Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Moral Indifference

It’s been a tumultuous 12 months for collegiate athletics, as some of the top programs in the country have been caught with their pants down and their hands out, engulfed in controversies ranging from pay-for-play schemes to abortion payoffs. Each scandal has been worse than the one before, and while there’s hope that the embarrassment will stop with the University of Miami abomination, fans everywhere can only sit and pray that their school doesn’t end up on the wrong end of a Yahoo! Sports investigation.

Amid all of the coaching dismissals and returned Heismans, the sports world has turned introspective, as it tries to figure out how we got here, and what can be done to get things back on track. Flip on ESPN and you’ll see their panel of experts discussing the issues on their Blueprint for Change series. Talk radio airwaves are filled with host after host using terms like “Pell Grant” and “Olympic Model” in an effort to state their case. Everyone has a theory, a prescription for what’s needed to repair the apparently failing system.

The only problem is that they’re all trying to fix the wrong thing.

There are countless areas of concern the NCAA must sort out, from recruiting to compliance to enforcement, but at the root of them all is the debate of whether or not the student-athlete should be paid. This is the issue that precipitates the other issues…it’s the catalyst, and many believe that if the players were to start getting a cut of the action, everything else would fall into place. Boosters and agents would be wasting their time offering impermissible benefits, because athletes would have no reason to take them, and therefore coaches would have no indiscretions to lie about. Game…set…sweater vest.

Proponents of this change also point out that it would be the right thing to do. After all, there’s a huge pool of money, and everyone involved – the schools, the coaches, the TV networks, the guy who's getting lucky on the stadium hillside – are stacking their bank accounts off of the free labor of the players. These athletes are the main attraction, the argument goes; they’re what the people are paying to see, yet they’re not getting a dime for their efforts.

Of course, this logic completely ignores the fact that the players are getting paid already.

We can haggle all we want over the definitive value of a scholarship – some say it’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, some say it’s not enough to cover daily expenses – and I’m all for adjusting scholarship payments so they sufficiently provide the athletes with everything they need. But more than anything, these players are being paid with something that’s easy to dismiss yet impossible to put a price tag on:


They’re attending a school most of them could never get into on their own, and they’re assigned a host of tutors and advisors whose sole purpose is to ensure that they succeed academically. They are trained by world-class coaches in world-class facilities, and when they finish their workouts, they’re tended to by world-class doctors. They get to travel around the country, staying in top-notch hotels, eating spreads worthy of a Man vs. Food challenge, collecting bagfuls of gifts from bowl committees, all the while competing in a sport they excel at and turning their name into a recognizable brand.

Granted, this all requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice – like not getting to go to class for three weeks during the NCAA basketball tournament – but if they work hard and take advantage of everything that’s offered, by the time they’re handed their diploma, they’re not only going to have a degree, but they’ll be in a much stronger position for success than the overwhelming majority of their classmates.

And the ones who are good enough to play professionally will already have a jumpstart on their post-career career.

This all has to count for something, regardless of how much a school’s TV deal is worth or how outrageous a coach’s paycheck may seem. Besides, since when is everyone owed an equal piece of the revenue pie? Maybe I’m completely missing something, but at Dunder Mifflin, the warehouse guys were always slaving away, moving boxes and loading trucks, while the white collared staff upstairs was messing around and holding the Office Olympics, but Michael Scott made more than Darryl Philbin. That’s how it works everywhere – the higher you are on the hierarchy, the bigger your slice is.

Now, I realize that some will say that this is not an apt comparison, that it’s the college athlete who makes the sport(s) special. Whereas a warehouse worker possesses a somewhat common skill set that is easily replaceable, the football or basketball player is distinctively talented, and people show up and tune in to see them do things that only they can do. Without them, there are no TV deals, no 100,000 in the Big House, no nothing.

But that’s not entirely true. One of the things that make college sports unique – and what separates them from the professional level – is that they are not star-driven, they’re institutionally driven. They’re based on a foundation of tradition, fight songs, and alma mater. Florida or LSU or any other big time university isn’t dependent on having their own Peyton Manning or Lebron James to be successful. They couldn’t be even if it were necessary, because players are only on campus for a limited period of time. It’s a brand new team each season. If anything, as the one constant, it’s the coach who is the true face of the program.

Look no further than college basketball, where almost all of the top players leave after one year in school (and until 2005, the best players generally bypassed school altogether and went directly to the NBA), yet its popularity has grown so much over the years that in April of 2010, CBS and Time Warner inked a multi-billion dollar contract with the NCAA to broadcast March Madness each spring.

