In the days when players wore jerseys that came down barely to their midriff and socks that did not creep above the ankle, college football teams took on their own personas. They got rowdy, they ruled the campus with iron fists, and they had no qualms labeling themselves as bad boys. It seemed that they were untouchable, and that no matter what they did off the field, the program would sweep it under the rug. Into the 90s, Nebraska players were throwing their girlfriends down stairs, Florida State players were ditching classes, University of Washington players were often in handcuffs, and University of Miami stars were running wild under the watch of Luther Campbell. Later in the decade, after the national championships had been won, it came crashing down. As the media coverage grew, programs could not hide their players behind smokescreens, and the whole culture needed to change. It needed to change in the fact that programs had to take responsibility when their players stepped out of line. It was spear-headed by a Sports Illustrated cover story about Miami’s football program. Since then there has been a more watchful eye of the NCAA on programs and schools are taking sterner action against those who misbehave or get into trouble with the law. This summer more than any other the police blotter for college football athletes is becoming too long to read in one sentence. Yet the masses and more disturbingly the media rest on old stigmas that cast programs in a negative light or to make a cheap, unfunny joke.
The program at the top of the list has to be the University of Miami. Anonymous message board posters and even “professional” (term used very loosely) journalists and bloggers refer to the school as thug U. Any mention of the team must be met with an obligatory reference to infer that Miami football players are nothing but no good thugs who run rampant over the streets of Miami toting guns and slinging drugs. This usually comes from hearing the stereotype from others and being too lazy to investigate it themselves. It’s the equivalent of seeing something in passing on the CNN crawl and then going to people as spitting it back out as if it is the unabated truth. The same manner in which the media has bashed football programs for lack of control, the media should be bashed for lack of journalism. Of course, the U has done much to put itself in a negative light. Showing up in fatigues to the Fiesta Bowl, Winslow Jr.’s rant (after being constantly chop blocked in the game vs. Tennessee), the brawl with FIU (which FIU began), and the tragedy of the murder of Brian Pata. No one is here to profess that UM is a place of purity. In fact, that is something new Coach Randy Shannon, himself a product of the harsh streets of Miami, is trying to change.
Shannon comes from the place where most of Miami’s talent comes from: the poor neighborhoods of South Florida. A place where the rest of the program’s in the country, especially in the SEC have swooped in and taken that talent for their own profit. Many of these kids have football as the only way to attend college and “make it”. Often times, their bad influences get the better of them, but for every player that goes astray, there are just as many if not more that get their education or succeed in the NFL. The Miami joke is old, not creative, and it certainly does not make you funny, it rather makes you look like a jackass.
ESPN took a bold directive recently in its long line of groundbreaking sports coverage: they went after 81 year old Joe Paterno. Penn State has had recent problems with their players getting into trouble with the law, and it was turned into Joe has lost control of his wits and his football team. The players who were mentioned in the “Outside the Lines” report were kicked from the team the next day, a fact that ESPN reported with a certain, eerie relish. This is what you’re proud of at your network?
The truth is that all across the board there are players in trouble no matter the program, its location, or the coach. The newly crowned (before a game is played) number 1 team, Georgia has suspended players for an incident that unfolded at a hospital and local bar in Athens. Go to a college football page on any sports website and you are sure to find news of players being ruled ineligible, kicked from the team, or players arrested. USC has yet to resolve the Reggie Bush incident. Even at Ohio State were Jim Tressel deservedly gets praise for his character, a defensive lineman was recently arrested on a DUI. There is nowhere to hide now. Public records are readily available, information travels instantly cross-country, and websites stake their claim as the first to bring you news of the latest arrest of any athlete. Even former athletes are not safe. A former Miami quarterback and Florida quarterback have been arrested on drug charges, and it is placed in a position where it appears that the programs are to blame for something a player does years after he leaves.
It is time to acknowledge that these players are going to make mistakes. Hold any group for 120 college age kids to certain academic and behavioral standards and guaranteed you will have some that fall short of being a model citizen. With football players at top programs it is even more combustible. Many come from hard backgrounds, they are treated differently that other students, they feel they are entitled to certain things. It will continue to happen no matter what. As long as fans crave their team’s supremacy and programs are set upon this pedestal, players being in trouble will continue to be a constant. It is time for the charade of believing it is simply a few renegade programs to end.