Two hours later he raises his hand as his Political and Social Thought class discusses a renowned letter that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail to his fellow clergymen. "Yes, Joseph?" says professor Michael Smith. Joseph opens his mouth to speak ... but hasn't the faintest clue what, and falls silent.
But he knows exactly what he wants to say at a student council meeting that evening, after the strikers ask the council to issue a resolution to the trustees in support of a living wage for the workers. One opponent of the resolution insists that it's un-American to pay workers "more than they're worth on the free market," that it's an assault on the "sanctity" of the market, one of the country's founding institutions. "Slavery was one of the founding institutions of America!" Joseph cries. How many rules and regulations have human beings, over time, understood more deeply and altered? The resolution gets tabled and dies.
He discovers three messages on his cellphone and an e-mail from the football staff, all saying the same thing: Report to the office. Now.
Two massive black gladiators in football regalia rise over the right flank of coach Mike London's desk. One mannequin wears the Cavaliers' blue home jersey, the other visiting orange. They possess everything that an athlete in 2012 could desire: pectorals sculpted by years in a weight room, arms that hang at their sides like chiseled clubs, red biceps bands, white gloves, Nike swooshes. Everything ... except heads.
They're the easy metaphor for the athlete that the U.S. system produces today. Too easy. The separated-out, year-round, one-sport jock we're creating is often steeped in discipline, fighting spirit, leadership and time-management skills. If he's, say, a UVA player such as Joseph, he's up at 5:30 a.m.; getting taped at 6; practicing, pumping iron and doing agility drills till 10:30; dragging his weary legs and sore shoulders to class; returning at 3:15 for another hour and a half of meetings and film study; then squeezing in his homework after dinner and collapsing into sleep. The 20-hour limit on weekly practice mandated by the NCAA? Every university skirts that by establishing all manner of "voluntary" activities and preparation for games that any nonvolunteer, of course, will never play. If he's a baseball player, he's reporting three hours before a game that lasts another three hours, taking a knee in the outfield grass afterward while his coach recounts his version of the whole affair, cleaning up the dugout and regrooming the field, wolfing down a meal and straggling back to his books or his pillow 8½ hours after pulling on his jock ... 56 times in the regular season and up to 13 more in the postseason! Off-season? No off-season exists for college athletes anymore. Minor sports? Virtually no minor sports exist either, even at Division II and III levels. Lacrosse, volleyball and field hockey programs have morphed into one more opportunity for an institution to market itself and a coach to burnish his résumé and climb his career ladder as university presidents turn a blind eye to the absurd number of hours required of student-ATHLETES ... because ... well, aren't sports the glue that binds the college, that lures alums and their checkbooks back onto campus, that creates TV revenues and free media advertising? In a society in which coaches are left to play the role of tribal elders, too many tribal elders have lost their way. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino thought fullback D.J. Kamer's priorities were all wrong when he requested to miss a practice—a practice—in 2003 so he could serve as a pallbearer at a dear friend's funeral, a mind-set that, along with his 41--9 record with Louisville, reaped Petrino big leaps to the NFL's Falcons and Arkansas until a blonde and a Harley-Davidson undid him.
Yes, the system allows an athlete to pursue his dream ... but what if his head or heart is large enough for two dreams? What of the athlete wise enough to know that this dream has, oh, perhaps a one-in-100 chance of panning out beyond the next few years, and even if it does, another half century or more of life awaits him—rich decades for those who've begun pursuing other passions and curiosities, more likely fallow for those herded into this tunnel?
Could Tommie Smith and John Carlos have become bronze statues on San Jose State's campus had they come of age today? Would Smith, in 2012, have attended the provocative sociology classes taught by Harry Edwards that helped inspire the sprinter to shut his eyes, bow his head and raise his right fist during the national anthem in Mexico City in 1968 after breaking the world record in the 200 meters, provoking a national debate and one more advance in our long crawl to humanity? Not if those sociology classes couldn't have been crammed into today's ever-narrowing windows of time between practice and conditioning and meetings, and not if—as has become commonplace—Smith's coaches had persuaded him to take a less challenging major so he could commit fully to his sport.
"It's like a job," says Joseph. "We're only students to a certain extent. Sports have become such a big money-maker that it's all about the bottom line, like so much else in our society. It not only limits your potential to pursue academics but punishes you when your dedication to academics interferes with your sport. Most football and basketball players can't take any of the difficult classes. You're not able to take advantage of what these great schools have to offer. It's not even amateur athletics anymore. It's professional."
"It's a horrific schedule," says Edwards, who over the last three decades has watched athletes stop taking classes that start after 1 p.m., classes with labs, classes that require their time on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. Study abroad in the off-season, even if you're a Division III relief pitcher? Don't be silly.
"Joseph is the first football player who's ever entered our program," says professor Smith, the director of UVA's Political and Social Thought department. "He soaks up learning. He's got intellectual curiosity. He's refreshingly open. I have enormous respect for the kids in our sports programs—plenty are smart and have enormous discipline. It suggests to me the potential of these athletes if we challenge them intellectually the way we do athletically. But we're selling these kids a bad deal. They're doing a job here—full-time athletics. To pretend otherwise is to engage in denial. They're on an island within the university. A subset of the staff is paid highly to get them through, but it's not about engaging their minds with the outside world. They lead a regimented life, no time to loaf, to think, to read a book. It's a precious four years of a human life when you acquire the habit of inquiry, when you acquire your intellectual capital. We have to ask ourselves, Why do we do this? To fill the endless demand for cable TV programming? Are athletes really in college or in some quasifactory? We've shrunk them."