Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

University of Miami’s football program lives a charmed life

The recent controversies over the University of Miami’s football program just go to show that, when it comes to sports, there are many in high authority who have a gigantic blind spot.

Revelations from an incarcerated Ponzi scammer that he pretty much had his way with the football program and the college show that, like many colleges today, UM is a football program with a college attached to it.

That’s nothing new. I recently read a book about the University of Washington’s football program in which the final paragraph refers to a scene in a 1927 silent film called “The Freshman.” The film stars Harold Lloyd as a young man who takes to the gridiron to impress a girl at Tate University, described derisively as a giant football stadium with a small college attached to it.

Nothing changes.

Probably the biggest joke out there, aside from Donna Shalala’s vapid nonsense about the whole issue (I mean, she’s in photos taking big cardboard checks from the scammer, so she must have known about it), is the NCAA. Whenever there is talk about a program that’s made a mockery of the rules, someone says it’s time for the NCAA to wheel out the “death penalty.” Killing a football program – even temporarily — is a big step, and would probably benefit the universities that lost their programs, but the NCAA’s leadership lacks the balls to do it.

After all, the Southern Methodist University “death penalty” was about a quarter-century ago, and the NCAA knows that even “dirty” sports programs can offer great benefits. Universities wallow in the illusion that the actions they take will clean up their reputations, even though everyone knows it’s bogus.

Let’s face it, the main priority of any university football program is to win, and win by any means, fair or foul. Only a few colleges actually take seriously the notion of football (and basketball) players as students as well as athletes; the rest just pay lip service to the concept and really don’t care if the players take classes beyond basket weaving or something.

That book about UW that I mentioned earlier pointed out that it was not even considered odd by many that the entire football team took and passed Swahili with high grades, yet none of them could say more than a few basic sentences in the language. It was obvious that the professor was passing the players without imparting any knowledge, but the administration didn’t care.

An integral part of the university when it comes to sports is suppressing and silencing the whistleblowers, and keeping those who’d foolishly think they ought to report violations from doing so through threats to livelihood and even physical threats. There’s a lot at stake when a university fields a football team, and when players are mostly majoring in eligibility one person can be a real problem if he or she goes to the news media with absurd complaints about “gimme” courses and free grades despite nonattendance at classes.

There’s a saying among the college presidents that “real colleges do football,” but that’s arrant nonsense, as many colleges either never had the sport or dumped it because of the cost of fielding a team, in financial resources and in credibility and reputation. Having an English major go on a rampage isn’t going to hurt a college the way having an athlete go on a rampage would.

For decades, the NCAA has vowed to make college sports departments obey the rules, and for decades, college sports departments have found ways around the rules. Eligibility is a joke today, and everyone knows it. A few “student-athletes” actually try to get an education and enjoy the benefits of higher education, but when the NFL and NBA – with their gigantic contracts – beckon, it can be hard for even the most determined student to knuckle down with the books between practices and games.

There’s an old saying about a famous football coach who declared to a group of parents that “football is war.” Then a man who was missing an arm, having lost it in World War II, informed the coach that football was not war.

I have always believed that being defeated on the playing field can impart more lessons than winning, but I have watched as even high schools engage in countless offenses to score more points. I understand that if you are a winning coach, a player on a winning team or even a student at a college that has won a game, you feel good about being associated with winning and everyone wants to talk to you and pray with you and hear about your guide for living, but defeat isn’t the end of the world.

At the end of all this, Miami’s program will continue until the next atrocity. There will be a patina of reform, but it’s the same game and the same temptations are there. You can’t stop it, and neither can I or anyone else. It is an empire unto itself, with no accountability and no restraints. The sooner we all accept that, the better.

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August 19, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , ,

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