It all comes back to me now – the disconnect I felt whenever I wandered into big-time college football during my years as sports columnist.
I could deal with the machinations of professional sports. They were who they were -- steroid frolics, owner collusion, ignorance of brain damage. But big-time basketball and football gave me the creeps even worse because they existed under the title of “higher education.”
It comes back to me when I read terrific articles like the one in the Times on Sunday about how the entire power structure of Florida State University and the tolerant community fell into line to produce a football power every weekend, to the point of overlooking complaints about prominent players.
I visited Florida State when I was a columnist. I once talked to a player who lived in a football dormitory and seemed a trifle flustered when asked about classes and contact with students. He knew where the weight room was, though.
Now I learn that the authoritative people parking cars around the huge stadium complex were off-duty police officers, all part of the program.
There was always the temptation to get caught up in the folksy ways of coach Bobby Bowden. He would meet the press early Sunday morning for a review of the latest wide-right kicking fiasco, which he met with decency and humor. He would invite us to attend church with him. Y’all come. It was easy to fall into the familiar world of team ratings that would determine bowl placements.
I wrote about scandals at these schools. I once found some tutors at another powerhouse who admitted they had handed in papers for players. Other schools had legal issues, admission scandals, coaches who jumped ship, programs that hired comely hostesses tI wrote about it all. In the new blogosphere, apologists would generate hundreds of hostile e-mails to me, which was fun.
Football is the worst because it involves huge numbers of players and physical brutality, a Lord of the Flies bullying atmosphere. I read Harvey Araton’s terrific piece in the Sunday Times about Sayreville, N.J. and wonder how many other “programs” have fun traditions like that. How similar are the allegations at Sayreville to the ugly stuff that went on at Penn State?
Even for events I liked, like the good old Big East basketball tournament in the Garden, I always felt that coaches, advisors, tutors, presidents, boosters, recruiters, alums, knew the dirty secrets of getting these athletes into school.
I don’t watch college sports anymore. Don’t have to. I do read -- serious reporting about how the systems work. It all comes back to me.