DID HOLY CROSS MAKE THE WRONG MOVE BY FIRING ITS DISABLED FOOTBALL COACH?
After a 1-11 season, Holy Cross fired football coach Dan Allen last week, with a year to go on his contract. Hey, Nebraska fired its coach after a 9-3 season. What's the big deal? you ask. Well, maybe nothing. But Allen suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity, which has left him pretty much totally incapacitated; football is his lifeline, his reason to live; and a bunch of his players are wondering what kind of message Holy Cross is trying to send them -- and the rest of the world. Meanwhile, his assistants, who had to carry Allen around all season, have been told by the school's administration not to speak to the media.
Sounds like a perfect story for the liberal bulldogs in the Writers' Bloc to sink our teeth into, no? Just rip HC a new one, beat our chests and start looking around for our next victim, right? Well, folks, as you should know by now, the WB is nothing if not unpredictable.
Where does the Big Time begin?
By Luke Cyphers
The Writers' Bloc
A 1-11 football coach got fired. Happens all the time in big-time college sports. But this case caught people's attention, because Dan Allen is battling a rare wasting disease that confines him to a wheelchair, and many of his players spoke out against his sacking. Allen became a cause, and Holy Cross became a symbol of the confusion reigning as the country's amateur sports myth crumbles.
In the New York Times last week, a Holy Cross wideout sounded like a Jesuit priest touting the value of aiding your fellow man, while the Jesuit priest who's the university president declined comment.
Regardless of who's right or wrong, the ensuing debate shows the unsolvable calculus confronting sports at every level now, as amateurism dies: Just when, exactly, are you big time?
At a place like Nebraska, that's easy to figure. Money rules. Better win, and keep winning. Big. Any little slip, like a 9-3 season or a blowout loss to Oklahoma, and you're out the door -- even when you have a .750 winning percentage like Frank Solich. With $14 million bowl payouts at stake, everybody knows it's pro sports, even if the players don't get paid under generally accepted accounting principles.
The math is tougher when you're Holy Cross: not big enough for the BCS, but just big enough to get a nickel-slot payout during March Madness every few years. Rich enough to play in Division I, but still poor enough to believe, sometimes, in the principles you espouse, namely that the poor have dignity. It's an unholy crossroads, where the high-end business of college sports meets the high-ideal mission of academia. When are these games a marketing tool, and when are they an educational tool?
We're sure to see more collisions at these intersections, because the business ethic permeates sports at every level. It tries to push out Title IX, because it's too big a cost for "the industry." It pits high schoolers against each other on TV, because there's "demand." It puts Little League dads at each other's throats because they're concerned about some mouth-breathing 9-year-old's "career."
We'd make it easier on ourselves if we treated sports like we treat the rest of entertainment. How come Bow Wow gets paid to portray a basketball player, but Maurice Clarett must risk his neck for real for free? Better to professionalize the whole damn thing, keep the schools out of it, and make age no barrier. Anyone who's good enough can go on TV and earn a paycheck when he or she is 5 years old. You create a few Coreys, but you also produce the artistic body of work that is Kurt Russell.
For now, sports is stuck with this hybrid mutant model whose artistic achievements are soaring touchdowns and depressing morality plays. It can't last. Yes, people still speak in platitudes about "character-building" through sports, and there are still legions of coaches and players using sports for education. But at the intersection of learning and commerce, I'll put my money on the money.
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: No Cross to bear here
I hate the idea of putting Holy Cross on trial as even a minor accomplice in the professionalization of college sports. As Luke implies, let Nebraska and Ohio State take those raps. What a great deal those big schools have, the profits from celebrity spectaculars and not even worker's comp to pay. But Holy Cross is facing a far more complex moral case; good thing they have religious philosophers on campus. A coach with a terrible wasting disease who comes out to teach hurt, who goes the distance, hangs tough, is an incredible role model for young athletes. On the other hand, if the team keeps losing, if the record is so poor it's not even competitive, what exactly is the lesson being learned? Winning isn't important? Only suffering counts? Beats me.
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Great teacher ... wrong lesson
What bothers me about this case isn't the death of amateurism, which, like solar power, is one of those good liberal causes that even good liberals can't get jazzed about. What weirds me out is the "Brian's Song" vibe.
