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Clarifying Role of College Sports Easier Said than Done

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Copyright 2017 The Deseret News Publishing Co.

Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)

 

SALT LAKE CITY — Is college football the celebration of the best in amateur athletics? Or is it big business?

Do college football players see the game as a way to earn a degree, an education, and a future for themselves? Or do they see college football as a path to a career in professional sports?

Are college coaches trying to develop quality young men or win championships? And, if you believe it's possible to do both, what happens when there is a conflict between the two purposes?

The identity of college football was at the heart of two different debates last week — one came after some frank comments from a UCLA quarterback, while the other discussion followed the official addition of a troubled wide receiver to the University of Utah's roster.

First, let's talk about Darren Carrington.

Utah has endured criticism nationally and locally for giving the talented wide receiver a spot in the Utes' program after Oregon's new coach Willie Taggart dismissed him from the Ducks following an arrest for driving under the influence of intoxicants on July 1. Critics leveled a number of complaints at Utah and Whittingham, beginning with the fact that this was not Carrington's first legal issue.

In fact, he had a number of both legal and team disciplinary issues throughout his time at Oregon.

Some saw it as hypocrisy that Whittingham could profess to build his program on discipline, but then accept a player with a list of disciplinary problems. Those critics rightly pointed out that were it not for Carrington's NFL-caliber talent, the college football door would have been slammed in his face.

Whittingham's response to a barrage of questions on why he'd take such a seemingly troubled player into his program at Pac-12 media days was that he'd extensively discussed Carrington's problems and the pros and cons of extending an opportunity to him with a number of people and found him "worthy of a second chance. He has the right attitude and right mentality for that."

The second issue arose when UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen said, "Look, football and school don't go together. They just don't. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs."

That angered people who feel some high-level collegiate athletes don't appreciate the immense value of a college education.

The reality is that college football is complicated, even duplicitous. It has evolved in the last 20 years, and it is not one singular experience. In fact, maybe it never was.

College football is not just about amateurism, school spirit and higher education opportunities. College football programs, especially in the Power Five conferences, are multimillion-dollar businesses that are built on sentiment and the talent of young, often very economically disadvantaged teens.

The CEOs of those businesses are college coaches, who have to build programs that accommodate both aspiring professional athletes and students who are talented athletes.

It's easy to criticize Whittingham and Rosen, but, in their separate ways, they're offering us a chance to acknowledge the changing realities of college football.

The reality is the only legitimate path to the NFL is through college football. University football programs have essentially become farm programs for the NFL.

NFL rules won't allow an athlete to declare for the draft until he's been out of high school for three years. Their only option for development and to stay on the radar of pro scouts is college football.

That makes college coaches essentially minor league managers.

But, at the same time, only a small percentage of college football players will even earn a shot to play professionally, so guys like Whittingham also have to be mentors to players who are primarily students seeking a college education but also have athletic abilities.

College sports are both a business and a representation of a community. Players are both people and commodities. Coaches are both teachers and CEOs.

And, in fairness, let's wipe the sentimentality from our eyes completely when judging their actions. A coach's job depends on winning football games while increasing graduation rates.

It's simplistic and naïve to say that Whittingham shouldn't extend a "second chance" to Carrington because the receiver is only trying to raise his draft stock. This is a mutually beneficial situation. It can be both a business deal and an effort to help a struggling young man.

Utah happens to need, pretty significantly, wide receivers. Carrington needs, quite desperately, a chance to redeem himself - on and off the football field. And, if you look at it from a business perspective, what kind of CEO would Whittingham be if he passed on Carrington, as the receiver would likely go to another Pac-12 school.

And, whether you're inclined to see the business argument or view Carrington's opportunity as a "second chance" situation, how many chances are too many? What kind of mistakes are worth forgiving? What kind of person deserves another chance?

Does redemption have an expiration date?

Whittingham's philosophy is to decide on a case-by-case basis. He said the person's attitude drives it, and I believe him. I also believe that talent and what the team needs are factors in his decision.

When I was a kid, my dad owned a construction company. He often hired convicted felons searching for a second chance. In fact, he said, some of them were the best employees he had because they were so grateful for another shot.

What becomes of society if we don't find a place for people who've made multiple, sometimes massive mistakes?

I've needed forgiveness, and I've extended second chances to others. Sometimes it worked out to be a blessing for both of us, while other times it ended in heartbreak.

The one thing I've never regretted is my decision to trust someone — even when I've been burned. I felt good about why I've thrown lifelines, and I understand it's not my decision to grab hold or waste it.

I don't know if Carrington's worthy of another chance, but I know that no one has more to lose in extending him an opportunity than Whittingham.

And Rosen isn't ungrateful for an opportunity to earn a college education by pointing out that the demands on the field make classroom commitments almost impossible to honor. He's speaking about his own experience. He's attempting to raise an increasingly important issue.

Football used to be a fall sport. Today, it's a year-round commitment that leaves players little in the way of personal time. Many players have dealt with the increased demands of football success by opting for easier classes or degrees, just so they can succeed in both arenas.

The reality is that college football is many experiences. Maybe it always has been.

It's impossible to simply tell a guy like Rosen, "Shut up, go back to class and be grateful we don't send you a tuition bill." Just like it's unrealistic to think no person who's had a legal or moral issue will be allowed to grace a college roster.

Whether the fact that college football has evolved so significantly during the last two decades is good for the sport, for the athlete or for universities is a complicated, nuanced issue. In fact, I assert that there isn't just one answer.

Judging these situations may be easy. But solving the problems they illustrate is much more difficult.

 

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August 14, 2017
 
 
 

 

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