Sometimes I don't know whether to curse my addiction to college football or thank God for it, since it seems to be one of the few ways I can at least briefly get away from whatever is hanging over my head either to read, write or simply worry about. I do know that I have matured a bit over the years to the point that the on-field performances of 18 and 19-year-olds now only affects my mood for five or six hours. I might add that's a damn good thing, given the dismal fortunes of the Georgia Bulldogs over the last few years. Having spent more than 30 years of my teaching career at four Southeastern Conference schools, I am no stranger to absurd overemphasis on football and certainly no babe- in- the- woods when it comes to the corrupting potential of big-time college athletics.
My primary concern over the years has been the possible conflict with the institution's academic integrity, but I have to say I have personally encountered very little suggestion of even the hint of pressure from any athletic department on a campus where I have taught. When I have had occasion to know them, the athletes in my classes have, with but one exception, struck me as nice kids doing their best in what was frequently an academic environment where they are clearly at a disadvantage. The one exception, an extremely large fellow who was the most ostentatiously indifferent person I have ever been charged with teaching, made it a point not only to eschew note-taking, but even the pretense of it by coming to class sans pen or paper. Just in case anybody in the class failed to pick up on the depth of his disinterest, he made it a point as well to sprawl his considerable frame over several classroom seats with his "hoodie" pulled over his head. After failing to crack 40% on any of his exams, he notified me just as I was assigning final course grades that he needed at least a "D" in order to remain eligible in his sport. The long and short of it is he didn't get his D but missed no playing time so far as I could tell. After checking to be sure that his transcript bore the "F" he had so assiduously earned, I was left only to ponder how his academic fortunes had been resurrected.
Again, this story is truly exceptional within my own experience. However, I know it is not nearly exceptional enough on today's college campuses, at least on those where athletics is truly a big-time business. There are many angles here that are worrisome, not the least of them being the painful spectacle of watching kids who, for whatever reason, are simply not academically qualified to be college students straining and struggling to eke out by the thinnest of margins grades that will suffice to keep them in a school whose playing field and courts are the only places where they truly belong. I have discussed the whole business of whether scholarship athletes should be paid in this space before, and I don't intend to reopen the matter beyond saying that the discrepancy between the financial resources of many of these kids and the free-spending Freddy Frats and Sorority Suzies who swirl about them on campus is profound, troubling, and, I believe, even dangerous. Every year brings more stories of assault, theft, or robbery, with collegiate athletes at the center.
Just such an episode is part of the narrative of one Cameron Newton, who began his college experience at the University of Florida, where he not only racked up 13 traffic offenses in just over a year but topped it off by being discovered by police to be in possession of a stolen laptop, which he attempted to ditch by flinging out the window of his dorm room. For this, he was charged with grand theft, burglary, and obstructing justice. After admitting his offense, he was placed in a pre-trial intervention program, where, of course, the charges were allowed to wither and die. More recently, reports have surfaced that Mr. Newton further left his mark on the Gainesville campus by being charged with three separate incidents of academic fraud. These charges, which he has declined to deny, were apparently before the campus judiciary when Newton decided to head for the decidedly browner pastures of Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Tx., ostensibly because he feared he would get only limited playing time so long as Florida's superstar quarterback Tim Tebow was still around. After a stellar year on the gridiron for the Fighting Blinnskis, Newton was ready to return to the big stage, and, needless to say, there was no shortage of suitors. At this point , any knowledgeable college football fan - even if you have been in a coma for the last 12 months - should be able to guess on the first try where he wound up. Given the excellent character record he already established, he was all but foreordained to wind up at Auburn, where playing fast and loose with the rules is a way of life, at least on the football side of things.
The vast reaches of cyberspace are not nearly so vast as to accommodate a detailed discussion of the abuses that have characterized the Auburn football program over the years. Hence, reports that Cameron Newton's father, a preacher, by the way, was shopping him around to the highest booster bidder before he became a War Eagle are almost instantly and intrinsically credible, even before you factor in the sudden, expensive repairs to the Rev. Cecil Newton's various church properties , which heretofore had reportedly been well beyond his financial means. Given that both the Universities of Alabama and Georgia held out players then under an NCAA eligibility cloud earlier this year, Auburn's defiant "You're damn tootin'/We're playing Newton" attitude since these allegations arose speaks volumes about that institution's regard for the rules that are supposed to govern intercollegiate athletic competition, not to mention its disdain for its reputation among its peers.In a classic refutation of the old maxim, "cheaters never prosper," the War Eagles are undefeated this season, their latest triumph coming this past weekend over the Georgia Bulldogs. At this point, I realize many of you may be getting a whiff of sour grapes, so let me say that Georgia couldn't beat Auburn if the two teams played for 12 weeks in a row, and Cameron Newton demonstrated on Saturday that he is clearly one of the best athletes playing college football today. That said, the willful suspension of disbelief registered by the screaming, adoring home crowd this weekend, not to mention the Auburn athletic director's steadfast insistence that Newton is "by all accounts, a great kid" testifies to everything that is wrong about high-octane collegiate sports these days. Had it been needed, further testimony was also available in the conduct of one Mr. Nick Fairley, a behemoth defensive lineman who takes pride in knocking opposing quarterbacks out of the game. When Fairley's trademark full body slam fails to get the job done, he resorts to "spearing" with his helmet as he did twice on Saturday, hitting Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray well after Murray had released the ball. Fairley's second shot injured Murray's knee, and two of Fairley's teammates were ejected for throwing punches in separate melees at the end of Saturday's game, which featured Fairley strutting and preening for his wildly cheering Auburn audience and the gushing CBS broadcasters in the booth. Auburn's descent to what is a new level even for that place is less troubling to me than the prospect that where they are now is where the whole game of college football may be headed. I'd like to think that the NCAA had both the authority and the will to step in and prevent this, but I'm afraid we're probably well past that point. For the time being, all I can say is that if Auburn is playing Iraq, I'll be the guy in the turban.