Editor's Note: Personally it took me a long time to grapple with this subject matter. A person died, who I never truly knew, who I had never even truly witnessed, and yet I still felt this profound sense of loss. How? Why? Is this something I can express without seeming insincere or contrived or overly emotional? I'm not sure. But, in honor of Stanley Frank Musial (1920-2013) and St. Louis I figured I'd try. Here goes nothing.
You’re probably not from here, which means that you don’t understand. And that’s OK. I can’t blame you. It’s not your fault. People cannot choose where they are from anymore than they can choose who their parents are or what color there skin is. Hometowns don’t work like that. They are something you are born into, they are something that you are forced to adopt. Not even wishing upon a star can change the place that will--one way or another--always be your home.
Stan Musial isn’t from here either. He’s from a little town 28 miles or so outside of Pittsburgh, a little town called Donora, Pennsylvania. A little town built on the back of Zinc mills and the immigrants that labored in them. Immigrants like Lukasz Musial, Stan’s father, a man who worked so hard that the mills claimed his life in 1948. A man whose death cemented his son Stanley’s decision to get as far away from those very same mills as he possibly could. Far and away, on the other side of the Mississippi River, where Stan The Man’s legend forever remains sketched in granite.
No, Stan Musial isn’t from St. Louis. He is St. Louis. Much like Cal Ripken Jr. is Baltimore or Tony Gwynn is San Diego or Roberto Clemente is Pittsburgh. Only more. Those superstars lived and breathed for their respective cities.
Stan Musial lived and breathed with his, side by side, day after day after day until he didn’t have any more breathe left.
I wish I could paint this picture—the portrait of a hero standing among, not above, the people who worshiped him—more clearly for you, but I know that I cannot.
Stan Musial is St. Louis. Those are the only words I can conjure up to help you understand. But those words are not nearly enough.
In fact if you are not from here, those words probably mean nothing to you at all. And that’s OK. I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault.
It’s just the cold hand of fate deciding that this man belongs to me, and that you would never really be able to know how much that belonging truly means.
I’ve never met Rick Majerus. Never knew the man of literally immense proportions. The man with a heart so big that it burst just a few months shy of his 65th birthday. Rick Majerus was as much a stranger in my life as anyone breathing the Earth’s oxygen. The man who was famous for spending his adulthood as a champion of the Marriott Rewards system never gave me his room number or slipped me a key. I never saw the hotel transient that defined who Mr. Richard Majerus had become.
I know the stories about the coach, as many of you do as well. In nature, they range from the disturbing—the time Majerus wiped his penis out in the middle of practice to demonstrate to a post defender how to leave a true “six inches” between himself and his opponent—to borderline incriminating—slapping a player’s groin during a timeout to show him how he had “no nuts”—to truly awe inspiring—caring for an abandoned child and, once finding her a home, forwarding a check of $5,000 to whoever her new parents were (even Majerus didn’t know who the adoption agency placed her with) so they could begin funding her college fund.
In their own way all the stories—the good, the bad, and yes even the hideously ugly—shape the legacy of a man who was both complicated and simple, real and misunderstood, brutally honest and not exactly forthcoming. As Majerus lay on his deathbed in a Los Angeles hospital, hoping and praying for a heart transplant that would not come, many of his friends, his colleagues, his deepest admirers were left in a state of shock, unsure of what was happening to the coach.
We all assumed it was bad when Majerus first took a leave of absence and then retired outright just before the season began. We were all unfortunately proven right Saturday night when news began to leak that Rick Majerus, a man who was always larger than life, had now left it completely behind, officially moving on to what will hopefully become his final rebuilding challenge.
So where does that leave us, the people Majerus left behind? With the stories I shared above? With the numbers—the 517 wins, the 12 NCAA tournament trips, the 10 conference championships—that Majerus accumulated? With the memories of sitting in Chaifetz Arena and watching a giant roaming the sidelines, barking and stomping his feet and competing with every breathe his body could produce, competing until he did not have another breathe left?
I did not know Rick Majerus, so I will rely on those who do. Those who tell me that the coach was caring and selfless
. Those who tell me that he was, at times, stubborn and ruthless
. Those who say that he was a leader of men
. Those who know that he was flawed
Those who will always maintain that he is bigger than life
In 2008, shortly after beginning his first season at SLU, Sports Illustrated’s
S.L. Price penned a remarkable profile of Majerus
. The piece was neither good nor bad, neither glowing nor scathing. It was all encompassing, honest and real just like its subject.
It ended with these words. “Majerus will walk that long tunnel to the locker room alone, head down, two people indeed. There goes the happy coach back in his element. There goes the saddest man you ever saw.”
As that line indicates, Majerus may have been sad, but he was also happy. In the end Rick Majerus was simply human. Nothing more, nothing less.
Just a man who I watched bark and stomp and compete on the sidelines of Chaifetz Arena.
Competing with every breath his body could produce.
Competing until he did not have another breath left.
Competing until his players understood what it’s like to want something so badly that they would die to achieve it.
Even in death Rick Majerus’ life teaches us a lesson.
Even in death Rick Majerus’ life is devoted to making people better, not at basketball, but at being human beings.
