Jeff Pearlman

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The college sports fan

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 11.23.11 AMThis is my blog, and I have an agenda.

Namely, I loathe the mindset of many college sports fans.

Loathe is probably too soft of a word, but I’m in a (strange) non-cursing mood today.

Here I go …

I get being 20-years old and living and dying with your college’s football team. You attend UCLA, some of the Bruins players are in your class, or live down the hall. You study hard all week, so Saturday’s game vs. Oregon or USC is a HUGE moment for you.

I get it, I get it, I get it. Hell, I lived it. Back when I was a student at the University of Delaware, basketball games were pure joy. The highs and the lows and the roller coaster of emotions. Just loved it; lived for it.

Now, however, I am 41, and my happiness does not depend on a Blue Hen win or loss. This isn’t because I don’t love my school (I do) or because I’m a journalist, and therefore can’t root for my alma mater (it’s not like I’m covering Delaware sports on any sort of regular basis).

No, the reason I don’t need Blue Hen success to make my weekend is because I acknowledge the realities at hand …

Reality No. 1: Blue Hen athletes are half my age. They’re kids, hopefully attending school first and foremost for an education. I loved watching Elena Delle Donne and the women Hens dominate the conference the past two seasons. I also know that, in world importance, their success ranks 1,343,432,213,546th—right behind my dog drinking out of her water dish. It’s just sports. Enjoyment. Fun. Happiness. But, ultimately, sports.

Reality No. 2: College sports programs on the Division I level aren’t organic, and they’re not mom-and-pop operations. Yeah, you may well knit a sweater for the lovely cornerback. And, yeah, it was surely thrilling when the quarterback posed for a photo with your kid. But this is, ultimately, a million-dollar business for the university. The players are replaceable and, mostly, of minimal importance. They’re place fillers until the next recruiting class comes along. They’re models for uniforms, images to place atop media guides and campus literature. It’s a corporation—a big, fat, oft-vicious, oft-heartless corporation. There’s a reason you pay tons of money for tickets, for gear, for a Coke at the concession stand. They love having you as a fan—but rarely do they love you.

Reality No. 3: Your school is likely full of crap. I know this hurts, and I know you think it’s untrue. But, well, it’s true. Your coaches go into inner-city apartments and promise an education that’s rarely delivered; they promise NFL possibilities that often never come; they promise being part of a family … until that family decides you’re not meeting your potential, and takes away your scholarship after a year. Your school has gross boosters who drip of grease and slime. Your school is (often) paying players under the table. Your school is selling thousands of No. 7 jerseys in the campus bookstore (and online), while No. 7 is a kid from a single-parent home whose mom busts her ass to bring home $16,000 annually from working the overnight shift at the local diner.

Again, I get loyalty. Especially regional loyalty. I also get loving a school so much that all you want—all you need—is for the team to win and win and win and win.

Just don’t fool yourself.

It ain’t what you think.

  • Beverly

    As a former college athlete and fan of my school I just have to disagree slightly. Yes, it is big business. Who cares? That doesn’t taint it at all for me. I like that people are willing to plop down cash to watch these young athletes compete. As athletes, that is one of the reasons we play. We love being cheered on. It’s just not as fun with an empty arena or field. If they want to plop down more money and buy a shirt, all the better. I wish the athletes were paid beyond their scholarships and I think that’s coming. But, really, is it a big deal that money is being made? Also, my school’s graduation rate is over 90%, so Stanford is delivering on the graduation thing. Lastly, you’re really only talking about two sports here – football and basketball – and only on the men’s side. How many other sports are there at Delaware and most universities for both genders. Surely the majority of these athletes are graduating, are not getting paid under the table and mostly middle to upper class. So, it’s really not a tragedy. Plus, our boosters are geeky, but not slimy. Just saying.

    • Tom Rogers

      Hi Beverly,

      You raise good points about Football and Basketball, and note the University of Delaware has other sports. That is true. But consider this. In 2008, the University of Delaware hired a new Athletic Director, Bernard Muir. In his 4 years as AD, the number of Athletes in Uniform decreased from 721 to 680, the number of fans attending sporting events declined, while spending increased. The University PROFITS, however, increased over those 4 years. All of those stats are per the University’s reporting to the NCAA. After 4 years, he was hired away to vbe AD at your very own Stanford.

      So lets review that 4 year record again:

      - Number of Student-Atheletes: Down
      - Fan Attendance: Down
      - Profits: Up

      Which stat do you think attracted Stanford?

  • GilaPete

    Jeff, I may be reading you incorrectly. Are you saying that it’s a bad thing that the inner city kid from a single mother household gets a shot at a full ride college education?

    • Jeff Pearlman

      I’m saying the universities use these kids, really don’t offer them the academic support they need, then spit them out after four years—usually without a degree. So, yes, I’m calling bullshit.

  • Bobby

    This is a two-way street. A lot of the athletes that are “spit out” after four years are using the university too, their goal is to get to the NFL/NBA/MLB or whatever, not to get a degree. At what point is there some personal accountability on the part of the player to get their degree? There are a lot of students who have to work their way through school and are just as busy if not more so than an athlete, but the school doesn’t hold their hand and guarantee that they get a degree. If you can’t make yourself go to class, or go get help from tutors or professors, then you have no business complaining when you end up without a degree at the end of 4 years.

  • Jeffrey Muldoon

    Jeff:

    I somewhat agree with what you wrote. Yes, players are at the whim of coaches who can cut them, leave them to go to another school, or belittle them at a whim, turning the players into pawns. Yet, at the same time, I believe some programs are also better than others, have more ethics, will recruit players they believe have a chance to graduate, and graduate them with legitimate degrees. I think of Notre Dame, which lost its starting quarterback due to issues regarding an accounting class. Also, Stanford, Boston College, Duke and some other schools. I doubt Johnny Football would take an accounting class–in fact, I believe all his courses were online in the spring.

    Yet the media rarely reports the abuses of some of the coaches. I know of one very prominent college coach (I know people who worked with him) who runs off poor performing players every year. In fact, he has a little speech for it. Yet this is never reported or very rarely. When Notre Dame is mentioned–its for its failures on the field–not for its academic success. Do you think the media does enough to record the abuses in college sports–especially ESPN? I feel college sports is whitewashed in many ways–although there are always exceptions.

    Two, do players really pay attention to academics/treatment? Or like Faust (the character not the coach), they were willing to sell their soul to the devil for glory? I am not sure either the media or the players are blameless.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life