Football players—gladiators or crusaders?


Winning ugly - AP
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  • Winning ugly

If brutality and stupidity are to your taste, you had to love last weekend’s Cincinnati-Pittsburgh NFL game, won by Pittsburgh 18-16 thanks to a recovered fumble, an intentional shot to the head of the helpless receiver after an incomplete pass, and a personal foul that put the Steelers in range of the field goal that won the game as time ran out. Earlier, Cincinnati fans threw debris at Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback, as he was carted off the field.

But if you’d like to think better of football than you do of gladiatorial pits, what is there to celebrate? There’s a legislator in Missouri who won’t agree with me, but at the top of my list is the show of resolve at my alma mater, the University of Missouri. Last fall, in solidarity with students demonstrating for racial reform, more than 30 black football players announced that they wouldn’t dress for the next game unless the university president resigned. "We are united. We are behind our players," tweeted the coach. The president resigned. For good measure, so did the chancellor.

This job action didn’t rub everyone the right way. Last month a Republican house member from the western edge of Missouri submitted a bill to remove the scholarship of any college athlete who refused to play "for a reason unrelated to health." Any coach who supported a players strike would be fined. The bill was coldly received, and a day later the legislator withdrew it; he said he’d just wanted "to generate discussion."

We can’t have enough of that—and when it comes to kids in college we’ve had plenty. This might be the most tut-tutted generation of college students in American history. As always, their elders disapprove of their behavior, but this time it’s because everyone on campus seems so transfixed by the straight and narrow. The other day George Will, in an end-of-year roundup of the "infantilization of society by government," passed along a pronouncement on sexual consent made at the University of Georgia.

Conceding that consensual sex is actually possible, even in a university setting, the university set out to define it. Sexual consent, said the health center, is "voluntary, sober, imaginative, enthusiastic, creative, wanted, informed, mutual, honest."

"Imaginative consent?" Will marveled.

I’m not guiltless of this intergenerational snickering. At a small dinner party on New Year’s Eve, I amused myself by asking the hostess’s daughter home from college what trigger words she’d picked out for the coming semester. (She didn’t know what I was talking about.) And when I read about colleges redefining sexual misconduct by replacing the old standard of "no means no" with a new one, "yes means yes," I wondered if these colleges knew they were channeling James Joyce. For didn’t he end Ulysses on this note?

"Yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Then again, James Joyce wasn't writing about consent. He was writing about desire.

A quietly contrarian essay by the Tribune's Ron Grossman a couple weeks ago has helped me focus my thoughts on what’s right and wrong with higher education in America. Grossman said he’s observed two big changes from his own college days in the 1950s to his daughter’s much more recently. College has become vastly more expensive, and the quality of education is palpably inferior, with courses increasingly taught by impoverished adjuncts and instructors—many of them, from other countries, lecturing in incomprehensible English.

"Undergraduates have become the industrial waste product of higher education," wrote Grossman. Most of their teachers "don't have the time or energy to kick around ideas with students over a cup of coffee—the kind of experience that breeds a sense of community. Absent that, students create their own intellectual breathing space, protecting it with a Puritanlike vigor."

In short, students fend for themselves; and if they seem to know a lot more about being offended than being challenged, that could be both a cause and a result of colleges finding it easier to coddle students than nurture them.

"Pay some attention to me!" Grossman believes students are saying.

Well, they paid attention to the Mizzou players.

I admired the Northwestern football team a couple years ago when it voted to unionize. The campaign ultimately failed, and the resistance of the coach and administration and the rapid turnover of the team roster always made success unlikely; but those players laid down a marker that other teams will pick up again one day. I admire the Mizzou players even more. Four years ago, in a column about a former Mizzou player who’d been carried off the field unconscious and never played again, I called football players at the big universities "easily replaceable vassals." Mizzou players were so marginally members of the student body they couldn’t even join fraternities. They had no time for anything so frivolous.

But now they’re figuring it out. If the importance of a sport is going to be inflated to the point where the economic viability of the athletic program, the self-image of the university and state, and the dignity of hundreds of thousands of alumni all ride on it, the universities need their players more than they need their presidents. Football stars in legal trouble have had a pretty good idea of  the leverage they enjoy; now it's dawning on stars with causes and principles.

Maybe the pros will figure it out next. There are a couple of schools of thought about what the NFL will do to tame the tide of concussions, subconcussions, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. One is to keep tweaking the rules to reduce the mayhem—at whatever cost to the sport we love. The other is to make players sign waivers so they can’t sue and then let them have at each other. A lot of people think the players get so much gratification from the game they’ll sign anything. But players who discovered their power to tell their colleges to go to hell are more likely to say the same thing to their team owners.

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