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Posts Tagged ‘Jameis Winston’

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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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Those who know me know I am an inveterate sports fan.  Specifically I am a great football fan, being very loyal to the Philadelphia Eagles as well as my alma mater, the Pitt Panthers.  It was with chagrin but real admiration that I watched Jameis Winston take Pitt apart in the first game of this season.  It was clear that he is a player of great talent, truly a first rate quarterback.  As is often said in sports, Winston is the “real deal.”

But, this fall has been a football season in which I am rethinking my devotion to football.  On the pro level, there have been revelations about the long term effects of football on pro players.  With sadness I learned how former Pitt player and Dallas Cowboy Tony Dorsett is suffering permanent brain damage marked by memory loss, from the years of taking a constant pounding in the NFL.  The league is not adequately addressing either this or the frequency of players suffering concussions.  I am left wondering if football is really just as bad as boxing – nothing but gratuitous violence.

As to high school football, I have been reading some articles showing that high school education would benefit if varsity sports, especially football, were removed from school culture.  We are one of the few countries that connect competitive sports to our public education system.  All of the benefits of competitive sports could be had through participation in club sports.  The presence of varsity sports in high schools is appearing to be detrimental to creating a positive learning environment in high schools.  School districts that have eliminated varsity sports, particularly football (admittedly a small sample) have seen an increase in their students academic scores.

The grossest expressions of football culture, however, occur on the college level.  There are multiple problems: the inferior education given black players compared to white players, the veracity of the athletes truly being students, grade fixing…the list seems endless.  But perhaps the worst part of football in colleges is idol worship of the players, i.e. the elevation of players to hero status and subsequently forgiving the awful behavior of players needed to keep the team winning.  I saw this with Dorsett at Pitt in the 1970’s.  We are seeing it again with Jameis Winston at FSU right now.  This has become most apparent now that Winston has won the Heisman Trophy – college football’s highest award – last Saturday.  Look at the Facebook postings regarding Winston.  Countless posted how proud they were of Winston.  All of this was accompanied by the requisite “Go Noles!” along with the wish he leads the team to a national championship.  He is garnering accolades as a leader.  His success on the field, coupled with the award and all of the accolades declaring how proud people are of him, make Winston an example to young men all over the country.  He is now showered with fame and praise.

I have to ask if this is appropriate.  Why?  Well consider Winston’s escape from prosecution for a sexual abuse charge.  The whole affair is sordid no matter what the outcome.  The worst case scenario is this:  Winston escaped prosecution because State Attorney Willie Megg’s office could not or would not piece together enough of a case to charge him.  Once Meggs announced there would be no case brought against Winston. His exoneration caused a palpable sigh of relief in the football world.  That freed Heisman voters to cast their ballots for him (although there were 113 voters who did not even list him, which means they had moral difficulties with even considering him).  This leads us to the best case scenario surrounding Winston’s sexual episode.  He and the young woman had consensual sex, both of them as part of serial sexual behavior with multiple partners. Winston’s roommates watched them have sex through the open door to his bedroom because that is “what football players do.”  This is whom we wish to laud?

Do not get me wrong.  I am not a prude nor do I blame Winston.  He is merely the product of a culture that empowers those participating in football to play by different rules because of their contribution to the team’s success.  Absent such an obvious crime that conviction is inescapable, there are few moral consequences for football players.  All college players have to do is see the list of NFL players who get passes for behavior which would result in real punishment for the rest of us.  Few people really cared if the woman in the incident was truly abused.  Some even saw this as a plot to sabotage Winston’s Heisman hopes and FSU’s quest for a national title.  In addition, there were those who immediately vilified the young woman.

Most of all, I just cannot be proud of someone whose most noteworthy trait is the ability to throw and run with a football – no matter what kind of a fan I am.  I cannot be proud of someone who operates under this moral cloud.  Football would just be a trivial game if not for the dollars it generates.  The elevation of its players to hero status is a form of idolatry of the worse kind when it happens in the absence of admirable moral behavior.

All of this brings me to another point – who do I really admire?  Who is worthy of our pride?  Who should we look to for providing leadership?

Well, the same day Winston won the Heisman Trophy, a little 8 year old boy died after a long fight with leukemia – Sam Sommer – known to many as “Superman Sam.”  His parents are two rabbis, Phyllis and Michael Sommer.  I do not know them, but all you have to do is read Phyllis’s blog about their journey with Sam to share their grief, to have empathy with them as parents and to admire Sam’s courage as he faced death as well as their courage as they wrestled with their loss and shared this pain with the world.  You can read Phyllis’s entry the day of Sam’s death here:  http://supermansamuel.blogspot.com/2013/12/what-im-missing.html

Needless to say I am proud of my colleagues Phyllis and Michael Sommer even though I have never met them.  Needless to say I am proud of Sam for demonstrating the beautiful lessons a child can teach us in the face of the harshest of tragedies.  And I am also quite proud of 36 of my rabbinic colleagues, many of whom I do know, for taking part in a special event at the upcoming rabbinic convention in March.  They will shave their heads as part of a fundraiser for battling childhood cancer.  See the details at this link:  http://www.stbaldricks.org/events/mypage/10921/2014

Who is it that makes me proud?  Yes, it is a little boy who taught us with his courage as he lost his struggle with death.  Yes, it is his parents whose words will help other parents cope with their grief.  Yes, it is 36 rabbis who demonstrate real leadership by rallying around the Sommer family to tangibly contribute to a cure for children’s cancer.  I hope you will join me in supporting their cause.

As to Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy, and football in general, none of it has ever seemed more trivial than now.

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