Gene's Blog: Too hard on "student athletes"?

Gene Mueller's Blog

I dabble in the dark art that is social media, but don't wallow in it. That makes me late to some of the raging topics of the day, like the ongoing debate about whether college athletes are in-play when it comes to criticism.

Fellow on-air type Steve Scaffidi apparently found some over-the-top rip jobs of Badgers QB Alex Hornibrook in the wake of last week's UW loss to Ohio State (no pretentious "THE" added by choice) in the Big Ten championship game. Our digital dude Jay Sorgi also chimed in with a piece on Wisconsin's commitment (or lack thereof) to fielding a team worthy of a national title. 

Let's deal with last things first: Wisconsin's strategy is as plain as the "W" on the side of the helmet. UW recruits in-state and is damn proud of it, thank you very much. It relies on the run, powered by huge linemen mined from parts of the state where its common for the average high school kid to clock in at 6-5 and 300 pounds. Quarterbacks are game managers, good enough to make NFL draft choices of their tight ends and wide receivers with a chosen few getting the occasional pro sniff themselves. Only one--Russell Wilson--is a bona fide Sunday star, and he sampled Madison for a lone season. Academic standards separate Wisconsin from many in the NCAA pack, be that good or bad as far as football fortunes go.

That brings up the first thing: lighting into "student athletes". 

The college game is an industry, not a friendly jocular Saturday competition that was once a click above intramural dorm games the way it was in the fur-coat/straw hat 1920's era. Football and basketball programs are massive fiscal endeavors that help fuel other on-campus sports while feathering the nests of those who are very good at running such programs (UW AD Barry Alvarez knocks down $1.2 million a year plus bennies). No need holding any bake sales for head coaches, either. Jimbo Fisher toughs out the next decade on a paltry $75 million. Granted, that's the extreme as he became the highest paid among those in his line of work in the NCAA. Wisconsin's Paul Chryst eeks by on $2.3 mil a year.

What's the point of this number salad? We love this stuff too much.

Our loyalty turns into Nielsen numbers that fuel TV and radio sales, meaning fatter rights fees when networks come a-callin'. Ticket prices rise. Merchandise flies off shelves. Cash pours in, the competition for talent rises and everyone gets rich--except the kid on the field or court who gets a free college ride but nothing in the way of recompense. 

When we aren't watching or listening to games on Saturday afternoon, we're dissecting them the other six and a half games a week. What was once a quaint diversion 60 years ago is a format today--sports begat talk radio where the obsessed can dump a bucket and empty a spleen without retribution or consequence because who's going to take time to track down caller "Steve from Racine" to uphold the honor of a besmirched QB? The web makes abusing athletes an art form--no FCC in the way to legislate decency on the Internet where everything is fair game, from a targeted player's performance to his parentage. 

Is it right to wish death or worse on a mal-performing quarterback? Certainly not, but for those without a life and who, in many cases, never threw a pass on a playground much less in a game with meaning, perspective is lost and fragile self-worth gets attached to something as meaningless as a Big Ten pigskin outcome. This, sadly, is the world we live in, fair or not. 

The Badger football team had a memorable season--undefeated in conference play, competitive but out-manned against the Buckeyes Saturday night. Those watching through cardinal-and-white glasses after downing a bucket of brandy old-fashioneds lived in a world where an unblemished mark meant a beeline to the BCS championship round, facts be damned: the Badgers had a Charmin-soft Big Ten slate, preceded by a steady diet of non-conference cupcakes. One is of Wisconsin's choosing, the other wasn't, but the fact is that Wisconsin simply isn't as good as the teams who beat them out of the BCS or the one that held them off last weekend in Indianapolis.

Whether the Badgers have "plateaued" as a football program is a legit question, as is the debate as to whether the Wisconsin fan base is okay with that. Are we content with a team that's always competitive and bowl-eligible, one that makes--and sometimes wins--the conference crown with no hope of being part of the national title debate? Older fans probably are, having lived through the horrors of the 25 year slog that was Wisconsin football from the late '60's to the early 90's. We're tickled and content to spend New Year's Day drinking Tampa or some other sunny clime out of brandy and Miller Lite, playing an unfamiliar foe in a strange town away from the snow and with no chance of bringing home big time hardware. Younger fans may want more, but the Wisconsin football template seems to be caste as described above. 

The point is: the Badgers had a great season, and any failings are team issues, not the fault of any one player, be he named Hornibrook, Taylor, Peavy or Adeyanju.To question a college player's capabilities at football is fine--they're big boys, playing a big money game that pays them squat. They knew that going in. To question their worth as human beings or to demean them speaks not to their talent (or perceived lack thereof) but instead is a reflection of the lack of both I-Q and life in the person casting such putrid aspersions.

Perspective is an easy thing to lose in a world where your every preference, leaning, taste and proclivity can be indulged at length on a computer screen. We can literally choose our news without having to worry about complications like the other side of the story or a challenging/dissenting view. Those with uncluttered lives can feast for hours and days on sports, furrowing their brows about draft choices, whose batting third and coaches' capabilities. Super fans live among us, and among them blossom the occasional moron with too much keyboard time and too little consequence for what they tap out on it.

The graffiti artist Banksy says, "I don't know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public. They forget that invisibility is a superpower." College athletes have private lives, but their performances are public and, as such, are fair game. Some fans need to learn to keep their private, inane and inappropriate thoughts about them to themselves. That kind of "invisibility" isn't a superpower. 

It's common decency.

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