So while fans may grow fond of particular athletes, honoring them with hideous YouTube videos or buying their jersey (this is one area where the naysayers do have a point…if people are making money off of your likeness, there should be a way for you to get compensated), they’re ultimately packing the stadiums and arenas to cheer on whoever it is in their favorite school’s colors. They’re supporting the institution of Duke basketball or Texas football, and even if the quality of play were to decrease a little, the revenue stream wouldn’t. The Longhorns are going to run out of the tunnel to a packed house year after year, regardless of whether it’s Colt McCoy or his little brother under center.

Nobody wants to acknowledge any of this, though. They’d rather cry foul and compare Reggie Bush to Kunta Kinte, or just throw money at the problem, assuming that as long as everyone is cashing a check, all will be right with the world.

But paying players won’t reduce scandal and heartache any more than legalizing alcohol did, because it fails to address what’s really at the core of all of these controversies:

Our society’s pliable relationship with right and wrong.

Take a look around, and in every direction you’ll see honesty and truth being compromised. We do what is most convenient, we do what is most self-serving, and we do it without concern.

It’s silly to think that those who have been caught stiff-arming the rules didn’t know that they were crossing the line. They weren’t George Costanza asking, “Was that wrong?” after sleeping with the cleaning lady. Lying to an NCAA committee, covering up athletes’ transgressions, accepting bounties for injuring opposing players…these were not things they were taught by their mother, but they did them anyway because they could, and then hid behind some sort of poor-me justification to try to convince everybody – and themselves – that it was all okay.

And that’s what really needs to get fixed.

Because beyond all of the rhetoric and rationalizations, it’s this moral indifference, this insatiable greed and "If you're not cheating, you're not trying" mentality that is our biggest obstacle for progress. Maybe it’s too pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna to expect a 19-year-old kid with nothing but lint in his pocket to turn down a $1,000 handshake, or a coach to not put winning above integrity, but until that changes, no amount of reform is going to make a bit of difference. There’s still going to be someone who wants more and is willing to do that much more to get it. Enough will never be enough.

So the powers-that-be can continue to talk a good game, and the experts can spout off their opinions about what needs to be done, but ultimately, the system is not what’s broken…

We are.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Roll Me Away

A man and his car.

It’s as personal and sacred a relationship as there is. From a young age, guys are taught that the car is their domain, that taking care of it is one of their primal responsibilities, like providing food and shelter. That’s why so many men spend their weekends in the driveway, tuning the engine or tightening the belts, making sure that everything is in tip-top condition.

Of course, I can barely tell the difference between a spark plug and a piece of squash, so the last place you’ll find me on a Saturday is underneath the hood, face speckled with oil, tweaking my restrictor plates and blasting White Snake.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve been any less attached to the cars I’ve had.

More than just a body type or a VIN number, each has represented a different era of my life, and they’ve all been special in their own particular way. My first car was, what can I say, my first car, and its hatchback window was the perfect place to write “Champ City” in shoe polish when the Houston Rockets won their first NBA title. My college-and-beyond car was a gift from my grandfather, and it kept me connected to him even though I was living far away. And the Buick I got from my great grandmother? Well, it had a pull-down gear shift and sat six…comfortably.

But the one thing they all had in common was that they were my source of freedom. Ever since I got that first set of keys, I’ve been able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, and for someone who cherishes that type of independence, I am eternally indebted to the vehicles that made that possible.

So every time I’ve had to part ways with one of them – even though I was fortunately moving onto something bigger and better – the experience was more bitter than sweet. Last week was no different when I finally had to get rid of my 2002 Toyota Highlander.

An absolute workhorse with over 175,000 miles on its odometer, my Highlander had been showing signs of fatigue for the last several months. When I’d take it in for an oil change, it was never just an oil change. There was always some sort of filter or injection system that wasn’t working properly. The tech would come out and explain what was going wrong, and I’d nod as if I had any clue what he was talking about, asking insightful questions such as, “Um, is that, like, not supposed to be happening?” Fearing I’d end up on the side of the road engulfed in a plume of smoke, I’d inevitably OK the repair while mentally crossing off that extra jar of peanut butter from my grocery list.

It had gotten to the point where it would’ve been more efficient for my paychecks to be directly deposited into the mechanic’s checking account, so I knew that it was time to mercifully put the Highlander out of its misery. But that didn’t make it any less painful.

