Dropping the Ball—College Athletics on a Slippery Field
NINE Wayne Hills High School football players were charged early last month with assaulting two students from Wayne Valley High School. The Wayne Board of Education suspended them from football activities, which included playing in the championship game at the Meadowlands.
Some of the parents of those suspended players turned to the media to decry what they called the unfairness of it all. The accused were denied a chance of a lifetime to play in a championship game, even though they had the assault charges hanging over them.
The parents said that it was too much punishment and that the players were presumed guilty before they were tried. They also expressed fears that college football programs might turn their backs on the players because of the suspensions.
Of course, anyone who has been around big-time college sports programs knows that some athletes come with criminal records into programs and that the NFL is filled with players who have been through the legal system.
The nine didn’t play, but it was the right call.
The powerful sports agent Leigh Steinberg, whose clients included Troy Aikman and Steve Young, was in agreement with the players sitting out.
“High school players are role models,” said Steinberg. “It is incumbent upon them to behave in a decent fashion on and off the field. They have more responsibility than the average student and waiving the penalty does them no favors.”
Steinberg said it is a privilege, not a right, to play high school, college or pro sports. Students learn teamwork, self-respect and self-discipline from sports and pass that onto society.
Initially, the school board seemed determined to let the accused Wayne Hills players participate in the championship contest, until school district residents said, “Wait a second.” The players did compete in two playoff games, but the school board on Nov. 17 suspended the nine.
The players’ lawyers could have used the Duke lacrosse case in the court of public opinion to help get them reinstated. On March 13, 2006, three players from the Duke University lacrosse team were accused of raping a stripper at a party. The fallout included the resignation of the university’s lacrosse coach and the cancellation of the season.
But the case was dropped 13 months later following a faulty investigation by the Durham, N.C., prosecutor. Careers and reputations were ruined under false pretenses.
The championship game is over, and now the judicial system will deal with the Wayne Hills players.
Wayne Hills seems to be just another stop on the tracks of ignoring alleged criminal behavior in sports.
On Dec. 7, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested again on various charges alleging improper sexual conduct with two underage boys. Sandusky already was facing 40 counts of sexual misconduct involving eight underage boys.
Steinberg thinks the whole sports idolatry system played a role in overlooking Sandusky’s alleged actions.
“That program is so central to the existence of students, alumni, administrators, coaches, that the most venal behavior was overlooked,” he said.
On Wednesday, Onondaga County, N.Y., District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said he will not pursue a state case against former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine on sexual abuse charges involving minors because the statute of limitations had passed.
ESPN and The Post-Standard of Syracuse acknowledged that their news organizations knew something was up with Fine. ESPN had an audio tape with one of the minors, but sat on the story for nine years after getting the tape because ESPN news executives believed there was not enough solid evidence of criminal misconduct based in the tape to report the story.
Perhaps neither “news” organization wanted to ruffle feathers as ESPN is a television partner of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Syracuse has big-time college football and basketball programs. The newspaper might not have wanted to do a critical story that would harm the beloved basketball program.
Also on Dec. 7, Graham James, a former junior hockey coach in Canada and convicted sex offender, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two former players, including one-time New York Rangers player Theoren Fluery.
The seediness of sports has not put any damper in the public’s appetite for games.
Sports idolatry is real. Grown men wear team jerseys with a player’s name on the back and go to sports card shows and pay for jocks’ autographs. For such ardent admirers of the game, you’ve just got to support the team.
Many athletes have been enabled from childhood because they possess superior hand-eye coordination or strength or running skills and are great at playing a game. That impresses people, and indiscretions such as alleged assaults are overlooked.
College alumni have given perks to great players when the alma mater wins. Golden handshakes, in which players get money and gifts from alumni, boosters or a well-connected fan, are real. The alums can relive their college days through Saturday afternoon college football.
High school sports are huge around the country. Friday night football is almost a religious experience in Texas and elsewhere. School districts in Texas have built plush multimillion dollar stadiums for high school football teams that resemble mini-NFL facilities. Allen, Texas High School is scheduled to open its new $60 million 18,000 seat stadium and football building next fall.
College football is a multibillion dollar business, with education seemingly an afterthought. In New Jersey, the state has invested millions of dollars to build a football facility at Rutgers, and the two highest paid state employees are the Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano, who made a reported $1.9 million in 2010, and women’s basketball coach Vivian Stringer, whose salary was estimated to be around a $1 million in 2010 before she signed a new contract that will pay her an estimated $1.3 million per season.
The Rutgers athletic program, like many other big-time sports-playing schools, is a money-losing proposition. But backers say that big-time sports give schools exposure and translate into more students applying to a school. New Jersey substantially cut fiscal aid to schools like Rutgers in 2010. In fact, at Rutgers the English department faculty members wonder why more than 40 phones were removed from offices as a cost cutting measure while athletic spending rolls on. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on December 12 about the problems at Rutgers.
Occasionally, TV will throw a bone to academia by televising a spelling bee. Drive through towns across the country and you will see road signs like “So and so High School, home of the 2003 softball champs.” But how often do you see road signs proclaiming a math team championship or a debate team title?
Sports fans care about the final result and want to be entertained. Suspensions get in the way of entertainment.
We need to reexamine the role of sports in schools. There is far too much importance placed on sports in American society.
That is a lesson schools should learn from the Wayne Hills High School suspensions.
Evan Weiner is an author, speaker and television-radio commentator on “The Politics and Business of Sports.” His syndicated columns appear nationally in various news publications. Mr. Weiner’s articles frequently appear in The Sport Digest.