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I marvel that amateurism persists at big-time colleges in the face of the case against it. Even a guy like John Cooper, the football coach at Ohio State and not exactly a freethinker, says, "It's time we gave these kids some money." But amateurism gives us the illusion that all the violence and money-spending you see on the field is part of the innocence of youth, fun for fun's sake, my alma mater against yours. Ah, the splendor and freedom from corruption of college life! Sorry, but it just ain't so.
My college coach was a block of a man named Alex Agase. He stood about 5'10", and though he was paunchy when he coached at Northwestern, he weighed a rock-solid 215 pounds during his pro career with the Browns shortly after World War II. He was a guard and he was as rough and tough as anybody you would want to meet. All the Northwestern players had heard stories about him from other coaches and old-timers who remembered Alex as a player at Illinois and Purdue and in the NFL. He was a legendary competitor and a guy not to be messed with off the field. For a time after I was finished playing, I didn't know how I felt about the man, about coaches in general. We won some games at Northwestern, but had I learned anything? Had a coach ever been good for me as a person, going all the way back to the start of my sporting career?
One day when I was back on campus for some reason or other, I ran into Alex. He looked at me and then reached around and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. "Get a haircut," he growled. He was only partly smiling, and he held onto my hair for what seemed like an eternity. My face turned red, and a tidal wave of anger and embarrassment washed over me. I was with friends who didn't know my former coach, and maybe that's why I was uneasy. Whatever, something about the scene—the unexpectedness of his command (not that it was out of character, just that I didn't anticipate it in these surroundings), the unwitting rudeness of it, my sudden relapse into the subservient, sycophantic role of pawn in front of the king and his ready acceptance of that role—enraged me. Yet all I did was chuckle and mumble that I would be getting a trim soon. Which was a lie.
The scene has stuck with me through the years. I doubt that Agase remembers it, but for me it captures the sham of the big-time football coach as a teacher of young men. Put simply, a coach lives in a world that has little relationship to the real world, and his actions in his coach's world are performed to please him alone without regard to the feelings or development of those below him.
Big-time college football coaches like to profess that they are building upstanding, responsible men at the same time they are building good football players. That is clearly not the case. Far from socializing their players, coaches all too often shape them into young men with warped perspectives on obedience, morality and competition. These young men are often unable to function appropriately in the real world—that is, any world without football at its epicenter—until they learn new methods of behavior and thought.
In the August 1988 issue of the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, John Massengale, director of the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and UNLV sociology professor James Frey write that school sports and the teaching personnel associated closely with them—coaches, primarily—educate participants in a "dysfunctional manner." In other words, the things players are taught are not what they need to learn to be good citizens. "Selected actions, behaviors, and traits are often taught, reinforced, and then rewarded, although these actions do not reflect desirable social values," write Frey and Massengale. "For example: How often is blind obedience taught in place of the courage of conviction? How often is intimidation taught under the guise of tenacity? How often is manipulation and deliberate rule violation taught as strategy? How often is composure and sportsmanship mistaken for lack of effort?...This list could go on forever."
Vince Lombardi did more to corrupt the profession of football coaching than any man before or since. Because he won games, and because he bullied his players in a way that dehumanized them, he opened the door for all kinds of abuses in the name of winning.
Some coaches develop an almost casual cruelty. I ate lunch recently at a Chicago diner owned by Tom Runkle, an old high school friend. I noticed the little finger on his left hand. It was grotesquely swollen and bent. I knew he had played football at Arizona State in the late 1960s under Frank Kush, the Sun Devils' brutal coach at the time, and I asked Tom if the pinky was a memento from those days. He laughed and said, "Yeah, I was playing defensive end in a spring scrimmage, and I caught the finger on a guy's face mask. I came out and Kush looked at the finger and said, 'It's just dislocated.' He grabbed it and yanked it, and when he was done, the bone was almost coming through the skin. He said, 'Tape it up,' and I did and went back in the game. That summer a doctor looked at the finger and said it was still broken. But the bones never grew back together. It's useless now." Runkle shook his head. "Kush never believed anybody was hurt."
Coaches are experts at brainwashing, at keeping their players subservient, thankful for the simplest of rewards. They spew so much contradictory information that a player who absorbs it all will find himself frozen with indecision, able only to follow the latest command of the coach, whatever it may be. I think of all the times my teammates and I were told to play with "reckless abandon" and then a moment later to be "under control." We were told to "have fun out there" and to "get serious," to "knock their heads off" and to be "gentlemen." I remember making a mistake on a coverage one day and my secondary coach asking me what I was doing.
"When the flanker blocks down, I thought...."