Wednesday, December 29, 2010

There's a Principle at Stake

Roland Sales led Arkansas to an 11–win season with an Orange Bowl
victory over the University of Oklahoma on Jan. 2, 1978.

Next Tuesday night, my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, will face Ohio State University in the Sugar Bowl.

To say this is a big deal for me, for all the folks I knew growing up in Arkansas, for the school and for the state would be an understatement.

With a 10–2 record, the Razorbacks have finished the season with 10 wins for only the second time in the last two decades. If they win next week, they will have 11 victories in one season for the first time since 1977, when Arkansas went 11–1 and recorded an upset victory over Oklahoma in the 1978 Orange Bowl.

The only game the Razorbacks lost that year was to Texas and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell.

I remember that Orange Bowl. It was an amazing start to what turned out to be — in my opinion — a mediocre year.

All the years I was growing up there, Arkansas fans seemed to crave national recognition, national respect. They were sort of the Rodney Dangerfields of college sports fans. Being invited to play the Sooners was, in their eyes, an indication that Arkansas finally was getting that respect.

But then, a few days before the Orange Bowl, first–year Arkansas coach Lou Holtz suspended three of Arkansas' best players for unspecified team rules violations.

I've never seen an optimistic mood deflate so quickly. Almost instantly, everyone in Arkansas became convinced that the Sooners would pound the Razorbacks to a pulp in the Orange Bowl.

I don't think Holtz's action changed how people outside of Arkansas viewed the matchup very much. Everyone seemed to assume from the beginning that Oklahoma would win.

The folks in Las Vegas had made OU the heavy favorite even before Holtz suspended the players; after Holtz did that, the oddsmakers in Vegas refused to take any more bets on the Orange Bowl. They thought it was a foregone conclusion that OU would win. Just about everyone did.

But, then, do you know what happened? A miracle happened!

A previously unknown sophomore running back named Roland Sales stepped up, set an Orange Bowl record for rushing yards and led Arkansas to a 31–6 victory over Oklahoma.

Now, as we get closer to what may be the biggest bowl game in which Arkansas has played since that Orange Bowl in the late 1970s, I'm getting sort of a sense of deja vu.

Sort of.

Five Ohio State players have been suspended by the NCAA — but those suspensions will affect the first five games of next season.

All five players will be eligible to play in New Orleans next week.

Something about how it is an established NCAA policy to treat postseason games differently than regularly scheduled games.

I'm not sure that's right, though. I mean, depriving these players of facing Akron and four other teams next fall is a greater punishment than preventing them from playing on a national stage in the Sugar Bowl?

I'm sorry, but I just can't follow that logic.

All those players are juniors so, depending upon how many of the players declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft in the spring, it is possible that none of them will ever have to pay any sort of penalty for apparently violating NCAA rules.

What sort of message does that send to those who follow in their footsteps? I'm just spitballing here, but it might tell young people that, no matter what kind of mess you find yourself in, there is always a loophole.

I don't think that is the kind of message the NCAA wants to send to student–athletes — because that definitely is not the way the real world operates.

Of course, maybe that is the way things are in the rarified atmosphere of athletics. Loopholes, after all, exist primarily for the privileged. And there may be no more privileged group in America than professional athletes.

Actually, skipping their senior years might not be a bad idea for most of those Buckeyes. It isn't hard for me to see them looking at the balance sheet and seeing jumping to the NFL early as a plausible solution; instead of sitting out the first half of their senior seasons, they could just go ahead and try their luck in the pros.

One player is the team's top rusher. Another is the team's second–best receiver, but neither might be where they are if not for the exploits of quarterback Terrelle Pryor (who was mentioned as a Heisman prospect when the season began and also happens to be one of the suspendees).

Facing the uncertainty of Pryor's plans, his suspended teammates may figure that bad publicity is better than no publicity — especially if they remember how far Texas fell this season after Colt McCoy's collegiate career ended. There are four other quarterbacks on Ohio State's roster (three are freshmen), but Pryor threw all but 25 of the team's 323 passes this season.

If Pryor leaves, there won't be much experience at the position, and that wouldn't be likely to give his suspended teammates much in the way of recent highlights. Now may be the time for those players to cash in on their success.

As an Arkansas alumnus and a lifelong Razorback fan, I'd really prefer that the Hogs face — and defeat — the Buckeyes at full strength. But I wonder if there isn't a more important principle at stake here.

All things considered, declaring for the draft could be, as I say, the most prudent choice for the others, but it might not be the answer for Pryor, who just isn't ready for prime time but may be left with no choice but to jump instead of twiddling his thumbs, according to Pat McManamon of the Fanhouse.

