Tuesday, February 1, 2011


The main question writers are asked by non-writers is where we get our story ideas. It’s usually asked with a trace of wonder, as though we possess some special or even secret knowledge.

I always laugh at the query. Then I’ll say that if one looks at the world in the right (or wrong) way it teems with things that are deserving of comment because they are so wonderful, terrible or, simply, interesting.

Like most columnists, I kept a list of subjects that caught my eye, and as a blogger I still do. Contrary to public perception, it’s a list that tends to grow rather than shrink. I’m sure that once I finally pack it in –either by choice or necessity-- it will be with many opinions or observations unexpressed.

The past week was a case in point. I entered it with what seemed like a perfectly good blog idea only to see it superseded not once but twice. I won’t tell you what the discarded ideas were because I might choose to revisit them. The winner, though, shone through like the headlights of an 18-wheeler coming ‘round the bend on a foggy night.

The subject was big-time college sports, an old punching bag of mine. Every time I think it can’t get worse, it does. That happened last week, with exclamation points.

Exhibit A was a hoot-- the news that Robert G. Burton, a businessman from Greenwich, Conn., asked for a refund of the $3 million he’d contributed to the University of Connecticut’s athletics department a few years earlier to build on its campus an office-locker-workout facility named the Burton Family Football Complex. His gripe is that he wasn’t sufficiently consulted before the school hired a replacement for Randy Edsall, the football coach who recently left the Storrs job for one at the University of Maryland.

Burton’s demand came in a single-spaced, five-page rant he sent to Jeff Hathaway, the UConn AD. Naturally, it wound up on the Internet. In it, Burton tore poor Hathaway a new one, declaring him to be unqualified for his post because (among other failings) he lacked the skills to “manage and cultivate” fat-cat donors like himself. He declared Hathaway’s choice of ex-Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni to replace Edsall an “embarrassment” not only to him but to his entire family. Apparently, Mrs. Burton also is mortified.

Burton wrote that he’d be withdrawing future support for UConn athletics. He helpfully reminded Hathaway that this would include his purchase of a $50,000-a-year football-game box, $8,000 for his ad in the school’s football program and the $20,000 he’d kicked in annually to help fund Edsall’s coaches’ clinic, one of the ways universities pad the salaries of their already-overpaid coaches without the sums appearing on their books.

The incident offered a peek into the world of college-athletics “boosters,” people who may or may not be alums of the institution they support (Burton isn’t) but who believe that their earthly happiness depends on the school fielding really good major-sports teams year in and year out. Depending on their level of largess they can be rewarded with such perks as the ability to call the coach the day before the game to get his view on whether his team will cover the spread, and a voice in the school’s councils.

The most common reaction to Burton’s demand, on UConn websites and elsewhere, was that he’s a rich jerk who deserves to be rebuffed; after all, colleges are supposed to run their own affairs in the name of “academic integrity.” To that I say “Nonsense!” Big-time college sports have little to do with academics and institutions forfeit their integrity when they get into the entertainment business. UConn should give the guy his money back. He didn’t get what he paid for.

Exhibit B was, simply, appalling. It was the hospitalization of 13 University of Iowa football players after what only could be described as a brutal workout that included prolonged, high-poundage, high-speed weight lifting, under the supervision of the team’s so-called “strength” coaches. The young men came down with something called rhabdomyolysis, a condition that occurs when too-strenuous exercise causes muscle breakdowns that release substances harmful to the kidneys. Some of the players were confined for as much a week, and the extent of their injuries still is unclear.

Almost equally distressing was that the revelation of those injuries—several days after they happened-- came from the victims, not the university, via emails and tweets. Several players reported being unable to walk before being hospitalized, one said he’d fallen down some stairs. “Just thinking about it [the workout} makes me vomit,” wrote a third.

The university initially tried to downgrade the matter, with an athletics department spokesman calling the workout “allowed and routine.” Later he backtracked some, saying that if “due diligence” (ugh!) showed they were required “steps would be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” In other words, “we did nothing wrong but we won’t do it any more.” Great. Can you spell l-a-w-s-u-i-t?

Football head coach Kirk Ferentz was out of town during the incident. He’s returned but the university said he wouldn’t answer questions publicly until after tomorrow (Feb. 2), the national signing day for new recruits. First things first, right?

One thing besides Iowa’s callous attitude should be obvious: it’s that the kids were killing themselves in January for a sport that isn’t played until September. The workout in question may have been called “off-season,” but, in truth, there is no off season for the collegiate big-timers. It’s an exhausting, year-round grind that, for players, amounts to a full-time job and then some. Anyone who emerges from the jock mill with an education worth the name deserves a medal as well as a degree.

And maybe a Purple Heart.

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