According to Wikipedia
a moral imperative is a "principle originating in a person's mind that compels that person to act." Not to get all philisophical on you, but the irrefutuable article (it is from Wikipedia so you know that you are getting the best possible information) goes on to tie this concept into Immanuel Kant's idea of a categorical imperative, or a "dictate of pure reason, in its practical aspect." To Kant not following the moral law was seen as self-defeating and contrary to reason. This concept was the basis for the philisophical idea of conscience, or the voice in our heads that separates right from wrong. This concept was the basis for the idea that human beings know the difference between what is just and what is not, and that they can and most often do act accordingly.
Now that you all know about the B+ I earned in Philosophy 101, you can go on to challenge this assertion. There is certainly ample evidence in our culture, our society, our world to do so; to argue that human beings are more guided by money
or greed or sex than morals. But I won't. I'll argue that human beings of sound mind, while certainly sinners and creatures who often do not live up to their own ethics, know the difference between right and wrong. There is some gray to be sure, but there's also a whole lot of black and white. There's a whole lot of moral imperatives that force us to act because our conscience tells us to.
To ignore them is as grave a sin as there is in this world. To ignore them is to ignore what makes us human. To ignore them, is to become what Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier are; men faced with one moral imperative after one, one fact forcing them to be human, and ignoring it for more than a decade. I'll let God judge these men when there time comes. For now I'll just shake my head in disappointment and wonder what may have been if they had rose to the occasion and been men of strong morals, unrelenting virtue or unquestionable honor.
The egregious acts of Jerry Sandusky cannot be undone. The childhoods of his victims cannot be unruined. The stain on the souls of the men who could have stopped them, and didn't, cannot be bleached away. Those sad facts cannot be changed no matter how much we hope and pray for the children who were devastated by them. In this instance, like so many tragic ones before it, we are powerless in the face of destruction.So what do we do now? Paterno is dead. Sandusky is already rotting behind bars. Curley, Schultz and Spanier could be following him shortly. Even as we continue to search for justice, even as we continue to hold perpetrators responsible the best way that we know how, we cannot offer relief. We cannot stop the oppressed from living with
the sins of their oppressors. Penn State can, and hopefully will, step up and offer Sandusky's victims financial restitution, which of course will do nothing for their
nightmares. Hopefully they can also ensure that the victimized receive conseling and professional help. Help and hope that they can move on with their lives, even if their terror can never be washed away.Some in the media are also suggesting that Penn State, or the NCAA, or both have the power to do more; the power to send a message.
Some in the media are also suggesting that these institutions now face their own moral imperative. They say "ban Penn State Football" in newspapers and talk radio shows and television programs. They say that the severity of the crime demands the extremity of a crippling punishment. They say that devastating an innocent university community, town, and 85 players, is a necessary measure of retribution, a necessary demonstration that proves that we all have our priorities in check."Think about the children," they say, as if those who disagree with them
don't also have a heart full of condolescenes that can do nothing for the traumatized. "Extreme measures are needed," they exclaim, as if those who don't see their purpose would be afraid of any measure that would restore innocence to the abused. "The punishment needs to fit the crime!" they extoll, as if those who don't see a football ban and decades of disgusting failures as eye for an eye also don't recognize the severity of the crime here.
We all know how tragic and terrible the crime here is. It is by far the worst, most hideous scandal in the history of college sports. It makes the SMU "pay for play" case look like a teenager swiping a stick of gum from the local Piggly Wiggly. It makes Reggie Bush's improper benefits look like a jaywalker crossing an empty country road outside the crosswalk at 4:30 in the morning. It makes Terryl Prior's tattoos look like sketches done by a 5-year-old on his placemate at the Duluth Applebee's. And, worse yet, there is no question that the cult-like worship for Paterno and Penn State football were motivating factors in the cover-up.
This all means that Penn State or the NCAA could "send a message." The new administration could turn out the lights on Beaver Stadium for a year or 5 or 20. The suits in Indianapolis could show the world that this scandal is way more serious than their other comparatively meaningless violations by throwing the rule book at Nittany Lion football. We could all sleep better at night knowing that someone somewhere has the intestinal fortitude to show the big, sleazy world of college sports that some things are just more important. Better yet Penn State could close its doors completely. After all this was a failure of an entire institution of higher learning whose own president, the man entrusted with its very well-being, didn't have the guts
to show anything but "callous disregard" for the victims. Certainly as long as otherwise innocent students are allowed to learn chemistry and economics in Happy Valley, we are not showing the victims that they we are taking their suffering seriously enough.
Then we can shut down the Philadelphia Archdiocese and Boy Scouts of America
for a few years to show that people who did nothing wrong shouldn't be attending mass or camp outs until those institutions are punished for their transgressions as well.
