What does Nick Saban have in common with Al Pacino, aside from the fact they are both surprisingly shorter than you think?
They are both in the business of convincing the public to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the work they produce.
In Pacino’s case, that means the audience allows itself to believe that a quintessential Italian-American from East Harlem is really a Cuban drug kingpin from Miami who loves nothing more than shooting a machine gun while wearing a fashionable suit and vest.
For Saban, it means convincing college football fans that the young men who run onto the field every Saturday for the Crimson Tide are actually students at The University of Alabama just like the nursing majors and education majors sitting in the stands cheering on their team.
In both cases it’s a fantasy that we’ve allowed ourselves to buy into so we can better enjoy the entertainment they provide.
The difference is that when Pacino (who, like Saban, is 5-feet-6) walked off the set of “Scarface” we didn’t expect him to be Tony Montana and say things like “say hello to my little friend” before killing another rival. We knew he was just playing a part.
For the star players at Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma and every other university that’s serious about competing for championships, there still has to be a wink and a nod to the concept of regular student-athletes after they leave the field.
The point is not that all the players on the field or court in college athletics are dumb. Far from it. And it’s not that they don’t attend class. Alabama has started an admirable tradition of leading the country in having the most players who have already received their college degrees before playing in their final bowl game. The SEC even gives out jersey patches for graduates to wear during their bowl games.
But they aren’t students who just happen to practice football following their final afternoon classes while their classmates go for a malt. The fantasy that they are helps us better connect with the incredible athletes who represent our alma maters.
For the players, the double standard has both benefits and detriments.
It starts with college admission standards that are more lenient for athletes than other students and no worries about how to pay for school or pay off student loans. It includes the advantage of tutors and study tools the average student couldn’t imagine. It also includes first crack at class scheduling that doesn’t conflict with sports obligations.
On the other hand, athletes are often given the message of what they are really there for. Many student-athletes are strongly discouraged from majoring in subjects that require labs or internships that would conflict with practice times. They aren’t given the opportunity to pursue the same social activities as other students because they are working on their sports skills for the NCAA maximum of 20 hours a week (or 40; it’s really hard to keep track of the exact number when it comes to these things).
This subject has reared its head again this month as college basketball players and coaches all across the country are caught in the scandal that began when the FBI decided it was time to stop grown-ups who have decided to traffic in talented high school basketball players.
These unscrupulous characters who represent financial advisers, agents and sometimes universities know college is just a way station for many of these future multi-millionaires.
The players know it, too. But they’ve also been taught that the way the game is played is to pretend to be a normal college student for at least a year before moving on to professional riches.
South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp pointed out last week that football is mostly immune from the kind of outside influences college basketball recruits encounter.
“Our sports are different in the fact that our apparel companies aren’t targeting our guys at this point — that I know of, and [in] high school,” Muschamp said. “That’s where it becomes much different between the two sports — just from my knowledge. So I think that’s a huge difference and I think the numbers of targets certainly change the landscape a little bit as far as the things that have been going on.”
That answer is as confusing as it’s intended to be. It’s simply another half-hearted attempt to say “nothing to see here, just a bunch of good student-athletes doing noble student-athlete things.”
I have no problem with the free market system paying whatever these young men can procure from a professional team. But I do have a problem with the NCAA painting a picture of college sports and its athletes that is as removed from real life as an Oliver Stone script.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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