The season ends in a few days, the first year of a playoff, and TV ratings will be astronomical. For real lovers of the game, though, the ones with an historical sense of things, it’s getting difficult to watch. How can you appreciate the contest when so much bad behavior by players happens?
Last Friday, I caught the first parts of the Alamo Bowl, UCLA vs. Kansas State, but had to turn it off before halftime. The adolescence was too much. I went to UCLA as an undergrad and graduate student, and I suffered as much as anyone during those underachieving Donohue years. The scars still hurtthe blocked kick in the ’81 SC game, the ’88 Washington State upset, the ’98 collapse against Miami, the 2005 humiliation in Tucson . . .
But this was different. It wasn’t the score (UCLA was winning), it was the deportment. Personal fouls, schoolyard gestures, strutting and boasting, trash-talking, chest-bumping, swaggering attitudes, and cocksure motions. One of them came along every set of downs, it seemed. I recall one play in which a defender popped a KSU running back pretty good, but not until the back had gained ten yards or so. The UCLA guy hopped up and stepped over the back, a common slight these days, then paced a few more steps in tough-guy pose. I wanted to inform him, “Nice hit, buddy, but he just ran through your teammates for a first down.” The UCLA player’s after-tackle conduct made it clear that he was more interested in his own performance than in what was actually happening in the game.
It’s ESPN’s fault. No, we should add FoxSports, USA Today, and all the other sports media, too. Watch the highlights of past games or promotions of upcoming games and calculate a ratio of seconds devoted to actual plays and seconds devoted to after-play behavior and sights on the sidelines. Do so and you realize how much the sport has been framed by personalities and poor sportsmanship.
But the networks love it. It makes for titillating drama and gossip-worthy controversy.
Sadly, it also sends a message to young athletes from middle school to high school: this is the way super-competitors act. And college players who think they have a chance in the NFL draw another conclusion from the abundant coverage of outlandish conduct on the field. If you want attention, if you hope to show up on SportsCenter, add a dance move after you score, be a big mouth on the field, scuffle with opponents. The media will love you, which means the sports industry will, too.
So, as you watch Oregon and Ohio State square off this weekend, root for the team that shows the most honor and humility. Cheer for the player who scores a touchdown and tosses the ball casually to the ref before jogging back to the sideline. Oregon is already at a disadvantage. After beating Florida State last week, Oregon players chanted “No means no!” referring to accusations of sexual assault by FSU QB Jameis Winston.
Coaches need to instruct their players in a different model, my own suggestion being sections from The Book of the Courtier, which may be found at a site hosted by, surprisingly, the University of Oregon.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things