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Tony Dorsett Pitt

I attended the University of Pittsburgh from 1972 to 1976. In those years Pitt football transformed from being an embarrassment, to being a power on the verge of national prominence. Indeed, the year after I graduated, Pitt won the national championship. By my senior year we all knew the program was poised for success. Pitt had gone back to a bowl, Johnny Majors had recruited a load of blue chip players, led by Tony Dorsett, and in the fall of 1975, Pitt dominated then national power Notre Dame, breaking through with its first significant win in many years. Against this backdrop, the athletic department announced that Pitt students would have to obtain colored coupons to exchange for tickets, thus limiting the amount of free tickets given to students. A protest occurred among the students, as everyone saw the next step as outright charging students for their tickets.

At that time I was a columnist for the student paper, “The Pitt News.” Here are some excerpts from a column I wrote about the issue in September 1975:

“The basic accusation leveled at the athletic department is that it is trying to run its football program as a business. This really is not so bad. After all, Calvin Coolidge told us America’s business is business. Since football is as American as apple pie, it follows that football should be a business since business is American. Right?

Not quite.

You see, Pitt runs an amateur football program, designed to help poor athletes, promote school spirit…and all that jazz. Therefore, football is really for the students and not for Calvin Coolidge after all. Right?

Well, not quite.

The athletic department is trying to run an amateur program like a business. That is, it wants to preserve all those hallowed institutional trappings that accompany football…and at the same time turn over a profit that will enrich the war chest and enable Pitt to eventually take its place among the Oklahomas and Penn States…”

Here is the solution I proposed:

“A lot of headaches would be avoided if the aathletic department would just drop any pretenses of trying to preserve amateur football. It should become professional in name as well as in reality. In fact, major colleges would do well to band together and create a minor league for NFL football…

Instead of being the Panthers of the University of Pittsburgh, the University would become owners of a minor league, professional team known as the Pittsburgh Panthers. Cas Myslynski (the athletic director at Pitt in 1975) could be the general manager. That way, all of his shenanigans that are now called “dirty tricks” would then be called good business practice.”

Here is perhaps the most important aspect of the solution I proposed:

“The relationship between the University and the players also would undergo a drastic change. Instead of giving them scholarships to attend classes and live in the dorms, they could be paid salaries. Instead of taking up class space and dorm space that many players do not care about, they would be responsible for finding their own apartments. If any wanted to go to school, then a special arrangement could be made for them to go during the winter and spring semesters so that the fall will be open for them to concentrate solely on football.”

I have never claimed prophetic powers, but my somewhat “tongue in cheek” suggestions from 39 years ago seem very relevant today.

My last blog post discussed the sickness of how we regard players: we defend them of all transgressions if they play for “our” team and condemn them otherwise. We fail to see the players as exploited products of a system that uses them, at very little cost to the university, to raise a pile of money and then discard them when they are no longer useful. Players are induced by the lure of professional ball, and many have little if any interest in the education a university can offer. This is being recognized by some of the players – witness the suit leveled against Northwestern by players to pay them for their services.

The problem is not only at the university level. This fall football programs have been suspended at two high schools, Sayreville, NJ and Central Bucks West in Doylestown, PA. Both suspensions are due to sexual hazing of younger team members by older team members. The suspension of the CB West program hits home personally, as we lived in that school district when our daughters were very young. They would have attended that high school if we had not moved closer to Philadelphia. While I have not read any statements defending the actions of the players, I have read lots of reactions by students and parents saying the suspension of the program is not fair to other students ranging from band members to mere spectators. No one wants to be robbed of their football. Yet, at least in these two schools, football culture has proven to be poisonous. I have come to believe the presence of football in academic settings, even when not resulting in something as radical as sexual hazing, is poisonous.

I think it is time to propose a radical change in the relationship between football and educational institutions. In high schools, football should be discontinued as a school activity. Young people, who are accomplished players wishing to participate in a competitive league; should be able to do so through club sports. This is exactly what happens in Europe. High schools need to be focused on educating students, not being a feeder system for major college football. The sick football hero system really starts by the hyper focus of a high school on its team and the elevation of the players to a level in which they rule the school. There have already been cases of districts discontinuing interscholastic athletics – football in particular – and seen their academic scores rise.

The problems are intensified on college campuses. The players are expected to perform like professionals, yet integrate into the school setting. These players are not equipped to really benefit from classes. They are part of a football mill. They hope to make it to the NFL, but the vast majority will never play professional ball. Even those who are drafted by the pros are ill prepared to handle the riches that will be dumped on them by an NFL contract. How many instances are there of pro players frittering away their earnings, completely oblivious to the reality that no matter how huge their contract, it does not last forever unless invested and handled properly.