Then, when everyone who should be punished is and all our messages are sent, the thousands of victims of sexual abuse these organizations are at least partially responsible for will be able to sleep better at night along with us. Or they won't.This scandal is shameful and saddening. The fact that it could have been stopped long before it was is nothing short of tragic. Once again, we cannot even begin to explain the kind of sorrow and sympathy we have for the victims. The fact that the men who were supposed to be giving them a voice fell silent to protect a football team is warped and reprehensible.We can try to illustrate that to the world by shuttering the Penn State football program. We can run and hide and be sad and quiet and feel better about our moral priorities.Or we can at least try to show the victims that we have learned our lesson. We cannot take away their pain. We cannot alleviate their suffering. But, we can do our best to make sure it never happens again.The football program is meant to promote and support
the mission of a University
; not to become it. Penn State forgot that when it mattered most. And unfortunately, it was the innocent who suffered for it.The university can send
a hollow message to show its sorry. Or it can change its culture to show that this is something that will never happen again. Football can exist at Penn State, it just has to exist the right way.You say that Penn Sate has a moral imperative to shut its football program down. I say they have a moral imperative not to. You say they have a moral imperative towards punishment. I say they have a moral imperative towards rehabilitation. You say they have a moral imperative to wipe the slate clean and prevent themselves from showing progress. I say they have a moral imperative to show us all how football can and should be done on college campus.Penn State can run and hide and cast off its football program, pretending that the sports absence will solve
all its problems. Or it can become a beacon for hope; the rare big-time program who competes the right way. The rare big-time program who has a sense of perspective.After all football itself was never the culprit to begin with. The real culprits were the people who let it become one.You say that Penn State should just close its eyes, and hope that once they open them this will never happen again.I say that Penn State shows us all the way to change by, from now on, doing football better than anyone else.The crime cannot be undone. The pain can never be taken away.
One September or another football will return to Happy Valley, and the victims will still be living with their torture.Hollow messages
will not change that.
Perhaps nothing will.A transformed football program at Penn State however, one that lives the virtue it extolls, could at least show the world that a lesson has been learned. It could at least show Nick Saban or Urban Meyer or Lane Kiffin or anyone else that if, God forbid, this ever happens to them that they better be ready to stand up and speak out, or they will get left behind.Because some things are more important than football. You don't show that by quietly slinking off into the darkness. You show it by exposing yourselves in the light of Saturday afternoon
. You show it by changing; by setting an example and teaching the young men in your charge how to be ready to face the moral imperatives that may one day be extended to them.
"Here's a guy who makes a terrible mistake, one of the most terrible in the history of college athletics. I'm afraid that will be his legacy. When people talk about Joe Paterno in the future, it will all come back to this."
By now we've all read the report former FBI chief investigator David Freeh
conducted on the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. We've had 24 hours or so to digest the information. We all, being of sound mind and reason, have come to one logical and--at this point--almost irrefutable conclusion: it is a damning document. It is the murderer of one of the great legacies in the history of sport. Joe Paterno's statue may still stand outside of Beaver Stadium, but the one we have all erected for the legendary mentor in our hearts and minds has been lassoed, pulled down and destroyed in the street. At the very least it is almost completely covered in pigeon shit.I won't bore you with the an in-depth analysis of the details that we have already discovered.
We know that Joe Pa knew about the Sandusky incident in 1998. That fact alone means that, even if the coach always believed in his defensive coordinator and friend's innocence, he lied to a grand jury. That fact alone means that the 2001 conversation the coach had with Mike McQueary should have set off a field full of red flags in his conscience. That fact alone means that the coach allowing Sandusky to use his football facility for the next decade makes him a co-conspirator to some of the most heinous crimes that have ever come to our attention. That fact alone makes Paterno someone who would cover up the most serious of transgressions to protect the image of his program, his university, himself.In the end that leaves the Joe Paterno believers, of which I was once among the most vehement, with one question and one question only: what makes a man the person that he is?
Is it 60-years of faithful service, 60-years of steadfast dedication to a cause, 60-years of life changing leadership? Or is it one disgraceful act that begot another that begot another that eventually made Joe Paterno, at the very, very least, a knowful bystander in one of the most disgusting manifestations of human sickness the world of sports has ever seen? Is it six plus decades of molding young men's character, or is it a pattern of what Freeh calls "callous disregard" that kept even younger men from ever being able to fully realize their's? How can we rectify what we know about Joe Paterno the teacher, the mentor, the coach with what we now know about Joe Paterno the allower of sin and life ruining abuse?I am not sure that we can. To say Paterno's resume is marred would be an understatement. To say Paterno's statue carries subtext and disturbing symbolism would be an underexaggeration. To say that Paterno the man we all knew is forever buried, both literally and figuratively, is a statement that we can all deny or agree with without ever really knowing what the truth is.Because--outside of the victims and their families, who have earned the prayers and heartfelt condolences from a shocked nation--the truth lies with a group of men who knew Paterno best; who put their faith in the coach and were often rewarded for it by becoming better sons, fathers and husbands.
The truth lies with the men who got to see behind person behind the image.Right now no one can tell Joe Paterno's former players how to feel. Some believe they were deceived
. Some are appauled and saddened. Some are loyal defenders
who, while certainly not just forgiving their disgraced leader, still can remember the man they once knew in State College. For now, we all realize that, when Joe Paterno was faced with the greatest challenge of his lifetime, the greatest test of his character, he failed miserably. We all understand that our image of Joe Paterno as the morally forthright
guide for the virtue of college athletics is a sham.We all know that, on the occasion that it mattered most, Joe Paterno lied. He lied to the justice system. He lied to the people he should have been protecting. He almost certainly lied to himself.Joe Paterno is a liar, but does that make Joe Paterno the man a lie? I don't know. I am not the man to condemn or champion him.The answer lies in the soul of a man currently buried underneath the Earth, and the people who knew him best. The answer lies in the heart and minds
of the men whom he shaped into Penn State football players.