But if he stays, the experience level at quarterback won't be very high in Ohio State's first five games next year. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, the majority of those games aren't with top–flight competition, and all but one will be played at home.

There are some trouble spots, though. The road game will be played in the middle of the suspension — Ohio State has to travel to Miami on Sept. 17 to play the Hurricanes. And the final game of the suspension is at home against Michigan State, currently ranked seventh in the nation and co–Big Ten champ this year.

(In case you were wondering, the Buckeyes beat Miami this year, 36–24; they last lost to the Hurricanes in the 1999 Kickoff Classic. And Ohio State has a seven–game winning streak against Michigan State, with the Buckeyes' last loss to the Spartans also coming in 1999.)

Then, those players who stay for their senior years and serve the five–game suspensions will return to the field on Oct. 8, when they must travel to Lincoln, Neb., to face the Cornhuskers.

All of that is very superficial, though. It's more of that Tiger Woods–LeBron James–Brett Favre "it's all about me" thinking that seems to permeate sports today — and tends to irritate all but the athlete's dedicated fans.

Well, there's so much money in sports now. I guess athletes — and their agents — have no choice but to think in terms of how the intangibles will affect them.

In recent years, after all, I have watched the annual NFL draft and I have heard analysts speak of how much dropping a slot or two in the draft can cost an athlete when it comes time to sign the contract.

And "cost," in this case, tends to be measured in the millions of dollars.

Financially, there is a lot at stake, and I guess you can't be too hard on a kid who is only following the example set by others.

"Maybe it's coincidence, maybe not, but Pryor's mentor and role model is LeBron James," McManamon writes. "And James was driving a Hummer when he was a high school senior — a Hummer acquired, mind you, through what was determined to be a legitimate loan to his mother.

"No doubt,"
he continued with more than a dash of sarcasm, "the guy would have loaned the same money to a standout history student."

(McManamon went on to observe that "James this week sold sponsorships to his birthday party — for $10,000.")

But I would argue that there is also a lot at stake as far as integrity is concerned.

I guess I'm what you might call old school when it comes to something like this. I'm not apologizing for that. I'm simply stating a fact.

I was brought up to believe that attaining a higher education was a goal to be aimed for. If you were given a scholarship — be it athletic or academic — it was a contract, and you were obligated to fulfill the commitment you had made.

True, I guess everyone who goes to college sees it as a means to an end. A college degree, we are told, is a ticket to a better life. (It doesn't always work out that way, but that's the general idea.) Consequently, people invest the time to earn a degree because they believe it will make certain things possible.

Not everyone has the fame and fortune of a professional athlete's career waiting for them after graduation. Even some athletes who excelled in college don't make it on the professional level.

Pryor probably will. But he is also mindful of his collegiate legacy, and John Kampf of the Cleveland News–Herald says this isn't the kind Pryor wants to leave behind.

"Earlier this season," Kampf writes, "when explaining why he was planning on returning to Ohio State for his senior season, the Buckeyes' junior quarterback talked about leaving a legacy at Ohio State and that he wasn't leaving 'until all the records are broken.'

"Unfortunately for him, the most notable record he and a handful of teammates have set is the longest suspension for the most amount of merchandise sold."

If Pryor stays, he will miss the first five games of his senior year. It is highly unlikely that he will win the Heisman on the basis of his performances in half a dozen regular–season games, no matter how remarkable they may be. It is also unlikely that he will break all the career records for quarterbacks at OSU.

And, if his teammates stumble once or twice during his absence, he may never have the chance to play for a national title.

So Pryor's game against Arkansas may well be his last opportunity to make an impression. In fact, it might be his farewell collegiate appearance. Or will it?

It's kind of hard for me to tell, especially after yesterday, when Pryor and the other four offenders held a media event and apologized for their actions.

I say "media event" because you couldn't call it a press conference. Folks from the media were there, but they weren't allowed to ask any questions.

Without any questions, the statements sounded managed, self serving. That makes it hard to assess the candor level. I'm guessing it will be hard for NFL executives to assess it as well.

For what it's worth, though, it wasn't hard for me to come to one conclusion based on those brief statements.

"I didn't mean to hurt nobody," Pryor said.

If Pryor really is concerned about his legacy, it wouldn't hurt to return for his senior year — and publicly proclaim his intention to do so. He could be a positive role model in a couple of ways — by honoring his commitment to finish his work on his degree and by taking his medicine for his mistakes.

Even if his football game doesn't improve appreciably, the additional year in school could only help.

Maybe he would learn what a double negative is — and how to avoid being one.

Just sayin'.

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