If you haven't caught the latest in ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series, The U, I suggest you check it out. It is a must-watch for any college football fan.
The documentary examines the University of Miami's decade-long reign over college football from the early 1980s through the early 1990s. Other programs have dominated the college football landscape, but none have done it with the style and flare of The U.
(Thankfully, enough time has passed to take the edge off of watching the Hurricanes trounce my Sooners. If not for countless losses to Miami, Oklahoma would have been the team of the '80s and the Switzer Center would be housing a few more crystal balls.)
Discussion of "The U" has been all over college football blogs and message boards since it originally aired last Saturday, and the overwhelming reaction seems to include two words: "talent" and "thug."
No doubt these guys were extremely talented. I struggle with the thug part.
By just about any definition, there was plenty of thuggery at The U. A rundown of the team's police blotter bears that out pretty clearly. What I don't understand are the pervasive ethical and moral value judgments the college football world assigns to players and programs.
Fans seem to obsess over the values and character of a collection 100 college kids, and for what? Do people honestly believe their favorite teams' wins are superior if they do it with "good" kids? Is there really some great nobility in having a football program with "high-character" guys who have records on the dean's list, rather than down at the jailhouse?
In reality, college football teams are comprised of 18- to 22-year-old kids, many of whom come from challenging backgrounds. My guess is that most of us, including myself, did stupid things at that age. but why should those indiscretions define me? I come from a background of privilege relative to many, and I can only imagine what college would be like for some kids that were raised under more challenging circumstances.
The part that bothers me the most, and should bother you, too, is that these kids we label as thugs are products of an environment for which we all–either directly or indirectly–are responsible.
Recently, the college football world passed the title of "Thug U" on to Florida, as Gators' rap sheet has grown pretty lengthy over the past few years. The latest Florida foul-up comes to us via controversial sports blog Deadspin. The sports sleaze Web site recently posted an article on one of coach Urban Meyer's prized recruits, Leon Orr, whose Facebook site includes a picture of him holding a handgun and a stack of money.
It's the kind of image that travels at light speed around fan sites and message boards. And it inspires the usual high-handed outrage: Just another example of how Florida should be so ashamed of its football program.
What stands out to me, though, has little to do with Florida. Here is a kid with the opportunity of a lifetime, and he probably just lost it because he lives in a world in which guns and money bring him status. He hasn't failed Florida, we've failed him.
From a public image standpoint, the heat will be on Meyer to revoke Orr's scholarship. I hope both he and the university make the unpopular decision. As long as they deem that he wouldn't put anyone in danger, let him keep his spot on the squad.
Everyone deserves a second chance to make up for mistakes. For many of these kids, we're not really talking about a second chance, but a chance in life. Isn't there some nobility in that?
(*Editor's note: For another great look at Miami's rise to prominence and eventual collapse, I highly recommend Bruce Feldman's Cane Mutiny.)