Lincicome: 'Gimme 5' could have new meaning for some college athletes

  • College football fans fill stadiums on Saturday because of the student-athletes on the field. "It's kind of hard to rally around a math class," the late Alabama coach Bear Bryant once said.

    College football fans fill stadiums on Saturday because of the student-athletes on the field. "It's kind of hard to rally around a math class," the late Alabama coach Bear Bryant once said. Associated Press

 
Updated 7/2/2021 2:18 PM

The cliché "dumb jock" is at least as old as, say, "mad scientist" or "crooked politician." Not always the case but often enough to be accepted as valid.

A long-standing trope for a college sports participant is "student-athlete," hyphen connected so no one misses the point, emphasis on "student," only secondarily on "athlete." While both can be true, it is most likely just the one.

 

I was never identified as a "student-journalist," though my wife was a "student teacher," without the hyphen and only for one quarter. And neither of us was a brand whose concerns required the attention of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Neither of us, alone nor together, could gather a crowd of thousands to cheer us on after being led to into our classrooms by a marching band and tumbling cheerleaders, none of whom were "student-gymnasts" nor "student-tuba-ists" (double hyphen there) almost all of us paying full fare and buying our own books.

When asked about the importance of college football, Alabama icon Bear Bryant intoned, "It's kind of hard to rally around a math class."

There was that Oklahoma college president asking for funds from his state legislature who promised that he would build a university the football team could be proud of.

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So, yes, academic and athletic priorities have always been a little wacky. In my own case, a confession. I was offered a scholarship to Ohio University, the oldest college in the Northwest Territory, a perfectly fine institution, and I passed because Ohio State had a better football team. I was paying off student loans for a decade.

If this seems a prelude to an opinion about whether jocks, dumb or smart, should be allowed to sell their images, autographs or used sweat socks, yes it is. And, no, they shouldn't.

The bargain is made. In return for an education, tuition, room, board, tutors and peripheral glory, helpfully provided by the athletic department's publicity machinery, a college athlete is not really asked to be a student but is expected to pretend to be an amateur. We all know this is a sham, but there is comfort in the deceit.

We could believe they were playing for us, the old grads, the fellow students, the greater college glory. Gone. All gone now. Every jock for himself, or herself. Chaos is coming.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The NCAA has been the rule maker and enforcer keeping the lie alive, making much money for itself, conferences and schools from the names, images and likenesses of athletes. Even while the NCAA's power was being diluted by court rulings, it was figuring out how to make even more money by expanding its football playoffs to 12 teams.

The college sports system has long been accused of being archaic and antiquated and exploitive, and, of course, it is all of those things. What it is now we shall see. The new rules are still being written and I see seedier, greedier folks than the NCAA rushing in to break them.

A college job of mine was to pass out books to the "grant-in-aid" students (a double hyphen designation of scholarship athletes at the time) at the beginning of each quarter. They got the new books, the ones where some of the pages were still stuck together uncut. They had to return the books at the end of the quarter and those pages still remained uncut. Athletes they were but students, not on my watch.

Back when it mattered, if it ever did, Mike Ditka's standard insult to writers -- me, in particular -- was "You're no Hemingway." An obvious response would be, "And you're no Lombardi." But, in my case, I wished to be known as "You're no Thurber," a still unreachable aspiration.

James Thurber was, and still is, what I wanted to be, and it was because of the first piece I ever read by my fellow Buckeye. It concerned a star tackle who had to remain eligible for a critical game against Illinois by passing a test in economics. He had to name one form of transportation.

No matter how many hints the professor dropped, the tackle could not come up with an answer. Fellow students, realizing how vital he was to the team's chances, started making sounds, like "choo choo," and "chug chug." Finally the professor, exasperated, asked, "How did you get here?" "By train," the tackle said.

Thurber was a student in 1913. Simpler times.

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