New Age Exposure is Changing Old School College Sports

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Recruiting, police trouble and Michael Sam remind us that what happens in college football is nothing more than what happens every day in life. Nothing has changed but the scrutiny.

"The Devil went down to Georgia. He was lookin' for a soul to steal.
He was in a bind 'cause he was way behind. He was willing to make a deal
When he came across this young man sawin' on a fiddle and playin' it hot.
And the Devil jumped upon a hickory stump and said "Boy, let me tell you what."

I'm a sports fan.  More accurately, I'm a college sports fan.  Even more concisely stated, I'm a Washington Huskies fan.  Huskies or Mariners?  Give me UW.  Huskies or Blazers (sorry Sonics fans)?  Yup, Washington.  Huskies or Sounders?  C'mon.  Huskies or ... dare I say it ... Seahawks.

Huskies.  With pride.

Even before I was enrolled at UW and became an official member of the UW community, I always gravitated towards the college athletics environment in preference to the corresponding pro sports.  It isn't that I don't like the pros.  I enjoy it as much as anyone (and I type this while lounging around in my brand spanking new Seattle Super XLVIII Performance hoodie).  But there has always been a "made for TV" quality about pro sports that has been just slightly off-putting for me. It isn't always overt, but there are always little hints.  Like the running back who runs out of bounds with a yard to go instead of taking the big hit when the game isn't on the line.  Like the star SG who plays "half D" when guarding the other team's top scorer so that he can get an extra second to break on a possible rebound.  Like the star pitcher who goes back into the clubhouse between frames while his teammates take their turns at bat.  Remember Cuba Gooding, Jr in Jerry Maguire?  Yeah, not too far from reality.

I'm not saying that the college game is more "innocent" then its pro counterparts.  We know that this isn't true, especially when we are focusing on the college football.  However, there is something a bit more authentic about college athletics, even with all of the sausage-making that is athletic recruiting factored into the equation.  The college game is still more about the logo on the front then the name on the back and it is rarely the case that the popularity of a team trails the popularity of any individual player.  While Kobe is bigger than the Lakers, Jordan is bigger than the Bulls and LeBron is bigger than the Heat, there has yet to be a Husky player that was bigger than Washington.

Of course, college sports today isn't quite the same as it was when I was developing my everlasting fandom.  The influx of March Madness and BCS television money has dramatically increased distribution, and by extension, access to the product that used to be primarily the domain of local sports broadcasts and the local ticket-bearing public.  With the increased exposure comes the more mainstream sports fan.  It's a classic case of "build it and they will come".  With college sports - especially football - the spectacle has now been built.  And, boy, have they come.

Unlike Johnny from the Charlie Daniels Band fiddle ballad, I don't think a deal with the devil was ever struck when it comes to college sports.  For the most part, I truly see this evolution as a positive thing.  The schools dramatically increase their budgets and get to fund athletic activities across a larger spectrum.  A much more broad base of student athletes benefit from access to an expanding pool of both academic and experiential opportunities.  The American public gets more exposure to not only the excellent spectator sports offered by these institutions, but to some of the amazing back stories that define so many of these student athletes. The do-good exploits of a kid like Jake Locker.  The tragic stories of Curtis Williams and Johnnie Kirton.  The miraculous story that is Kayla Burt.  The across-the-globe journey of Aziz N'diaye.  All of these people were students, classmates, community members, and colleagues in our little world, but we would not necessarily have ever have heard their stories if not for the rise in popularity of college sports.  That's all good, right?

Yet, this new age, mass media exposure also carries with it a cost.

As I write this, it is hard for me to exactly quantify what those costs are.  I can't open up a spreadsheet and start churning out analytics that tabulate them at a line-item level.  But, when you look around, they are impossible to miss.  They become tangible when you see the exploits of a kid like Johnny Manziel who was spotted partying it up in Vegas and hanging with JayZ in the weeks following his Heisman award.  You see it in the media circus that follows young, brash, black quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Jamies Winston as they deal with public scrutiny over events from their pasts that preceded their time on the field.  You see it when the less-invested fans boo or turn their backs on a record-setting QB like Keith Price when he struggles through adversity with injury and with his on-field performance.

More and more, these young athletes are evaluated through the national lens of "celebrity" instead of the local lens of "one of our kids".  Some call it "price for fame".  Some call it "innocence lost".  I call it a damn shame.

In the past few weeks, we've been reminded of the new national reach that college football now enjoys (or, as the case may be, is burdened with).  National Signing Day came and went and with it, as is a tradition, several young PSAs "flipped" their commitment at the last minute.  Instead of those stories flying under the radar and those kids remaining relatively anonymous except to a subsection of recruiting super-nerds, we now have a massive middle of college football fans aligned to one team or another who, from perches all over the world, tweet at kids  threats and epithets for the heinous crime of choosing another school over theirs.  On that same day, two Husky football players were accused - not arrested, mind you - of assaulting another reveler in the midst of an alcohol-fueled U-District riot in the hours following Super Bowl XVIII.  Again, a decade ago this story would not have even been reported until there was arrest.  Today, we have members in this very community, which I would argue is among the most civil in the world of fan blogs, ready to send these kids packing without a full airing of the facts.  Finally, there is the remarkable story of Michael Sam and his decision to reveal his sexual orientation before the upcoming NFL draft.  While I find the action itself courageous, the remarkable part of that story is the fact that his teammates - and by extension a small segment of the Missouri community - knew the facts a year before the story broke and kept it in the family for as long as could possibly be hoped for in this media-driven age.  Of course, there has been broad support for Sam in the fallout from the story.  However, the fact that this story has headlined the front page of the NY Times, ESPN and CNN speaks to how far into the mainstream college sports has come.

There are more examples, of course.  Recent attempts to unionize.  The change to a four-team playoff format for football (do click on that link for a short teaser video).  Conference alignment and consolidation in the revenue sports.  All of it a reminder that some of what originally drew me into my passion for college sports has been sacrificed in the name of growth.  Still, I can't help but to observe that, if one looks hard enough, they'll see the essence of what makes college sports so unique still alive and kicking.

It is that essence that I choose to hold onto as my fandom (is that a word?) evolves.  I've been dinged by a few of my fellows here on the blog for overt homerism.  We could debate that, but perhaps it is true.  I can't really say.  What I do know is that the fanaticism that I feel for college athletics - the passion that I feel for the University of Washington - is not based on the exploits achieved on the field or between the lines.  It is, in fact, borne from the charm ... the authenticity ... of a collection of young people who continue to opt into this fraternity, with all of their imperfections and warts, and contributing to it in all the ways that they can - in the classroom, in the community and in the gym.  The way I see it, when a young person dons that purple and gold, they aren't representing my university, they are simply engaging in it.  They are contributing to its richness through their own journey of growth and maturation.  As such, I refuse to assess them through with the same scrutiny and cynicism under which I view professional athletes.  This isn't to say that they aren't accountable for their behavior (aren't we all?).  But, it is their journey from raw, undisciplined youth to polished, educated graduate that is truly representative - both of the student athlete and of the University - that makes the story, and the sports, so compelling in the end.

Exposure to sports through the glass screens of televisions, iPads, laptops and smart phones has clearly desensitized the fan to the notion of what an athlete is.  We've commoditized them and turned them into posters, jersey numbers, video game characters and children's toys.  I can accept that, and have accepted it, with professional sports.  But my attachment to college sports and to Washington is defined by a different kind of relationship between me, the community and the sports programs.  I think I'll try to hold onto it a little longer, thank you very much.

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