Wasted Youths 

What's the matter with Bubba?

When we were freshmen together in college, my friennd Gorum, now a respectable newspaper editor, was once banished from the dorm for stuffing the shower drains with paper towels and flooding an entire wing with hot water while everyone slept.

My friend Baker, now a respectable dentist, once narrowly escaped a similar fate after he fired a sailing flare into a dorm room and sent its dazed occupants staggering out amid a strange red glow of carpet fire. Another time, he set off an M-80 under the bowling machine at a local nightspot. A number of us were almost arrested as half-witting accomplices.

My friend Jackson, now a respectable sales manager, on separate occasions and in various states of inebriation, once broke off a pipe on a prized organ and attempted to play it like a flute, demolished an entire row of cars in a parking lot, shot out street lights with his rifle, and sabotaged the semester project of a genetics class by sneaking no-pest strips into containers that served as home to thousands of fruit flies.

All of these seemingly inexplicable offenses suggest one explanation for some unsavory behavior that now seems so fashionable among college football players. We might call it the “Jackson Factor,” or the “Driving Under the Influence of Testosterone Syndrome.” This theory, the validity of which is mathematically supported by insurance actuaries, suggests that 18-year-old boys, when raised properly and given every incentive to act prudently, will, when given the chance, flock like bugs to a light in pursuit of the most pretzel-brained behavior possible.

For some reason, we’re seeing quite a bit of it these days. Right now, the college football world’s collective shorts are in a constricted wad over the well-publicized sordid doings of players.

Last week, after a team captain became the eighth Vol in the past year to be arrested, UT fans fretted publicly that their team might be sliding dangerously toward that ultimate benchmark of darkness—the Miami Hurricanes. After Nebraska’s Heisman-hopeful tailback heaved his girlfriend down the stairs (his backup had already been booked on a different charge), Coach Tom Osborne worried publicly that his team might be evolving into another You Know Who.

Fans and administrators everywhere are greeting these sorry reports with genuine, teeth-grinding angst. Meanwhile, there’s an abundance of faux angst among the Pundit Corps, who are secretly delighted to have something new to tut and cluck over, namely: What’s wrong with these loutish, scofflaw kids today?

When you get down to it, what’s wrong now is what was wrong with a lot of us when we were loutish, scofflaw kids. Unfortunately, the Jackson Factor can explain only so much. The behavior problem in collegiate athletics is real, and it extends well beyond predictable sophomoric high jinks and barroom brawling.

At UT, it involves allegations of rape and assault. At Nebraska, it goes as far as a charge of attempted murder. At Oklahoma, the QB dealt crack, and athletes stockpiled enough guns in their dorm to muster their own militia. At Florida State, players allegedly snagged cash and shopping sprees at Footlocker. There’s not enough space here to discuss Miami, which is to college football what Iraq is to the family of nations.

In trying to explain how punks find their way into the game, the Pundit Corps has been busy rounding up the usual suspects. Our increasingly violent culture. The difficulty football players have in finding nonviolent solutions to problems, when their lives revolve around a sport that teaches precisely the opposite. The lack of public prayer in public schools.

Coaches are receiving much of the blame. And rightfully so, because coaches are frequently the problem. Under crushing pressure to win from the same self-righteous fans, administrators and media who rush to judge them, some coaches find it irresistibly tempting to take the Sergeant Schultz approach to enforcing behavior standards. They recruit kids whose lack of preparation gives them virtually no chance of succeeding honestly in college.

Even worse, college athletics are plagued by paradoxical double standards. Football players, already confronted with enormous pressures to succeed in the school and in the classroom, are somehow expected by the rest of us to adhere to a higher standard than the general student body. When they turn out to be all too human, their failings create a scandal.

When a soused college boy blows up a bowling machine or heaves water balloons at motorists, the police are notified. When the balloon-heaver is a football player, as was UT placekicker John Becksvoort, the media and everyone else learn about it too. Similarly, the fraudulent use of phone cards by Tennessee athletes doesn’t suggest a football program run amok; it suggests that football players aren’t very different from the vast throng of less well-known UT students who also were involved in the scam.

On the other hand, athletes enjoy an exalted status that frequently teaches them they need not acknowledge the standards of behavior by which other students live. No other groups enjoy their own tutors, their own special cafeterias and dorms. No one else at a university, not even a Nobel laureate, enjoys the weekly adulation of 80,000 cheering fans. Athletes, especially those who wouldn’t otherwise have been college-bound, understand why they received scholarships. And it wasn’t particularly because anyone wanted them to become scholars.

Athletes also know their value. They know how reluctant coaches are to deprive their teams of a valuable asset. (It was only after the fourth failed drug test, remember, that Johnny Majors dismissed star tailback Reggie Cobb from the Vols.) Players also realize that, even when discipline is enforced, fans will pressure the authorities to forgive—preferably before the next Saturday. The woman whose credit card is alleged to have been used fraudulently by several University of Florida athletes has repeatedly received threatening calls from Gator fans. The four players have received one-game suspensions.

This double standard neither begins nor ends with colleges; it’s merely honored there. It’s abundantly evident even to Little Leaguers, who see the absurd ceremony and prestige parents confer on what should be organized sandlot games. It’s even more evident at the high school level. And it’s clearest of all in the stratospheric salaries paid to professional athletes.

How, in the end, can we imagine that athletes will respect and value the privilege of a college education when colleges allow themselves to serve as a showcase and a clearinghouse for future professionals?

We can self-righteously preach that the buck must stop with college coaches, but, in truth, it must stop with us. College athletics will meet a higher standard when fans and observers stop holding up a different standard for it—when we expect it to be an extracurricular activity and not an extravagant entertainment enterprise. In the meantime, we can wait hopefully for the Bosnian Serbs and Croats and Muslims to love each other, and for poverty and hunger to end.

How it looks from the La-Z-Boy

Arkansas 27, Vanderbilt 10

Tennessee 54, Oklahoma State 10

Alabama 27, Georgia 14

Auburn 31, Kentucky 14

LSU 34, South Carolina 17

Florida 52, Ole Miss 14

Mississippi State 45, NE Louisiana 10

Colorado 31, Oklahoma 21

Ohio State 33, Notre Dame 28


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