Time will continue to tick. Facts will continue to come out. We will all gain some perspective and be better able to judge the man's legacy in a year, or two or 15. But we will never know the man who was a sinner and a saint; a foundation for principle and a betrayer of the very ideals that he championed. Only a select few did. Only a select few will know, one way or another, what we never can.We all know that their coach is dead. We all know what we will bring up first when discussing his life. Only they will know if the rest of the story is really worth telling or not.
Ding dong, the witch is dead. The Berlin Wall has fallen. Voldemort's reign of terror is over. The Bowl Championship Series' days of making college football fans weep and curse its name have finally come to an end
.Comparing the BCS to a wicked witch, communism and the darkest, most soulless creature any real or fictional world has ever known is no extreme. Because, not only did it (the BCS) oppress, marginalize and even kill sports fans souls around this great land
, but now...it is over. Like all the other great horrors mentioned above, its number is up. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel containing our dismay.It's stunning to me that this has happened; that the conference commissioners grew a pair of plums, that their respective universities' presidents finally got their PhD's in 6th grade logic, and that the Big 10 stopped defending a system that makes them look like the SEC's own personal french maid every January. I can honestly say that I was never sure this day would come--that the power's that be in my favorite game at my favorite level would understand that better competition and more money equals a win-win for everyone involved. That the fans, the players, the universities (many of whom operate their athletic department at a deficit and still acted like increasing the sport's TV revenue by roughly 450% was blasphemous) would all get the chance to be better off in 2014 than they have been for the past 12 years.
Now, I know what many of you may be thinking: not enough has changed. I am inclined to agree. In my opinion a 4 team playoff is not as exciting or entertaining as a 8 team model would have been, and to be honest I am still head-over-heels gaga over the possibility of the Sun Belt Champion upsetting Alabama or USC in the 1st round of a 16-team, winner take all battle royal. And let's be realistic here as well. This new system may not clean up the much, or even any, of the BCS' mess; it could still lead to the exclusion of teams from smaller conferences, or an outcry the first time (and I promise this will happen) a 2 or 3 loss Big 10 champion gets in over the second best (and far superior) team from the SEC or Big 12, or even a ridiculous amount of corruption and blind power in the still existing bowl system. In fact it probably will.But I choose not to look at the glass as half empty tonight, and with good reason.
College Football has a legitimate playoff. On or around January 1, 2015 something like LSU taking on Oregon and Oklahoma State battling Alabama (last years likely participants) will happen right before our eyes. We'll see two teams win, and two teams lose and we'll sit around for a week or so and talk about what's going to happen next. Talk about the most historic night in the annals of the greatest game on Earth.The night when the winners of those semifinal games will meet in a Stadium in front of their fans, God, and TV cameras streaming their efforts to an entire nation watching with bated breathe. For the first time ever, College Football's most deserving team will be unequivocally declared in front of our eyes. For the first time ever, College Football's National Champion will earn their crown on the field.It may not be everything, but it is something.
Something long overdue. Something that certainly can (and hopefully will) be improved upon. But also, something that's finally within eyesight.
Something that makes college football more true and honest. Something that makes the sport more worthy of the love and admiration that we all already shower upon it unconditionally.
A victory won is sweeter than a victory awarded. In 2014 one college football team will finally be allowed to learn the truth behind that statement. In 2014 one college football team will finally be a true champion, one that earns the title bestowed on them in every sense of the word.Today is a momentous day for the sport. That's something we can all agree on. Here's another: after a 143 years of college--it's about God Damn time.
Editors Note: In a recent debate entitled "Should College Football be Banned" noted authors Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) and Malcolm Gladwell argued for the elimination of football on campuses of colleges and universities around the country. While Gladwell's arguments focused primarily on player safety, Bissinger argued mainly that football itself did nothing to contribute to a College or University's main mission: Academics. This is an Open Letter Written in Defense of College Football, and Directed at Mr. Bissinger.Dear Buzz,I've always wanted to meet you. I can remember holding onto a copy of Friday Night Lights in seventh grade
, flipping the page with trembling hands, dying to find out if Boobie was ever gonna make it back onto the field. Dying to know if he would ever reach out and touch his dreams. I can honestly say that that was the first book I've ever loved Buzz. Even now every time I hold the book I flip through it and escape back to Odessa, still dreaming of being a Panther, still dreaming of caring that much about something. I know now what I never did then. That your words made me want to be a writer. That your story changed my life Buzz. And I will always be grateful to you for that.Which is why I was disappointed to here how you feel about college football Buzz. And not because I love tailgating Mizzou games or would skip a wedding to watch LSU/Alabama. But because I don't understand why you don't see past the game on the field and into the hearts and minds of the people playing on it. I don't understand how the man who brought me Boobie Miles' story could miss out
on the purpose of the game that he was playing. How someone like you could separate the mission of the sport from the mission of university
, without ever thinking that they might be the exact same thing. Buzz, it looks like you never knew what I know: that, and I am well aware how cliche this sounds, football (like any team sport really) teaches the people that play it more about life than it seems like you ever could imagine.Because, it seems to me Buzz, that you have missed the entire purpose of the higher education
in the first place. You say it's "academics
," but that it is only part of it. You see Buzz, the really mission of any college or
