UPDATE: Rutgers University fired Coach Mike Rice Wednesday morning; this post was written Tuesday night. The focus of public anger now turns to the athletic director, who was informed of the allegations back in July, took no action until the videos were handed over in November, and finally suspended the coach for three games without pay.
This is the same school where Tyler Clementi took his life after his roommate secretly live-streamed video of him kissing a man in their dorm room, provoking a national outcry about bullying.
I grew up Gay in a somewhat athletic family. I’m not very talented physically, but I’ve participated in most of the sports American boys are taught – and I kept playing for decades after my more athletic brothers quit, especially once I found something I was good at: distance running and other highly aerobic activities. One of the highlights of my life was rafting down the Arkansas River years ago from Salida, Colorado to Canon City. It’s dramatic, risky, exciting, a wonderful physical challenge (“Churn churn churn, paddle paddle, front, back, reverse reverse, look out for that hole! OMG we’re gonna slam into those rocks!”), all while surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery. It was like having fantastic sex for six hours straight!
I’ve been a sports fan all my life – until the last couple of years, because now I see how money has corrupted elite athletics.
The excitement of physical competition is completely real, for the athletes and the fans. Combine the physical genius of highly skilled players with the shrewd strategies of gifted coaches and you’ve got quite a show indeed. But what we don’t see is far more important than what we do.
It isn’t just Lance Armstrong doping, and coercing all his teammates to do the same; it isn’t just NBA and FISA officials throwing games so the most lucrative teams win. It’s more than just the politics of the Olympics, with all their bribes and intrigues; it isn’t just the NCAA’s exploitation of “student-athletes” at major colleges.
It’s us. The fans. We’re the people who fund these organized criminal enterprises owned by billionaires, often at taxpayers’ expense. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the “500,” just persuaded the Indiana Legislature to divert tens of millions of dollars in property taxes to their private business. “Look at all we do for the city,” they say. “Look at all the tourists we bring in. You did the same thing for the Pacers and the Colts.” Who can argue? Not local hack politicians who did indeed build new arenas for the football and basketball teams, both owned by billionaires.
Now comes Mike Rice, the head basketball coach at Rutgers University (which is soon to join my beloved Big Ten Conference) in a big new scandal. Videotapes of his practices show him systematically abusing his players, physically and verbally.
ESPN and the newspapers describe Rice as using “homophobic slurs” and “throwing basketballs at his players’ heads from point-blank range.” But it wasn’t their heads he usually aimed at. He gives new meaning to the term “crotch rocket,” as in “incoming.”
Who can be shocked that a coach calls his players fairy, cocksucker and faggot? Bobby Knight did that at Indiana for decades, where he’s still revered for two national championships despite his criminal record. Verbal abuse is the stock in trade of many coaches, including high schools, middle schools and Little League, so who’s kidding whom?
Rice’s misogyny, his contempt for women by calling his players cunts, bothers me more. No wonder so many players get in trouble for rape, domestic violence and other crimes.
As professional and Olympic sports (which are also professional) scandals mounted over the years, I turned my attention more and more away from the pros to the college level. I come from a long line of Purdue University graduates; it’s a school we’re very proud of. A century and more ago, the president of Purdue created the Big Ten Conference as the first successful attempt to police college sports, which were headed down the corrupt path. Purdue’s athletic teams have been largely scandal-free since then (unlike those at hated rival Indiana, among many other schools), and the kids who play at Purdue go to class, usually graduate and are successful. They don’t all take basket-weaving, either; I know several who took extremely challenging classes in engineering, pharmacy, math, history and other fields.
But it’s become increasingly clear that Purdue has sacrificed a good part of its educational mission, especially since the creation a few years ago of the Big Ten television network, which makes so much money that it’s caused conference realignment nationwide, as other leagues try to duplicate what BTN is doing.
Rutgers is now joining the Big Ten (which is growing to 14), mostly to get BTN into the New York market. The conference has always been prominent in Chicago and the Midwest; all but one school, Northwestern, are publicly-owned. Now instead of concentrating on its historic Great Lakes territory, the Big Ten extends from the Atlantic to Nebraska – and would go to the Pacific if the money were right.
But the conferences are now, and long have been, subordinate to the NCAA, which The New York Times columnist Joe Nocera calls a “cartel.” The NCAA has a Congressional exemption from monopoly laws while raking in billions of TV dollars.
Nocera and other journalists are dedicated to showing that the NCAA is completely ruthless at exploiting athletes. They’re essentially slave labor. They get scholarships – unless they get hurt, in which case they’re often on their own, with no way to pay the medical bills from all those concussions and broken bones. Schools just toss those kids away. If they’re poor and Black, they don’t stand a chance.
But because all this is done in the name of “education” and “not-for-profit,” most fans just look the other way and enjoy the show.
It’s maddening to me to go on Facebook and see all the Episcopal clergy I know touting their favorite teams, which they do constantly, without any acknowledgment of the labor issues, the health consequences, the sexism and racism and homophobia that are built into the Big Sports Machine. I mean, world-class football will kill ya – but they’re all glued to their TV screens and texting on Twitter and Facebook.
There’s going to be a reckoning someday. I believe the entire sports edifice will come crashing down in a worldwide spasm of disgust, because the whole thing’s based on human exploitation. People who get outraged by sweatshops in China or sexual slavery in Thailand and Russia will not be able to escape knowing they provide the market for these products.
And no feel-good features on TV, like how that Notre Dame player kept going despite the death of his phony girlfriend (and Grandma on the same day!) will be able to overcome the revulsion, or the knowledge that we all participated in this.
So what if there’s an openly-Gay baseball player someday? That’s bound to happen. Reforms on the periphery are not going to cure what ails sports.
They’re violent. They kill people. They’re racist and sexist and homophobic. They use slave labor in college. They bribe their way to success.
It’s all just a TV show – but the fix is in and always has been.
You’re paying for it, sucker. Why worry about global warming when it’s baseball’s Opening Day?++