? That’s something he should have been working on all along, and the admission that he can’t handle it demonstrates why Eagles fans should be wary about Vick’s ability to lead them to the Super Bowl. He still sees himself as a QB who “wants to make plays,” which is code for not wanting to fit into a specific scheme. The Eagles preyed on the Rams last week, but until Vick can catch up on a part of his job that he should have tried to master since college, they’re not real Super Bowl contenders.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: For some college seniors, the acceptance letter they receive from a college of choice is a starter’s pistol signaling the beginning of a slump. They figure that since they have achieved the ultimate goal of high school – college admission – they can coast home. After taking six of seven from the Braves and Brewers last week, the Phillies appear to have adopted a similar attitude. In the process, they have highlighted some of the possible obstacles to a world title. First off, their offense has gone to sleep. The Phils have scored 11 runs in their last six games. Granted, their lineups have looked at times like the belong playing in the Governor’s Cup series for the Iron Pigs, but the slump shows just how this team can struggle for prolonged periods – like, say, last year’s NLCS against San Francisco. Meanwhile, the bullpen, already short thanks to the presence of unreliables like David Herndon, Michael Schwimmer and Brad Lidge, has gone from a strength to a question mark. After walking a total of six batters in July and August combined, Antonio Bastardo has issued five free passes in six appearances in September, and has gotten a total of four men out in his past four appearances. He needs rest, and two weeks may not be enough. The Phils are cruising toward 105 wins or so, but that means nothing if the bats and bullpen don’t deliver in October.


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