university worth it's salt isn't just academics. It's learning. Discovering. Growing. Developing. Becoming ready to be productive members of society intellectually, professionally, socially. Becoming ready to be good citizens of the world.You see I played college football Buzz. And not at one of those big, sleazy football factories that you refer to with such disdain. I played at a liberal arts school with 1,200 kids
where football was just slightly higher on the college's totem pole than the very real Qudditch team that existed there. A place where the players went to class, the College president made a significantly higher salary than the head football coach, and less than 100 students
filled the Stadium most Saturdays. A place where football mattered very little to the everyday lives of every single person there, besides the 55 or 60 guys who were putting on their pads and going to practice.This means that you weren't really talking to me in that debate Buzz, and I get that. I have no idea what it's like to exist on a campus where Nick Saban towers over Chemistry professors, admissions directors, everyone but Jesus Christ. But isn't that part of the problem Buzz? That you weren't talking to me? That I, and so many players like
me, are non-existent to you? That you want to take our game away from our school just like you want to take away Aaron Murray's
? Maybe you don't Buzz. More than likely you never took us into account. Maybe you think that football can exist at places like small Liberal Arts Colleges
and Ivy League schools
--places where it will never matter more than learning about environmental economics--and just not in the SEC or Big XII. That's fine Buzz, I get that too. But you're still missing the point.I had this professor in college, one of the academics you champion so much Buzz, who once told me to never be afraid to tell the world what I learned by participating in inter-collegiate athletics. So I won't be. The laundry list is long Buzz. I can tell you about how me and my teammates never gave up after losing 18 straight games, about how we worked so hard to make our team respectable, about how I made some of the best friends anyone has ever known by sharing a locker room and a huddle. I have hundreds of more sappy cliches I could share with you Buzz.But instead I'll just focus on one. I'll tell you about how playing football taught me about passion Buzz. About how I went out everyday and got my ass kicked
, and pushed a blocking sled, and never missed a practice even though I often daydreamed the whole car ride down to the Stadium that I would, because I loved to play a game. Because I never felt more alive than when I was playing football. About how when you truly do love something, you can commit yourself fully to it, just like how a prospective classics scholar can commit himself to reading Cicero and Homer and Virgil hour after hour because he cares about what they are saying. Because he loves reading and learning about the story that they are telling him.You can find this passion playing football Buzz, just like you can find it completing a biology lab. Isn't that what college really is for? Not only learning what you care about, but
also learning how to care so deeply about something? That even if you can't make money doing what you love, you can always know what it feels like to love and completely devote yourself to whatever you were passionate about? Isn't that knowledge important when we're trying to become a husband that loves his wife, a father that loves his children, or an American who loves his country?
You had this passion once Buzz, I felt it. I held the pages of what will always be the most important book in my life, in many ways my bible, and knew that it was present in your words. Now football may have had no role in helping you find it Buzz, but that doesn't change the fact that it was there. So why would you want to deprive someone else of learning how to feel what you felt? We all know football itself needs to change, in many ways needs to transform its culture in order for it to be saved from itself. I've said it before. I'll say it now. And let's hope everyone can band together to make the game as safe as we all hope it can be. That's a great challenge facing the sport Buzz. We all acknowledge that we cannot hide from it any longer.But you also point out another challenger facing the college game Buzz, and one that needs to be taken seriously as well. There's no question that big-time college football is often an unsavory business
. That the college game needs some sort of economic and cultural shift to make it more honest, fair and legitimate: to make sure that it is focusing on the right things. That maybe your idea of turning BCS conferences into a minor league system for the NFL, one in which going to school is optional and players are offered "Tutors" like they are a prospect Albert Brooks is trying to sign in The Scout
, is the easiest option. That separating an University from its football team is the simplest solution.But it will never be the best.
You may not have been talking to me when you said all those things Buzz, but I am talking to you now. Because whether we (student athletes) are competing for Oberlein College or USC, whether we end up becoming Lawyers, Teachers, Scientists, Best Buy sales associates or NFL Quarterbacks, we are all really the same. We are mostly just a group of kids going to school so we can learn and grow. So we can discover and develop our passion, and translate the blood, sweat and tears it took to push it as far as we could into the rest of our lives. We are all boys Buzz. Boys who are trying to learn to become men. We do it by going to school. We also do it by playing a game.Subtracting one from the other won't help us, you, or the institution of higher learning we chose to attend Buzz.
In fact it will harm all three. Because we are here to learn. And the things we experience in college are meant to teach us. Going to class and studying is surely a significant part of that.
But so is moving away from home, meeting new people, becoming active in extra curricular activities (like student government, a varsity/club/IM sports team, a greek organization, or a special interest group) or figuring out how to work a George Foreman grill. That list includes football.That's what college is supposed to be about Buzz: learning. And that's why most of us are here.
Because, as you taught me so long ago, true learning requires passion. And when the two come together, it can lead to some pretty great results.It can lead to us discovering what higher education is all about in the first place.
That's what you should be telling us Buzz. Instead you just want to toss us out so others, in your mind, will learn Political Theory or American Literature better.And we will learn nothing about it at all.