No, my proposal in September 1975 makes a world of sense. The major college programs should become a system of minor league ball – even layered into A, AA and AAA levels of competition, much like professional baseball. Players should be paid for their services, increasing as they work their way up through each layer of competition. Those who are not promoted early will have a chance to opt to go to school, to get a degree that can put them on a productive path.

As for the universities, one purpose of football programs is to fund those sports that make no money. Often scholarships for students in those sports is the only way that student can get an education. Let’s face it, no one is going to make a fortune running woman’s track, or playing college soccer. If the universities, FSU for example, own a minor league franchise affiliated as feeder to an NFL team, it can still serve as a fund raiser for the university. But the players will not be part of campus life, which is likely a very good thing for most students.

As I mentioned in the beginning of my last post, I am a lifelong sports fan. My habit is to live and die with my favorite teams. But I have reached a point where I am having a hard time balancing my passion for sports with my conscience.

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heismanwinston

After almost a lifetime of enthusiastically following college football, I find my taste for it growing increasingly sour. No, it is not because my own alma mater, Pitt, is a program hopelessly mired in mediocrity. I have grown tired of football culture, football worship, football excuse making, and most of all, football’s skewing of our moral compass. I live in Tallahassee, home of the current national champions and home to the latest national media campaign condemning the alleged preferential treatment of football players. It is home to the latest poster child for the discussion over what is wrong with college football – Jameis Winston.

So let’s start with Winston. Whether or not you see his December 2012 incident as sexual assault depends on the loyalties and politics of the person pronouncing judgment. If you are a feminist, you tend to condemn him as a rapist. If you are an FSU football loyalist, you assert this was consensual sex, and this, along with all of Winston’s other public escapades are more the product of him being an immature, enthusiastic kid than bad seed. That is the point of a recent editorial by the Tallahassee Democrat’s Corey Clark – we see what we expect or want to see. Clark makes a valid point but to conclude this discussion by simply stating our desires drive what we see avoids deeper issues.

Let’s revisit, for a moment, that December 2012 sexual encounter. Here is the most lenient, most benign interpretation of what happened. Winston had consensual sex with a young woman while his roommates and teammates watched and commented (cheered?), because that is what football players do. This is not rape but it is sordid enough. It is reflective of a rather depraved moral environment no matter how you interpret the reasons for the other players watching then have sex. AND, the way we can casually dismiss this as just immaturity, or playfulness, or just as what football players do, is indicative of the destructive impact the presence of football has on universities. A great example of that destructive impact is the victimization of Jameis Winston.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Winston is a victim of the football system. Here is why. The only reason anyone cares about him at all is because of his ability to play football. Were he not a gifted athlete, he would just be another troubled black kid, probably not in college, probably with little hope for the future. His problems get noticed because he is able to help FSU raise large amounts of money through football. University supporters will try to help him not because they care about him as a person, but as a tool that benefits the university. If not for football, he might end up on the streets, possibly arrested and incarcerated for his indiscretions. No one would read about him. He would just be another statistic.

Herein is the destructiveness of the football system. It takes kids, largely black and largely poor, and gives them the false hope of striking it rich in the NFL. The colleges compensate them with scholarships. But is this fair compensation? Are these young men attending classes that will teach them to support themselves when the false hope of professional football dies? The path of man of these young people’s lives is evident from a very early age, and I witness it every week. It is tragic.

I am now in the second year of mentoring students at a local elementary school. I had one last year, and two this year. All three are young African American boys. All three are really sweet, nice kids who want to learn, but are struggling in the traditional school environment. They are extremely responsive to the attention I give them as a mentor. But I worry about their futures. If they do not have the tools to succeed academically, they will be lost. If they have any athletic ability, they will cling to the false hope of a professional career. The best most of them will be able to hope for is to become part of a system that will use them, and then discard them.

Major college football programs are their own “Towers of Babel.” The heavens the builders wish to reach are not the realm of God, but the prestige of winning and the financial awards that accompany winning. Much of that money is put to good purpose, yes, by supporting other university programs. However, the players in the system are disposable, interchangeable parts. They lose their humanity for the price of the dream of football heaven – the NFL.

Midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer says that the people building the Tower of Babel paid no heed if one of the workers fell to their death. If, however, one of the bricks fell and was smashed, they would sit down and weep saying, “Woe is us! When will another one come in its stead.” Football players are the bricks of the athletic towers being built by universities. We mourn when one falls (by suspension, injury, etc.). We value them for what they contribute to our structure. But what about the average young person, who becomes another statistic of violence, of dropping out, of going to jail? We pay little heed. Shame on us for being contributors to this contemporary Tower of Babel.

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