American football factory

By JOHN M. CRISP

There was a big football game here in Texas last week. The defending national champion University of Texas Longhorns hosted the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. UT was defeated so decisively that it’s unlikely that the absence of starting cornerback Tarell Brown made any difference whatsoever.


Brown and fellow Longhorn Tyrell Gatewood were suspended from the team after they were pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy during the middle of the previous Sunday night. Brown allegedly was carrying a 9-mm handgun in his lap, and both players were charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

These guys must have had classes scheduled for the next day. Why weren’t they back in the dorm studying?

I thought back to the first freshman English class I ever taught, as a graduate assistant at the University of Texas in the early ’80s. Among my 25 students were nine athletes _ two swimmers, two basketball players and five football players. The basketball players and swimmers were fairly well-prepared for college, and so was one of the football players.

But it was clear that the other four football players were going to find academic life challenging, even in a basic course like freshman English taught by a novice like me.

They couldn’t write very well, but they were good-natured guys with wit and personality, and they always came to class. One of them _ I’ll call him Tyrone _ impressed us by mentioning on the first day that he was from L.A. "That is," he said, "Lubbock Area." Tyrone could do a hilarious impression of the coach, and when the Longhorns lost the Bluebonnet Bowl, he made fun of some of the "white boys," who took the defeat just a little too seriously. "What ya’ll cryin’ for?" he said. "It’s just a football game."

There was a big, big tackle _ I’ll call him Leroy _who was much less self-assured than Tyrone. He was gentle and taciturn, almost morose, and his academic skills were extremely limited. But he had a realistic streetwise wisdom; he knew that football, even though it was a very long shot, was his best chance to make it big in our culture. He told me once that no matter what they say, every player on the team imagined that someday he would make it in the NFL. He thoroughly understood the hard ruthlessness of the situation he was in. Athletic-program officials will help you in every way, he said, but if they see you aren’t going to make it, either on the football field or in the classroom, they’ll cut you loose.

Over the course of the semester, hints of the dark side emerged. One day, Tyrone asked me if I could cash a $100 check for him, a "gift" from a fan back home. Leroy worked hard and made a little progress. But one day he turned in a decent paper written in a flowing, feminine hand. When I asked him about it _ you don’t "confront" guys as big as Leroy _ he freely admitted that his girlfriend had written it for him. He was embarrassed and apologetic, but he knew he had a lot at stake.

Ultimately, all four players plagiarized their final papers. They weren’t trying to fool anyone _ one of them even turned in his sources with his paper. They just didn’t see anything wrong with it. The best I could do for them was a "Gentlemen’s D," which probably didn’t help them much in either their football or their academic careers.

I wish I could have helped them more, but the problem began long before they reached my class, in high schools were they were defined by football rather than by other kinds of potential. Eligibility always trumped academics, and it was easy for everyone around them to accept the doubtful idea that a scholarship to a big football power like UT would lead to fame and fortune in the NFL.

Of course, Brown and Gatewood shouldn’t have been driving around Austin in the middle of the night with guns and drugs. But it’s a shame that 12 years of public schools and three or four years at the university failed to illuminate their worlds with better possibilities than always having to play the tough guy, on the football field or off.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)

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