When we, as sports fans, reflect back through our memory and try to place certain events in our lives, we often use transcendent moments in sports to do so. We remember how happy we were to escape Sister Mary Joe Kramer in 4th grade by knowing that we saw Jordan bury the Jazz two weeks later in the June of '98. We recall how uncomfortable we felt during our first 8th grade mixer by visualizing Mariano River blowing a sure-fire save in game 7 against the Arizona Diamondbacks a few nights later. Our junior year of high school
becomes less about football losses and 1.7 GPA's, and more about one Monday night in March when we saw North Carolina beat Illinois in the most evenly contested national title game of our lifetimes. We remember Spring Break in Panama City through 6-overtime Big East tournament games (Syracuse v. UConn), pledging a fraternity through watching the biggest sports upset in modern history (Giants over Patriots), getting drunk off everclear and pounding McDonald's cheeseburgers
through pay-per-view boxing (Mayweather v. De La Hoya). Sports becomes our lexicon, our memories' reference point to previous times and events in our lives. It becomes our means for remembering how we felt, how we saw the world, how we lived.And I cannot honestly tell you why that is, I'm not a psychologist. But I can tell you there are clearly early events in our lives which we witness that feel special. That feel magical. That makes a sport (or sports in general) seem like the most important thing in the world
. That, as corny and cliche as it may sound, make us fall head over heels for players who can hit jump shots, or field ground balls, or break open field tackles. These are moments which are not only transcendent, but that offer our young minds a certain level of clarity, a certain level of understanding. That finally let us get that it's OK for even the manliest of men to cry after his team loses a playoff game.
For me, one of these moments was NFL Championship Weekend in 1994. Even though by that point I had determined that I was a Cowboys
fan (at least until the Rams moved to St. Louis 2 years later), it wasn't their loss to the 49ers that Sunday afternoon that I remember so vividly. It was the other game, the AFC Title matchup between the San Diego Chargers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, that I can still rewind in my mind; that I can still see so clearly it seems like they just played yesterday.I can still feel the excitement of the Steelers driving down the field with a Super Bowl birth on the line. I can still visualize myself, rising from my seat on the carpeted floor of my family room, standing up and knowing that what I am about to see is important.
I can still never forget Dennis Gibson breaking up O'Donnell's pass
and listening to Dick Enberg describe the scene as Gibson and Means and Humphries and Junior Seau ran out on to the field at Three Rivers Stadium in the purest form of triumph and exaltation I had ever witnessed.
I can never forget that day, that moment. I was just a chubby 7-year-old whose parents wouldn't let him play the sport for another half-a-decade. But I was more than that. I was a kid who had just fallen in love with football--even if I wasn't close to realizing it yet.Which is why that's the moment I keep going back to now that I've heard that Junior Seau is tragically dead of an apparent suicide.
It was as close as Junior Seau would ever come to being a Super Bowl Champion, perhaps his greatest moment of professional glory.
But that doesn't tell the whole story, because it was also a moment of magical significance to at least one 1st grader who had no clue who Junior Seau, or even the San Diego Chargers, were. It was a moment that I will never let fade from my memory. In my mind it is the best football can ever, or will ever be. Now, Junior Seau's death is certainly a tragic
reminder that we, as fans, often put too much emphasis on professional sports. That football (or baseball or basketball or hockey or soccer) is a game, and not life or death.But it also reminds me of something else. It reminds me of a Sunday afternoon when I learned that there was something magical about a game I had never played or even really watched. It reminds me of a turning point in my life, a moment when I learned what it was like to live.
A moment when I learned how it felt to watch something so great you knew that you would hold onto it for the rest of your life.And I would like to thank Junior Seau and the rest of those '94 Chargers for that.
Junior may be dead, but in the heart and mind of one 7-year-old...he will never be forgotten.He'll just be that player jumping up and down on the field in joy; that man who has worked his heart out
in a good cause and forever lies on the field of battle--victorious.
2 years. 1228 points. 414 rebounds. Over 60 wins. 2 Elite 8 appearances and ACC Regular Season Championships. A 1st Team All-Conference Selection and an 2nd Team All-American one to boot. An ACC Freshman of the Year Award. No less than 7 game winning or go head shots in the final two-minutes of games. 2x Pre-Season All-American selection.
That's quite the line for a college sophomore, a 20-year-old kid who plays for one of college basketball's most storied and successful programs. Some would call it impressive even. In fact an untrained eye might look at these numbers and be more than willing to compare them to the early collegiate accomplishments of the greatest player to ever take a court
. Might look at them favorably even.But none of us will, and that's understandable. After all not even Harrison Barnes' most ardent supporters would argue that he is even in the same stratosphere as Michael Jeffrey Jordan, and not just because his field goal percentage
is 10 points lower than his Airness' was, or his defensive awareness and playmaking ability don't jump off the charts like MJ's did. No that's not it at all. You see, there's something about Harrison Barnes that we don't get. While the Jordan we all remember was forged by a competitive fire, an outwardly expressed desire and will to win that exceeded anything we had ever seen before
, the cerebral Barnes just doesn't come across that way. Even when he was burying game winning shots as a freshman, we saw more LeBron James in him than Michael. That's because, like with Mr. James, we've always been curious as to why Barnes isn't as good as we think he can be. We criticize him for being too much of a jump shooter, instead of crediting him for being able to nail jump shots. We watch flashes of dominant athleticism and decry why we don't see them more often, instead of salivating
at what just happened. We judge Harrison Barnes against what we think he should or could be, instead of what he is.And that too is understandable. As LeBron James or Tim Tebow can tell you, in our culture when the hype machine is pumping--and you are even slightly contributing to it--expectations can, and will, quickly get out of your control. When you announce your college choice via Skype or
openly mention your desire to create and establish your own brand
, we don't see an 18-year-old kid having fun or a 20-year-old kid on a quest to be an entrepreneur. We see someone feeding the hoopla, and quickly step in to over run it.And in the end maybe that's fair. After all Harrison Barnes has twice been selected as a pre-season All-American (including the being the first freshman to ever be selected to the squad), but has never been close to being selected as a postseason one. He entered the national scene as a freshman who was suppose to be the second-coming of Jordan, or at least Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant. And we would all agree that he certainly hasn't been.
