Even Pollyanna Has to Wear Shades
Being a college sports fan, particularly if you attended that school, but certainly not exclusively, is just supposed to be fun. It is a communally shared experience with close friends and thousands of others, and at its core is in part a way to connect with a time of our lives that we remember fondly.
There certainly has always been a good share of artifice to college fandom. Originally college sports truly were an extra-curricular activity, but that didn’t last very long at all. Throughout its history it has been played by many, many people who really didn’t have much interest in the scholastic aspect of it, but as professional athletics grew and became such a potential creator of wealth, the number has increased exponentially in that regard.
However, maybe until about a generation ago, fans could at least convince themselves that these were student-athletes, good guys that loved old State U, and succeeding for the alma mater was the foremost concern. That has certainly devolved and it takes a true Pollyanna to buy into all of it. I’ll describe it this way. In the past a fan might well say “Well, our guys aren’t doing that”. To now generally the best you can do is utter “Well, everybody is doing it”.
It surely has become less fun to be a college fan. The games themselves are great, and the quality of competition is outstanding, but unless you can have complete tunnel vision on the contests themselves, you at best will have a sour taste in your mouth, more than periodically.
Of course the worst comes periodically in waves. Right now it is Kansas that is in the crosshairs, but stuff happens to everyone, so gloating at the expense of a rival is a fool’s errand. But fan is short for fanatic, so acting foolish is certainly understood. How much of a diehard fan that you are of your school completely colors what you think the level of your school’s transgressions are, and those of the one you root against.
Kansas State has probably had the easiest time of it from an off-the-field standpoint. They were non-competitive in basketball for a long time, and that often coincides unfortunately with a lack of issues, and their current basketball coach Bruce Weber, is considered maybe the squeakiest clean in the industry. To the point that here is where we are in college sports today. Many Wildcat fans actually want their coach to be dirtier.
Their football coach Bill Snyder has been extremely successful while generally, by today’s standards, run an exemplary program. But Kansas State also had a wildly out of control financial administration that was handing out extensions, buyouts, and golden parachutes like Halloween candy. Add in some minor scrapes in Frank Martin’s basketball tenure, and they felt compelled to bring in John Currie to get rid of the grime. I was no big fan of Currie, but the man did what was requested and at least to some degree necessary, and was roundly disliked for it.
Missouri has been exhaling a bit here recently after a really bad run of it for quite a while. The list of things large and petty is pretty much too long to list. But among the lowlights were administration members having conversations with people in jail, sending the teams color announcer for fire the basketball coach, and making a basketball hire of a favorite son that was a completely unmitigated disaster. That was peanuts compared to a national narrative that the schools racial atmosphere was toxic.
Oh, those who did not like the Tigers had a field day, and actually they had field days and days, but these waves lessen, and for Missouri they have for now. I’m sure Tigers fans felt bunkered in during those times, especially since some transgressions date back to a seemingly long lost time when there was actually some shame felt under these circumstances.
Right now the waves have come ashore at Kansas. Sure, having a historically bad football team for about a decade now really stinks, but Jayhawk fans have always been able to pretty much ignore that smell. They had basketball, and an already historic program to begin with, has upped the ante for over three decades now.
Larry Brown certainly had his issues that had KU on probation the year after their national title in 1988, but after he left came Roy Williams, whose aw-shucks demeanor and generally good record with off the court issues, combined with on court success, made KU fans proud. Proud to the point that they pretty much delighted in criticizing other programs who might get their hands a bit dirty. And eventually to the point that when Roy had a slight downtick in the late 90’s, I actually fielded calls from KU fans who felt they might need an injection of thug in the program.
But then Williams hit the mother lode in recruiting around the millenium, and KU and Roy’s “good kids” made consecutive Final Fours before Williams took off for North Carolina. This period no question was a time when the Missouri-Kansas rivalry really took off. Kansas was really, really good. Their fans were really, really proud. The Tigers did not upset KU often, but just often to enough to beat their chest and stick it to the “holier than though” Jayhawks. That was vitriolic, but it was the kind of fan fun we yearn for now.
Bill Self came aboard and the hits just kept on coming for Kansas. With wins AND recruiting, which was accelerating to an ultra high level. The KU title team in 2008 had guys deep on the bench who would become first round draft choices. In the wake of the title started the steady drip of one and done type of recruits. Josh Selby and Ben McLemore started the parade which has continued until right now.
The difference in the landscape at KU merely mirrored the change in college basketball. Williams and Self tenures at Kansas are close in terms of success. But only two significant players for KU under Williams left early, and Paul Pierce and Drew Gooden still played three years each. Not much of that now, even holdouts like Villanova seeing players leave early after this year’s title.
Not much good in it either. What you THOUGHT might have been going on was laid bare by the FBI right before what would become a Final Four year at Kansas. The top players, and/or their families were getting cash. Nobody, not even the most rose-colored glasses Polyanna’s could try and deny that now. The only question now is who was paying it, who knew they were getting it, and when they knew it.
Fans are being put in a ridiculous position that often makes them look like saps. Instead of trying to think that their program was above board, really all they can do is hope that the anvil would fall on some shoe company executive, and not on their head coach. All they can do is hope that a player that played for their team didn’t have direct knowledge of a payment to his family so that player wouldn’t have been ineligible when he was helping to win games for his school so that banners and titles wouldn’t be vaporized.
But still there is denial at places like KU. The outrage of how Billy Preston could be held out of games because of registration questions on his car was the story that was allowed to be played out, when that wasn’t even the issue, it was just the trigger point. The big, bad NCAA was dragging their feet at the expense of the poor Jayhawks. Uhhh, no. It’s no fun for that loyal fan to be put in the position to end up looking silly for mounting his or hers spirited defense. No more outrage at John Calipari, no more jokes at the expense of Rick Pitino. Pitino has been the most grievous offender so far, but that’s only so far.
Whoever coined the phrase “plausible deniability” should be rich. It’s been used so much since way back in the days of Watergate, and here we are again. Did Bill Self know the details of Preston or DeSousa’s camps getting money? I doubt it. I think it’s also likely he didn’t specifically know that they in particular received cash. But since we all now know it’s common knowledge that top one and done athletes are all getting paid by shoe companies, it would be farcical to think that Self or Mark Turgeon or Sean Miller and on and on wouldn’t realize that it was going on.
The only question now is how long the Jayhawks wave of nausea will have to last. Nothing is going at any kind of fast pace here. The specter of banners coming down, titles being stripped, and wins being vacated, still hangs out there. A deep sigh of relief is a long way off.
It seems like the one and done rule might be ending, and that will help a lot, but it’s hardly a panacea. What is needed now is that shame returns, and that players who want to make significant money right now playing their game go do it, and those that want to wait, get a different experience, and an education if they want it, play college basketball.
There is nothing unfair about it. It’s a choice. College athletes have never had it better, heck they DO get paid (something that seems to be forgotten), and at places like Kansas they are treated royally. A big part of that is the adulation that the fans shower on them.
Fans that now need to hold their nose, cover their eyes, and plug their ears to the realities outside of the games themselves. The special bond between a college fan and their teams has been damaged, and maybe can’t be repaired. That bond is the thing that is, or was, the difference between rooting for your favorite pro team, or your school.
That line has been blurred extremely dramatically. I think it is a shame, and I feel bad for the fans. Because they are the ones always left holding the bag, and it’s not full of cash.