Let's stipulate that coach Allen -- a former Indiana linebacker who took over the Crusaders in 1996, and has gone 26-63 since -- is a courageous man who is trying to teach his kids life lessons. My question is whether the 47-year-old who is confined to a wheelchair, can't move his right arm, drinks from a straw and needs help being bathed, is being too courageous? Is he impairing his health even more by coaching? And, if so, is he teaching his kids exactly the wrong lesson -- that there's nothing you shouldn't give for sports, including your health? I don't know whether a few games in Nets jersey made Alonzo Mourning's condition any worse. But I'm betting that 'Zo wishes he could have that decision back.
By remarking that "we owe it to our student-athletes to be competitive in the Patriot League," Holy Cross athletic director Richard Regan sent exactly the wrong message, and in so doing gave ammunition to those who will single him out as the latest amateur outrage. The better message of amateurism is that life isn't a movie-of-the-week. In the real world, some things still matter more than sports.
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Speak with your wallet, people
Luke is right -- we'd all be better off tearing the last shreds of sanctimony and sentiment off college sports. But let's not blame it all on corporate 'Merica. Fans also power those cash machines known as booster clubs. McDonald's might co-sponsor the "Sooner Kids Club" at Oklahoma, but Mom and Dad ante up the $25 for the annual fee. They might even toss in a $19.99 Barry Switzer bobblehead (new in the Sooner Store!), walk the golden retriever on a Sooner leash and tow the RV using a $40 OU car hitch accessory.
The OU Athletic department might piously declare itself dedicated to "Inspiring Champions Today, Building Leaders for Tomorrow" -- but they're swilling primo beverages and "upscale" chews in the Sooner Club Tent Village, "college football's premier pre-game experience."
Admission? Just a $1,500 membership.
The inequities of college sports won't turn around unless the fans do as well. But so far as I can see, they're still lining up to get in the tent.
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Uh, winning is the only thing
Since when is any employer -- academic or otherwise -- obligated to allow an employee to continue underperforming? Coach might have a claim against termination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the school doesn't have to let him keep coaching if he demonstrably can't get the job done.
"Amateurism" died as a sports myth a long time ago, along with most others. But one that remains (albeit with a volume of highly regrettable exceptions) is that ultimately it's a meritocracy.
(And I say that as a liberal! Good grief ...)
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Uh, winning ain't the only thing, Dan!
Maybe, but I want someone somewhere to hold themselves to a higher standard, to make the case that there are more important things than winning, to argue that being competitive is valuable but not as valuable as being ethical, caring and committed to each other.
Those words are cheap in big-time college athletics; they're poses everyone knows will crumble under the weight of the dollar. But there ought to be places where they have the weight and strength to hold off a losing record, where they exist as both ideals and practices. The Holy Crosses of the world make their reputations in part on being one of those places. The players said they've had that preached to them from the start.
Holy Cross had a chance to make its institution stand out and stand up. The Crusaders could have made an eloquent case to their boosters and to the rest of the NCAA as to why, despite a losing season, they were going to stick with Allen. Instead, they were in a hurry to be just like everyone else, to be like some school they aren't and no one expects them to be.
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Still a stewing student
Imagine, if you will, a university chemistry department where the students perform experiments in a 20,000-seat arena. Against students from another school. With their professors -- clad in dapper suits and sporting gold Pfizer lapel pins -- raving like hungry, overtired toddlers on the sidelines. And the whole shebang is televised on ESPN.
Brad Nessler: "These kids are doing early research on a Viagra alternative."
Dick Vitale: "Talk about a high-riser, baby! Up, up and away!?
Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Yet that's exactly what goes on, day after day, in the magical mystery world of college sports. Not since oil and water, or perhaps Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines, have two entities been so mismatched. Universities exist to educate. Sports exist to entertain. "Sesame Street" aside, those missions are fundamentally incompatible.
Each corrupts the other. Schools abandon academic and ethical standards in pursuit of a more amusing on-field product. Coaches and players whose only real job is put on a good show -- good enough to increase alumni giving -- are forced to labor under amateurism's constrictive pretenses. The result is a bizzaro universe in which Holy Cross plays to win, and Jerry Tarkanian is arguably the most honest coach around.
So what to do about it? I'm with Luke: Open it up. Stop pretending college sports are something other than a quasi-professional exercise. Make them part of the schools' fundraising departments, even. God knows I get enough give-us-money letters from my alma mater. Maybe I'd be more inclined to cut a check if the basketball team wasn't so mediocre.
Oh, and as for the "sports give kids a chance to get educated" argument? Please. Schools give kids a chance to get educated. Sports give coaches a chance to get rich. Besides, shouldn't all those SCHOLARship dollars go to actual students who show academic promise, as opposed to pituitary lottery winners and really good volleyball players?
Not that I'm bitter about not getting any financial aid or anything.