His game has spoken on the court, but it hasn't always been as loud or as clear as we hoped it would be.So, is that the difference between our perception of Barnes and our current view of Jordan's time at UNC?
While Barnes was arguably the most heralded recruit ever, Jordan was far from a big name. While the Tar Heels put the ball in Barnes hands and said "go win the game" from his first day on campus, Jordan was given time to develop and learn behind All-Americans like James Worthy and Sam Perkins. While Barnes was going 8 for 30 in the final two games of the season this weekend--ultimately unable to will his team to victory without his point guard--Jordan was already sporting a NCAA title ring after draining the first "biggest shot for his life" in the 1982 championship game. While Jordan started coming through before we expected him to, Barnes often didn't when we most thought that he would.
So, what does all of this mean for Barnes' legacy in Chapel Hill? He'll probably be gone soon, off to the NBA and a fat contract as a top 5 draft pick (Think that's too high? Wait till your team is the one that passes on him). His jersey will hang from the rafters in the Smith Center forever (an honor he earned as a 2nd Team All-American selection
of the National Association of Basketball Coaches). He will always sport two conference title rings, and may have been a fluke injury to his team's floor general away from a Final Four and a National Title of his own.
Yet the consensus is that Barnes' time in powder blue has ended unfilled
. No one thinks that is he is now, or ever will be, included in the same sentence as Michael Jordan. And he probably won't be. But, does that already make him a bust?
Remember, Jordan wasn't in that sentence either in 1983. He was just a college sophomore.A college sophomore a lot like Harrison Barnes.
Boom goes the dynamite. For probably the ten-thousandth time in recent American sports history that obviously overused pop culture cliche fits current events like a glove. But this time it isn't describing a viscious dunk or a Floyd Mayweather suck pucker. This time it's a metaphorical description of an NFL commissioner laying waste to one of his league's most successful franchises; to Roger Goodell literally blowing up the New Orleans Saints.Yes destruction is nothing new to
the loyal fans in the Big Easy, the same fans who yelled "Who Dat" as their Saints showed that you could flood their levees or level their homes, but you couldn't stop their spirit from Fat Tuesdaying its team to a championship. On that fateful February night in 2010 their team hosted the Lombardi Trophy--and, in many ways, New Orleans was made whole again.
Which makes the recent developments all the more troubling. One of the NFL's greatest stories, the truest from of a team and its community leaning on each other to restore their faith in the world in modern memory, has fallen by the wayside. I wasn't in New Orleans when the bounty gate penalties
hit, and I am truly happy for that. We've all seen that city suffer enough already.Now there are certainly some of you who will claim that I am being over dramatic, and maybe I am. After all losing Sean Payton for a year and a couple of 2nd round draft picks could obviously never compare to the most devastating natural disaster of
21st century. We all understand that.But we also understand what that team means to that city
. We watched Monday Night Football when the Saints returned to New Orleans. We felt the energy and emotion through the TV. We saw the tears on grown men's faces, their face paint running because they weren't sure that they'd ever get the chance to be here again. That football would ever be back in New Orleans.
Well it was back, and behind Payton, Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints--it was better than ever. Until the commissioner lowered his boom and arguably crippled the franchise.
Now, some of us will refuse to believe that the punishments levied by the commissioner are fair or justified. Or some will want to paint Goodell as a corrupt, power thirsty dictator
who just wants to flex his political muscle, while he leads a hypocritical organization
that pretends to care about player safety when, in reality, it only cares about the almighty dollar. And yet others just want to close their eyes and pretend like this never happened, like Sean Payton and the Saints are the same inspiring group of men who carried their city from its darkest days to one of its brightest.
And there is certainly merit in these viewpoints. No educated observer of the NFL would try to wholeheartedly claim that the league's--or its commissioner's--motives are pure, or at least non-economically driven, here. Just like no well-reasoned and logical argument can completely tear down all the good-will the Saints have rightfully built up through their inspiring success. These are all true statements that can cause us to question or debate Goodell's treatment of "Bounty Gate."But they shouldn't. As I wrote earlier the actions of Payton, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, GM Mickey Loomis and everyone involved was unconscionable. Football, and the head trauma it can cause, is way closer to being an epidemic than people realize. The game will always be violent. But it's turning deadly. And anyone who encourages or helps to push the game towards a state where grown men cannot play without suffering major brain trauma should more than be held accountable for that. That certainly includes Super Bowl Champions and Uplifting stories. That certainly includes the New Orleans Saints.Now before I conclude let me bring you back to the story of former Saint Steve Gleason. The man who made so many believe on that Monday Night. A man who the city of New Orleans will never forget.And also a man who is currently in the fight of his life with Lou Gehrig's disease. A fight that he will someday lose. A fight that evidence suggests was brought upon by his time butting heads on a football field.And I want Sean Payton, Gregg Williams and everyone else involved to look the man that they coached and mentored in his eyes. And I want them to offer him $1,500 to try and inflict that sort of pain on someone else.A year out of football may seem like a steep price to pay. But it's nothing compared to giving your life.
