Sports, Saps, and Thugs

I am a sap.

I like college football. I believe football and other team sports create reasonable rivalries and help bind people together who are committed to being members of a campus community. When my band plays my school song I nearly cry. (I’d post the lyrics but you’d need an interpreter). I told you, I am a sap.  Belonging to something larger than oneself is satisfying and has value. That happens in classrooms, on campus malls, playing fields, on the bleachers and in the library.

Ray Rice has become a household name. It wasn’t his 4.37 second 40-yard dash, all the while weaving his 5’8″, 206-pound frame in and out of heavy traffic of 300 pounders; or his academic prowess at Rutgers where he never finished his degree, his role in helping the Scarlet Knights to their second bowl game in 136 years, his 4.3 average rushing yards per carry in his six years with the Baltimore Ravens, or any other stunning statistics. Rather it was a video tape of about 4.37 seconds that memorialized Mr. Rice into a household name. The image captured him in a New Jersey casino elevator assaulting his then girlfriend, now wife: A mighty cold-cocking knock-out punch. Mr. Rice behaved as a thug; there is no other word for it.

Not the kind of man newly crowned Coach Charlie Strong wants on his football team at the University of Texas. This neophyte helmsman of U.T.’s $100 million a year football enterprise is 1-1 this year after last week’s embarrassing drubbing from Brigham Young University. (Now 1-2, lost to UCLA over the weekend.) He has also released eight players off the UT squad. They wouldn’t follow the rules — Strong’s rules — to play a team sport. I will bet that some of these players served themselves, believing they are entitled to do what they want because of what they can do on the gridiron. Disobeying the rules won’t work for Coach Strong. It didn’t work for Mr. Rice either, at least once when a security camera was running.

Team sports can empower people rather than entitle them: But only when participants are correctly coached, led to be part of something that is larger-than-self rather than self-serving. It is early, and as my friend used to say “don’t brag about the dog before the hunt” but Coach Strong seems to be on a path that’s good for college football.  Mr. Rice and his ilk are working to destroy it.

It’s not a few players, and it’s not only football. I may be a sap, but I’m not a sucker. These people are killing a potent part of college life one-thug-at-a-time. Even coaches can be thugs: Ask Penn Staters. Additional programs, the list too long to iterate, have moral/behavioral/legal failures of coaches and players. They survive as Penn State will.

However, the enterprise is wounded for the satisfaction of a few. Eventually the toll may be much higher.

I was fortunate to have seen a few excellent football programs where first-rate coaches and AD’s held the line on personal expectations and teamwork. You can have it both ways, with leadership on and off the field.

According to the Wall Street Journal college football attendance is down nationally. Many big-time football programs have to give away tickets to fill the stands. Amazingly the experts blame the Internet. Too much accessibility they say — too many ways to watch they contend. It may be possible that the Ray Rices of the world and his kind, towards whom winks and nods are directed by athletic directors, boards of regents and trustees, university presidents, and coaches cause faltering fan interest. Possibly this decline in attendance could be attributed to the lost sense of purpose in team sports and saps who sit in the stands and want to see student athletes compete.

Something interesting is transpiring in the Lone Star State. Sportswriter Matt Hayes says “Charlie Strong isn’t putting up with any crap at Texas”.I admire that. He’s leading. He’s a risk-taking, running-off-thugs, type of guy attempting to build a first-rate intercollegiate football program.

Coach Strong was targeted with trash-talk from a former Aggie quarterback — Johnny Football. “Sorry Charlie…you’re not a part of the regime #SawEmOff,” he tweeted, according to Nick Schwartz.  For the uninitiated, this was a jibe from a former A&M student athlete.  It’s kid’s stuff.  Johnny Manziel might not be a thug, but there were some questionable events regarding endorsements, football camps, and personal behavior that were winked and nodded away.   A recent bird-flipping incident cost Mr. Football 12 grand, a tad more than a wink and a nod and nothing like Mr. Rice’s crime to be sure, but not dignified, not team-like, not sportsman-like, not Aggie-like (I hope) and not welcome to most.

The Aggies were always known as the institution where teamwork came first, winning and impressing the crowds would follow. This does not diminish Coach Kevin Sumlin of A&M: He is doing a great job. Rather, it’s an observation regarding a culture that should be guarded everywhere.  The intrusions of Beer and Circusare powerful. The University of Texas types were seen by Aggies as privileged, pampered, and self-indulgent, less oriented to the success of the team or institution, more self-indulgent.  Maybe, maybe not.

Coach Strong may have showed up to make the University of Texas more like Texas A&M University. If it’s old school A&M I wish him every success.

Remember I’m a sap.