Guest Column: “For the Love of the Game”

Mark Murphy, Physician and Author

While visiting my daughter in Savannah, GA a few days ago, I read a well-reasoned, provocative article in the sports section of the Savannah Morning News. I contacted the author, Dr. Mark Murphy, who graciously granted permission for me to publish his column in my blog.

With the start of football kickoff season just days away, his proposals merit our consideration. Whether you agree or disagree, we’d like to hear your reactions. Just follow the instructions below the column about how to comment.

“FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME,” by Mark Murphy, M.D.

It is etched in my memory forever, one of those things you know you will never forget—hot sun boiling overhead in a cloudless blue September sky, the punt arching high above the field, its parabolic descent taking it into the waiting arms of Georgia’s number 19. He cut right; the first tackler missed. Another defender was plastered by a blocker; still another spun off into the hedges. The ball carrier broke another tackle and sprinted for the sideline, arms pumping, hurtling towards the end zone as seemingly every white-clad Clemson Tiger on the field somehow either missed or fell or overran the play.

And then, the roar—deafening, a throaty chorus that was louder than any sound I had ever heard in my life, seventy thousand human voices screaming at the tops of their lungs, as Scott Woerner crossed the goal line and knelt there, head cocked to one side, spinning the football on the turf like a top.

It was 1980. I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, on campus a mere five days, watching was my first college football game.

And I was hooked.

Georgia went on to beat Clemson 20-16. The rest of the season was magical. A freshman running back named Herschel Walker, a future Heisman trophy winner who would end up being considered the greatest college football player of the modern era, led the Bulldog football team to an unbeaten season. The Dawgs won the 1980 NCAA title by beating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

I’ve been an avid college football fan ever since.

When I first saw Woerner score that TD three decades ago, college football was simply an enjoyable way to pass a Saturday afternoon. But the game has changed in a fundamental way.

College football has become big business. And that big business is ruining college football.

In 2010, the 68 teams in the six major football conferences pocketed an aggregate $1.1 billion in football-related profits (an average of over $16 million per school) in the middle of an economic downturn. The University of Georgia’s football program made a $52 million profit that year. Nick Saban, head coach of defending National Champion Alabama, will earn a whopping $5.9 million in salary this year—more than twice as much as the highest-paid university president in America.

So what have these new economic realities wrought?

In 1980, Herschel Walker was the most highly-recruited high school athlete in the country. He did not decide where he was going to attend college until April of his senior year of high school—two months after most athletes had signed their letters of intent. There was no Internet to speak of. The term “recruiting guru” simply did not exist. When Herschel arrived at the University of Georgia athletic dormitory, the first thing the superstar recruit did was help the upperclassmen with their bags.

Contrast that with today. College football recruiting has become a multi-million-dollar industry in its own right; virtually every college has at least one recruiting website. High school players are lionized; grown men cry when top prospects defect to rival schools. Reuben Foster, a seventeen-year-old high school junior rated the top linebacking prospect in America, called a press conference this summer attended by over 30 journalists—including members of the national news media—to announce that he was switching his commitment from the University of Alabama to Auburn University.He was accompanied at the announcement by his three-year-old daughter, dressed as an Auburn cheerleader. And commitments are happening earlier and earlier. Last month, after a football camp in Baton Rouge, LSU Coach Les Miles made a scholarship offer to fourteen-year-old Dylan Moses.

Moses starts the eighth grade this week.

Meanwhile, bad behavior among college athletes seems to be on the upswing. Isaiah Crowell, the gifted running back who led Georgia in rushing last season, was booted by Georgia Coach Mark Richtthis summer for being arrested with an unregistered handgun with an altered serial number—a felony. Michael Dyer, the former MVP of the BCS National Championship Game while at Auburn, was suspended at Auburn for violating unspecified team rules, transferred to Arkansas State, and then was kicked off that team after being pulled over for a speeding ticket and being found to have both marijuana and, yes, another unregistered handgun. Two months after winning the 2010 BCS National Title, a group of four Auburn players from that team participated in a home invasion and armed robbery after a night of drinking and smoking synthetic marijuana. One of those four has been sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The list goes on and on, with elite athletes like Tyrann Mathieu, Zach Mettenberger, Stephen Garcia, Cam Newton and Tyler Bray all either having been arrested or kicked out of school for misdeeds ranging from disorderly conduct and cheating on exams to theft and repetitive drug use.

But should this sort of behavior really be a surprise?

If a child is told at an early age that the rules don’t really apply to him, he’ll wind up believing it. And college coaches, under pressure to justify their multi-million-dollar salaries, routinely do exactly that in their recruitment of elite athletes. The result is that today’s top college football recruits, with rare exception, are a self-absorbed lot, more concerned with the prospect of making it to the NFL and becoming an instant millionaire than they are about leaving it all out there on the gridiron for their collegiate alma mater. Fans of the college game are now reaping what they have sown.

In short, to quote the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Frankly, although I remain a fan of college football, I’ve had just about enough.

I’ve had it with the over-the-top press conferences by self-absorbed teenage boys, the incessant tweets and Facebook posts, and the lack of comprehension of the meaning of the word “team.” And I challenge the NCAA, which has been arbitrary and inconsistent in its enforcement of the rules of recruitment, to change the culture of college football so that we can have more Herschel Walkers and fewer Michael Dyers.

Here’s what I’d propose, as a start:

1. College football coaches’ salaries should be capped. I think $1.5 million total compensation is plenty of money.

2. Recruitment of high school football players before the summer prior to their senior year of high school should be prohibited. Any college that breaks this ban should be placed on immediate NCAA probation.

3. Any program (or affiliated booster) that offers a player an illegal inducement (gifts, jobs for family member, trips, cash, cars, etc.) should have an immediate loss of five scholarships per violation. And if a recruit accepts such a donation, either personally or through a family member, that recruit shall be permanently ineligible to play college football anywhere.

4. Any recruit that holds a press conference shall lose a year of eligibility to play college football.

5. Any college whose football players’ graduation rates fall below those of the general student body should be penalized $200,000 per annum for every percentage point that their graduation rates fall below that general student body graduation rate.

6. Random drug tests should be conducted by the NCAA for all teams. Any player found to have a banned substance in his blood or urine will miss a mandatory two games with the first offense and will have to undergo outpatient drug rehab. A second offense will mandate inpatient drug rehab, paid for by the school, and a year’s suspension from football.

If the sordid Jerry Sandusky situationat Penn State can teach us anything, it’s this: college football should not be about money, prestige or power. Those things have corrupted the sport. Instead, the institution of collegiate football should focus upon molding young men so that they will become productive members of society. It should emphasize the very things that make it valuable–school pride, character, hard work, and the value of sublimating individual goals for the sake of the team.

Let’s stop the madness. Let’s take back college football, for the love of the game.

On the Amazon page for his book The Shadow Man, you’ll find this description of my guest columnist:

Mark Murphy is a Savannah native. He’s had a lot of jobs in his life: fast food worker, student marine biologist, orderly, and–most recently–gastroenterologist. He’s met a lot of interesting folks in those occupations, from aging sitcom stars, disgraced tele-evangelists and political kingmakers to serial killers. He once even saw a man eat his mattress in a locked psychiatric ward. And when he’s not working at his “day job” doing endoscopy, he’s reading (a lot) and writing (not enough–but it’s never enough). He pens a regular column for the Savannah Morning News, has published a few short stories, and has been a contributor to Savannah magazine. “The Shadow Man” is his first novel. And it’s quite a ride…

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