Posts Tagged ‘Tower of Babel and football’


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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