Not wanting to barter with Kramer for Hollywood memorabilia, I’d decided to take it to CarMax, hoping they’d give me something with a dollar sign in front of it. On my way over, I was so consumed with thoughts of how long I’d have to wait and how much money I’d get that I didn’t really slow down and appreciate that I was driving it for the last time. I didn’t get a chance to reminisce or give it a proper goodbye, and before I knew it, I was signing over the title as an attendant removed its license plates. The whole process was all so rushed, so impersonal.

And just like that, it was gone.

As I walked to the Metro station, dragging the golf club travel bag I’d accidentally left in the trunk, I felt a pit in my stomach – that disheartening, sentimental sensation you get when something’s over, like when you’re leaving somewhere you know you won’t be going back. I rationally understood that it was just a car, that it was just a way to get from point A to point B, but it still felt like a loss, and I couldn’t help getting nostalgic over all the times we’d had together.

We had first connected back in the fall of 2005. I was living in Houston at the time, and in early September, there was a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that was projected to come right through downtown. Having witnessed the Katrina disaster just a few weeks earlier, a panic enveloped the city, and people wasted no time heading for the exits.

My parents and I were no different, and along with a close family friend, Mallory, we piled into the Highlander and set out for Austin. What we immediately discovered was that it is impossible to efficiently evacuate a population of four million people. In my life, I have never seen traffic like that…it made leaving a Yankees game or commuting on the Capital Beltway seem like a care-free Sunday drive. You’d sit at a put-it-in-Park standstill for inordinate stretches of time, and the mileage signs listing how much further you had to go gradually transitioned from being informative to taunting.

And the longer we were out there, the more desperate the surrounding scenes became. It looked like the end of the world. Most service stations were out of gas, and the ones that had any left were mobbed. With their tanks on empty, people started abandoning their cars, turning I-10 into an automotive graveyard. And while I’d filled up right before takeoff, I was continually eyeing the gauge, wondering how long it could fight off gravity.

But somehow, someway, the Highlander never flinched.

I swear, it was like a fuel camel, perfectly balancing the idling and the stop-and-going and the blasting AC, until it got us through the chaos unscathed. I don’t know how it did it, but over the 150 mile, 14 ½ hour odyssey, that bad boy used just over half a tank of gas. To this day, it’s one of the great unsolved mysteries I’ve ever been a part of.

But the display of toughness I’ll remember most came less than a year later, in May of 2006. I was struggling through a rough, transitional period of my life, trying to come to grips with the past and move towards the future, all at the same time. I was lost and confused and terrified, grasping for anything that made sense, and I became convinced that the answers were somewhere – anywhere – other than in my hometown of Houston.

So I loaded up everything I owned into the back of the Highlander and set out to find what I was looking for.

I’ll spare you the gory details – it’s another story for another time – but over an agonizing, gut-wrenching three week stretch, I covered approximately 4,300 miles, traveling through 22 states and stopping over in eight different cities before ending up right back where I started – on my parents’ doorstep in Texas. Along the way, I cried countless tears, hurt people I cared about, ate approximately 83 Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwiches and pretty much made a complete jackass of myself.

You’d describe that as a nervous breakdown, wouldn’t you?

It was one of the darkest times I’ve ever experienced, and I look back on it with nothing but shame and regret. But through it all, through all of the judgment and the uncertainty and the embarrassment, my one rock, my one constant, was my car. I knew that whenever I got overwhelmed or if the anxiety became so suffocating that I couldn’t breathe, it was there, waiting with open arms, with everything I needed – my clothes, my iPod, and most importantly, a map to somewhere else.

Sure, maybe I was running away from my problems, so I guess you could say the Highlander was an enabler of sorts. But it was also my lifeboat, and given the fact that I felt stifled and trapped by the world around me, that’s exactly what I needed. And even though those three weeks were excruciatingly difficult, when I was out on the open road, the windows down and the music up, with nothing but white lines in front of me, I had never been so free.

We’ve fortunately had some lighter, more uplifting adventures since, like surviving Snowmageddon 2010 in D.C. and picking up my girlfriend on what was our first Friday night date. But like many relationships, our bond was forged during those tough, trying hours, and it’s a connection I already miss.

It’s not going to be easy looking for a different car in the parking lot, but I know that my new ride is an upgrade in every sense of the word – fewer years, fewer miles, fewer (knock on wood) headaches. I just hope that it can uphold the gold standard that’s now been established. The Highlander was a good soldier, an uncompromising warrior, and I am proud to have called it my own.

So rest in peace, old friend…lord knows you’ve earned it.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?