College vs. pros

So hi. It's been a while (since July 22 ... eek). I spent 10 years covering college sports in the newspaper business (primarily basketball, but all sports). I spent the last four years also covering minor-league baseball. People often asked me which I liked better, and that was a tough question. College basketball is (along with the NFL) my favorite sport, and it is the sport I know the best, so I like that. But as the years went on, there was something about covering pro sports that I grew to love.

In pro sports, there was never any kind of artifice. There wasn't that the players were there trying to uphold any kind of noble mission. They were getting paid. They were doing their jobs. This was their work.

College sports is, in so many ways, built on that artifice. It's the notion of student-athlete. It's the notion that sports (especially football and basketball) gives opportunities to young men and women (in basketball's case) that they wouldn't otherwise have - and, of course, that's code talk for poor black men and women.

But with that artifice and mythology comes a dark side. The history of NCAA rules violations is lengthy, from the gambling scandals of the 1950s to the paying players scandals of the 1970s and 1980s to the agent scandals of the 1990s and 2000s. I may have a skewed view, since I covered two college hoop scandals (St. Bonaventure in 2003 and the start of the Binghamton collapse in 2009), but college sports can feel so ... dirty. There are so many rules, so many arcane restrictions that are horribly slanted against the players and that leave even honest, well-meaning coaches in violation sometimes. And the rule violations are often cloaked in a sense of "I'm just trying to help poor kids achieve their dreams," which is an insult to every coach who actually did try to do that - not to mention the poor kids who don't happen to have a good jumper.

All of this is in the news now, of course, because Reggie Bush may have his Heisman Trophy taken away from the Downtown Athletic Club. Bush was retroactively declared ineligible by the NCAA for being on the take during his USC career.

A lot of the coverage/opinion I've read about this is indignation. What, you think Reggie Bush was the only Heisman Trophy winner ever to be on the take? is what they say. Which strikes me as a false argument. It's like saying "Officer, you can't give me a ticket! Look at all these other cars? Do you honestly think I'm the only person speeding?" Bush got caught. Whether he should be retroactively punished for crimes 5-6 years ago, whether it's right or wrong to try to erase history by vacating awards, those are intersting questions. But to answer them by saying "Everyone else was probably doing it" bothers me.

But that's an aside. One of the things that interests me is how college sports is covered in the media compared with pro sports. I think there are a lot of similarities - big-time college sports* is basically a minor-league to the pros.

(Note, when I say college sports in this post, I am referring to men's basketball and football. I'm doing this solely for the sake of brevity.)

And on a superficial, off-the-top-of-my-head level, it seems like college sports is, at its core, covered with this mythology in place. The "rah rah for old State U.! Give it the old college try!" mentality. It's not that overt (OK, maybe in the SEC). But I get the sense that it's still there. In a way, I wonder if we project our memories of college onto college sports. For a lot of us, college was great. One of the best times in our lives. Memories of sitting around the dorms, drinking cheap beer, eating leftover pizza, partying, tailgating, rooting for our school. I think that's a powerful force in why college hoops and football are so popular. It takes us back to our college days.

As for the pros ... that mythology is gone. Pro sports is a big business. I think we all understand that. You can argue that this is not a good thing, but it's true. We don't expect our pro athletes to do anything but compete, play hard and win (maybe throw the hometown fans a bone here and there).

My sense (and again, this is all speculation) is that we expect more from college athletics. We expect it to be, for lack of a better word, pure. It's supposed to be pure, exuberant and joyful, like our memories of college. That colors our judgment, and it colors our coverage. It's why there are so many stories and investigations into NCAA rules violations (and, to be fair, I won a national award for covering an NCAA scandal) whereas there are, say, relatively few about the long-term physical impact of playing football on the human body.

Maybe that's why I started to like covering the pros better. All that mattered was the game. Not the mythology supporting the game.