Sunday, June 15, 2014


                When I joined the staff of The Daily Illini as a University of Illinois freshman in 1955, my first assignment was to the office of the Champaign police magistrate, Virgil Burgess. A police magistrate was a kind of justice of the peace, hearing traffic violations and misdemeanor crimes, and the posting was traditional for a journalistic newbie.
               I didn’t get much news from the beat but did get to know Burgess. He was a nice old man (maybe 15 years younger than I am today) who kept a pot of coffee going and liked to talk. Sometimes on Mondays he’d entertain me with accounts of humorous police busts of the weekend before, including those of U of I football players involved in bar fights. One player in particular, who’d later attain professional fame, was a frequent delinquent.         
           It never occurred to Burgess that I’d write up such matters. It never occurred to me or to the reporters for the town papers to do so. The view then was that boys would be boys and that jocks were especially boyish.  Underage drinking was no college-town sin and as long as no one was maimed the cops cleaned up and sent home the Saturday night brawlers. It was better for all concerned that way, everyone agreed.
            I think about that almost every morning when I peruse the sports pages. You can’t pick up the paper these days without reading about an athlete (or two or three) getting into trouble with the law. Assaults (mostly bar fights) are frequent raps, as are mixing booze and driving and (most distressingly) incidents of domestic violence.

 One football player, former New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez, is charged with murdering three people. Another, ex-Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper, stands accused of being a serial rapist. It seems that there’s a crime wave in progress, with many of the perps being guys we cheered when their teams took the field.
             I think the question “What’s going on here?” can be answered in part by the little story that began this piece. Time was when a sort of gentlemen’s agreement shielded well-known athletes from public gaze for bloodless improprieties, just as politicians were given a pass for sexual, uh,  peccadillos. The turning point for the latter issue came in 1987, when Sen. Gary Hart, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was nailed in the press for flaunting his extramarital affair with model Donna Rice. Ten years later Bill Clinton was impeached for doing something John Kennedy reportedly did just about every day during his presidency. So the planet turns.

 Today we live in a tabloid world where every transgression by anyone with the slightest celebrity is broadcast immediately to an eager public. Almost everyone has become a cell-phone-camera paparazzo and few remarks, no matter how off-hand, go unrecorded.  It’s a wonder we have time to process it all.

That said, though, something clearly is up and needs to be accounted for. One piece of the answer that was absent back in the day but present now is steroids, which make the user antsy, irritable and far more likely than otherwise to fly off the handle. Sports organizations would have you believe that their testing programs have tamed the stuff, but don’t buy it. Scientifically speaking the users always are ahead of the testers, and as long as the stakes remain high they’ll continue trying their luck whatever the possible consequences.

Another factor is the air of permissiveness that surrounds good athletes in an increasingly sports-crazy society. Our most-promising young jocks float through childhood on a cloud of “yes,” their talents shielding them from rebuke by parents, teachers or their contemporaries. A pioneer in that regard was Pete Rose, who as a youngster was rewarded with cash from his parents for his diamond feats and given a pass on schoolwork if he performed well afield. Rose was ineligible for sports his senior year in high school because of classroom failings, but that was okay with his folks because he could play on a semi-pro baseball team instead. Little wonder, then, that in later life he felt free to disregard his sport’s bedrock strictures against gambling, or the tax laws.

 Much the same sort of thing surfaced again earlier this year when it was revealed that seven of the 12 players on the basketball team of Curie High School in Chicago played an entire season, through the city-championship game, while academically ineligible. Apparently, teachers and administrators didn’t want to spoil the kids’ fun with unpleasant news.

The most discouraging aspect of the rising criminal-jock tide is the number of collegians involved; few major schools haven’t been affected, most more than once.  And while the increased willingness of the college-town press to report such matters plays a role (things like Jameis Winston’s crab-legs caper would have been buried a decade ago) I think it also stems from the growing gap between real students and so-called student-athletes at schools in the sports business.

Athletes long have enjoyed privileged status on campus, but as athletics budgets have soared, and with them the stakes for winning, colleges are taking greater chances on the kids they recruit while not providing these often-marginal students with the time and help they need to succeed in the classroom. In embracing the one-and-done model in basketball, and countenancing not-much-longer campus tenures for top pro-football prospects, colleges are conceding that they are mere stopping-off places for young men whose goals have nothing to do with academic proficiency. While many of these guys are in college they’re not of college, meaning they may be less than receptive to education’s civilizing influences.

NCAA “reform” is in the air now, but I hold little hope for it. It’ll probably end with the schools tossing a few more dollars the kids’ way. That’ll satisfy most critics but won’t deal with the system’s real problem, which is the sacrifice of the schools’ educational mission on the altar of playing-field revenues. Until that’s addressed we can expect more academic scandals of the sort that’s playing out at the University of North Carolina, and more jocks’ names on police blotters.     




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