One announcement you won’t hear at this year’s Super Bowl: “Starting at linebacker, 20 credit hours short of a degree from the University of....”
Too bad. Because the upcoming Colts-Saints clash is not just a great opportunity to advertise products, it’s also a rare chance to promote a real game changer: reform of big-time college sports.
Instead of introducing starting lineups by their college affiliations (you know, those cute spots where the player mumbles the name of what we assume is his alma mater), how about some long overdue candor?
When a player has actually earned his degree, state it: “a graduate of.” If a player has only partially fulfilled the requirements for a diploma, spell it out as one would on any honest résumé. If the amount of completed course work was too slight to mention, say nothing.
Those invested in the myth of college football as an emblem of virtuous competition will scoff at this suggestion. It’s just nit-picking, they’ll contend. No harm, no foul.
But there’s a less charitable view of college football and its escalating excesses. An unholy alliance has developed between the National Football League and what is effectively its farm system, NCAA Division 1 college football. And the small deception in touting college affiliations is the glue that holds it together.
According to NFL officials, about half of the current players have earned a college degree. That is not an unimpressive statistic; it’s just a whole lot less than the casual viewer is led to believe based on sportscaster patter concerning where the various players went to school.
During prime-time game introductions, the clear inference is that starting players are proud “products” of their fine campuses, nurtured and groomed and educated. It’s a charming fairy tale, glibly winked at by profiteers who are no less craven for wearing university robes or sitting smugly in broadcast booths. The cherished myth of the varsity scholar-athlete is promulgated not just by the reigning priesthood of sports, TV announcers, and talk show commentators, but by deans, faculty, students, alumni, and, yes, ordinary fans.
Do such paragons of athletic prowess and intellectual capability really exist? You bet, and it’s a shame their achievements are so often used to camouflage the mounting ethical scandals that have become the elephant in the room.
We like to pretend that each ugly story is an isolated case, yet the litany of abuses – bullying coaches (Texas Tech University), female “hostesses” recruiting high school prospects (University of Tennessee), false SAT scores from incoming athletes (University of Memphis) – has become such a regular feature of big-time college football (and basketball) that one might be forgiven for assuming they are part of the playbook.
So what might be gained by a more straightforward declaration of pro players’ academic careers?
First, threatened with having this customary PR triumph transformed into shame, universities still aspiring to the coveted brand-name benefits would be forced to reap them the old-fashioned way: by making certain that an athlete has done the course work to be legitimately labeled a “graduate.”
Second – and we really shouldn’t have to spell this out - it’s wrong to lie. And it’s particularly wrong to repeatedly trumpet transparent lies – call them misleading implications, if that’s more palatable – through the megaphone of Super Sunday. Truthfulness really does matter, or ought to, when we are (a) talking about revered educational institutions, and (b) putting on a show for impressionable youth.
Will some pro players suffer embarrassment? Possibly. They’re tough. They can take it.
Correcting the sham will not be a magic wand. But it may provide the toppling of the first in a chain of dominoes, for there is a causal link between coaches paid top dollar to win at all costs, universities desperate to enhance their brand through football success (including the successful pro careers of former players), and the ills that plague college sports.
Another option, of course, would be a flat-out ban on all mention of college affiliations during pro sports telecasts. Anybody object to that? If so, please step forward to tell us why.
Bob Katz is a writer and author of the novel “Third and Long,” to be published this spring.