Baseball may have been America’s national pastime once, but today football is king. No doubt attention spans are shorter, and the relaxed pace of a 9-inning ballgame isn’t for everyone. But the exodus of fans from the gentlemen’s game was certainly hastened by the Steroid Era. People who had loved baseball because of its purity and resistance to change felt betrayed by players who had shattered decades-old records by cheating. For many, college sports remain the only place to see pure competition. Though baseball and basketball seem clean enough, college football unfortunately has an ugly side seeping through that in recent years has become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Recruiting is easily the ugliest aspect of college football. Recruiting violations are popping up more and more. Coaches pepper players as young as 13 with text messages and phone calls, or treat them to alcohol and strippers. Agents arrange rides in Ferraris and gifts for family members. And it doesn’t get any better when college players head for the NFL draft. They are met by more greedy agents looking to capitalize on football stars by any means necessary.
For a game that has been played for a century and a half, it is only recently that steps have been taken to prevent dangerous head injuries to players. In fact, it took the NFL instituting policies penalizing helmet-to-helmet hits before colleges started getting serious about protecting players. Still, two former college footballers recently sued the NCAA alleging the association did not do its due diligence to crack down on coaches teaching players to hit with the helmet, or to provide for injured student athletes.
At least some football players do it for motives other than just a love of the game. In a practice tactfully referred to as “de-committing,” players who had previously pledged to attend a certain university renege on the promise and go somewhere else. In layman’s terms, they bail for a better deal. Part of the problem is coaches try to lock high school players in so early that the team’s management or competitiveness may have changed by the time a player gets there. But students aren’t the only ones to blame; players can have promised scholarships revoked if a new head coach chooses not to honor prior agreements.
Although coaches and officials claim a decline in steroid use in the last decade — writing it off as “a problem in the 90s” — some allege the problem persists in Division I football. In 2005, former BYU player and later NFL-er Jason Scukanec claimed up to 15 Brigham Young players had doped and that the story was the same for teams around the country. The same year, USA Today reported steroid usage among high school athletes had more than doubled from 1991 to 2003. It is naïve to think a ‘roiding high school star would not try to find a way to pass NCAA drug tests in order to maintain a high level of performance in college.
As the recent events at Penn State have made abundantly clear, football is a sacred cow. An assistant coach saw a young boy being raped and his first move was to call his dad for advice on how to proceed. He knew exactly what Joe Paterno knew: don’t rock the boat. The venerable head coach was aware of the molestation, and apparently even he was afraid to come forward. He knew perfectly well it meant heads would roll in Penn State’s multi-million dollar athletics program. When he was fired for sitting on the information, students at Penn State rioted, proving once again that you don’t mess with college football.
With heads firmly buried in the sand, some still contend that to allow college football players to see some of the revenue that schools and promoters are reaping off their work would hurt the “integrity” of the game. It is true that footballers with scholarships get free room and board, which can be worth as much as $40,000 per year or more. However, compare that to the average pay for the CEOs of football bowl games: $500,000 per year. The Texas Longhorns team is worth $129 million. Meanwhile, many of the players’ families who are poor hope and pray that their son will make it to the NFL (a 1% chance) so he can finally be paid for his work and send some money home. If he doesn’t, he’ll find all that time he spent playing and training hurt his chances of landing a job in the non-athletic world.
Every so often, a college football coach goes over to the dark side. It’s that moment when the pent-up aggression from watching grown men smash into each other for three hours gives way to rage. Upset that a journalist had referred to one of his players as “fat,” OSU head coach Mike Gundy went on a long, screaming tirade. Florida Gators coach Urban Meyer warned a reporter to “be very careful” and threatened to fight him. Coaching legend Woody Hayes went to the dark side when he punched an opposing player for intercepting his quarterback at a crucial point in the game. Hayes never coached again.