For close to 100 years, since president Teddy Roosevelt met with college presidents in a last ditch attempt to save the sport, we have known exactly what football is; a game centered around a big man carrying a leather sphere before a (probably) bigger man crashed into him with his head, neck, shoulders and chest. It has always been a brutal game, a dangerous one even. Players got hurt, at times tearing their ACLs or breaking their legs or, God forgive, crushing their spinal cords into oblivion and struggling to put one foot in front of another ever again. But, since Roosevelt and company met in the White House, at least men weren't dying. They took their licks and, thankfully, lived to fight another day once it was all said and done. They saved the game.
Or at least they did for a while. Now, as medical technology advances and we are able to get an inside look into the actual brains of professional football players, that may be changing. The science may not have completely caught up to the sport yet, but we are all starting to understand the tole that repeated head shots, the kind that are more than prevalent in the game of football, can take on a man. They certainly can hinder neurological developments. They may cause severe and dangerous depression within the human mind
. And, as former saints wide receiver Steve Gleason can tell you
, severe head trauma may even be linked to ALS disease. So, even though all the facts are not yet known, this much is sure. Football players are taking enormous risks with their long-term health. And, with president Roosevelt long dead, one question remains. Who is there to protect them?
You may say no one can, and there is some logic in that response. We all know that football is, by nature, a violent and devastating game, which necessitates that the men playing put their long-term health on the line. That will likely never change. But what has changed is that the 230 pound defensive end who ran a 4.95 in 1970 is now a 285 pound chisseled monster who runs a 4.65. Jack Lambert weighed 220 pounds soaking wet. DeMarcus Ware weighs 265, runs probably (at least) 3 tenths a second faster in the 40 and benches more than 500 pounds. The players have changed. They are bigger, stronger, and faster than they've ever been before, and it's not even close.So why shouldn't the rules of the game itself, both written and unwritten, change with them? Just because the Oakland Raiders had a bounty on Lynn Swan in the 1970's doesn't make it OK for the New Orleans Saints to have one on Brett Favre in the 2010's.
Just because Jack Tatum slammed his head into receivers heads like a battering ram 30 years ago, doesn't make it OK for James Harrison to do it today. Because, as viscous as Tatum and the Raiders were, they weren't capable of inflicting the damage that their predecessors are. Say what you will, but those are just the stone cold facts.And just because many players will shrug their shoulders and say "that's the risk we take" when asked about head injuries, that doesn't mean that we should accept that reality for them. These are men who are (often) getting paid millions of dollars to be modern day gladiators. Someone has to protect them from themselves, and realize that their ability to be in a brightly lit room for the rest of their lives
without a shooting pain in their cranium is more important than getting a $1,500 bonus for trying to knock the opposing quarterback out cold. Once they are done playing football, they cannot live in the dark forever.So who cares if the ball was always kicked from the 30 yard line before. If kicking it from the 35 will make the game safer, than I am all for it. And you should be too. After all when president Roosevelt and Alonzo Stagg got their hands on the game it was little more than a rugby like scrum. Then they inserted something called the forward pass to open the game up. The result? Football as we know it today. And a sudden lack of college kids dieing on the field.
Change was needed, and these men had the guts to step up and make it happen; to save the game.So the question remains, does anyone out there have the same intestinal fortitude today? Or are we still just fans who cheer when James Harrison turns Colt McCoy's brain into scrambled eggs or shrug our shoulders while Gregg Williams pays Jonathan Vilma to put a forearm into the side of Matt Ryan's helmet. Football will always be violent, brutal and dangerous. But it doesn't have to be deadly. So next time you bitch and moan about the "softening" of modern football, think about guys like Steve Gleason
, whose body is being ravaged by an incurable disease that likely was triggered by his time on the gridiron. Next time you shrug your shoulders at a bounty system think about Sean Payton and Gregg Williams were coaching the Saints, watching as their former player was losing control of the body he had cultivated and maintained to become a professional athlete. Think about the fact that they stood by him, while refusing to stand against the same thing possibly happening to someone else.In fact, directly or not, they encouraged it.
I'm not sure what Williams or Payton knew and what they didn't know. But I do know one thing. President Roosevelt would be ashamed. After all he's the one who taught us that
in football, as well as in any other aspect of life, change is inevitable. We can adapt and move forward, or we can refuse to budge until the game becomes a shell of its former shelf. Until young men are again lying dead on the field.Because in the end, this sentiment still rings true. Just because that's the way it has always been done, doesn't mean that's the way that it always needs to be.
Once again change is needed. Once again the game of football needs to be saved from itself. And that my friends is a stone cold fact.