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College sports in chaos

Posted: September 22, 2011 10:44 a.m.
Updated: September 23, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Call me a hypocrite, and you’ll be pretty darned accurate if you’re talking about big-time college athletics.

For years I’ve paid my booster dues, bought tickets, attended games, cheered lustily -- done all those things that make college sports so popular today.

But I’m getting disenchanted, and if you want to gander at what a big-time mess college sports is becoming, you need look no further than my alma mater, the University of North Carolina.

I’m no bleeding-heart do-gooder who’s always bemoaning how an athletic program demeans the academic purpose of great universities. After all, one of the best college coaches of all time said a viable sports program acts as the front porch of a university, drawing alumni back to campus and keeping them connected to their alma maters.

That’s a good thing.

But gosh, things seem to be getting out of control.

At UNC, which hadn’t experienced a sports problem since basketball coach Frank McGuire did a few shady things more than a half-century before, a football scandal erupted shortly before last season and is yet to play out.

NCAA officials charged that all sorts of things had gone on. A tutor had given players extra help; some players had plagiarized papers; players had received illegal trips and gifts from pro football agents who were trying to lure them into their fold; and one assistant coach had acted as a go-between for one of those agents.

It looked like a program run amok, and for several of the players, that’s pretty much what it was. UNC officials, after firing coach Butch Davis, are now admitting there were parts of the program that seemed like a fetid dung pile -- those are my words, not theirs -- and are trying to mitigate penalties by offering some of their own, including “vacating” all their victories.

 “Vacating” means saying you lost because you violated the rules.

It’s all pretty nauseating but isn’t surprising given the direction in which college sports is headed. Even the most ardent fan must admit that reason has largely vanished.

Of course, money has always been important in college sports, but never so much as today.

Television rules the roost, so game times aren’t set until a few days before kickoff, which is a major inconvenience for fans. The expansion of stadiums has become bizarre, including the building of elaborate “players’ lounges” which serve as tools to entice high-school players, 18-year-old demi-gods who are treated as princes.

Coaches’ salaries are measured in the millions.

And recruiting? My gosh, an entire industry has grown up around the practice of rating players and predicting where they’re going to attend school. Some fans seem more interested in recruiting news than in how their team is actually performing.

We’ve now entered the era of the “super conference,” with many schools abandoning the affiliations they’ve had for years to join bigger leagues where budgets are higher, seats at the table are costlier, boosters are wealthier.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, which once had a rational geographical footprint that ensured real rivalries, now stretches from Miami to Boston, with Pittsburgh and Syracuse recently having jumped aboard.

Let me see: Atlantic Coast, Pittsburgh, Syracuse. Something doesn’t make sense there.

Along the way, universities have shown they’re not afraid to demonstrate an almost vicious lack of loyalty to their fans. Those who have sat through season after season of mediocrity, always ponying up for their tickets to watch, as one of my friends said, “some pretty god-awful football,”  now find their schools demanding seat license fees or new parking monies or a host of other ways to bleed a few more dollars from them.

One friend jokes that we fans must take our “adult pills” every Saturday morning so we won’t get too upset when our guys -- most of whom are in an academic program especially set up to keep them in school -- get beat by their guys.

A college football Saturday can be a thrilling experience. Stadiums buzz with excitement as “student athletes”  -- we won’t even get into that -- take the field to defend the honor of their universities. And maybe make it to the NFL.

OK, OK, I’ll stop ranting. Football’s a fun thing. I’ve relished it for years. But when I look around now and see what’s happening, when I ponder where it’s all headed, I can’t keep one clear thought from popping into my head:

Something ain’t exactly right with all this.


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