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Commentary: Reining in the most rabid college football fans

POSTED: August 28, 2011 12:30 a.m.
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Welch Suggs

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The sky was nearly dark last Thanksgiving Saturday evening at Sanford Stadium as the Georgia Tech team finished pregame warmups before the Georgia game. They jogged off the field as the hum of the crowd began to build around them. Suddenly, a short man with square glasses leaned out from the stands, eyes bulging, cords standing out in his neck.

"WE STILL RUN THIS STATE!" he screamed at the top of his lungs at the Tech players. "WE STILL RUN THIS STATE!"

The image of this man practically spitting on the Yellow Jackets came back to me last week as ESPN replayed shots of Nevin Shapiro cavorting on the University of Miami sidelines, leading the team and having to be restrained by security guards. Shapiro is now serving 20 years for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme, and claims to have lavished cash, other gifts, and even prostitutes on Miami players. On the video, however, he looks like just a little man making a fool of himself on the Joe Robbie Stadium sidelines.

At a place like Georgia or Miami, the energy of fans carries them to a distant place, usually well beyond rationality. For certain members of the crowd, it cannot be contained. This energy, and what to do about it, is at the heart of scandals current and past in college sports. Fans all want to be part of the team, part of the program, and the desire can overwhelm all prudence.

Universities encourage this to an extent because they can make millions of dollars off that passion. Fans are a resource: They buy tickets and suites in the stadium; they watch games (and ads) on television; they buy Nike gear; they send their children to the school; and a few of them vote on state appropriations for higher education. Make no mistake: There is power in the Bulldog Nation.

The problem is when that power is used to run afoul of NCAA regulations and, in some cases, the law. Many of the scandals that have rocked college sports over the past few years can be traced back to fans or "friends of the program." Being under the arc of reflected glory from a winning team or a star athlete can be all but irresistible, and if a tattoo or a thousand-dollar handshake will get you there, why not do it?

This was how Ohio State University got into trouble: A tattoo-parlor owner allegedly gave tattoos to players; players sold uniforms and paraphernalia to boosters; and players are said to have gotten cut-rate deals on cars, according to documents Ohio State filed with the NCAA. There are the still-being-investigated questions regarding the recruiting of Cam Newton to Auburn University, and whether boosters may have paid off his father. And then there is the case of Harvey Updyke, the University of Alabama fan who did no favors for players or parents but who is under indictment for poisoning the oak trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn.

The power of fandom can be dangerous. Southern Methodist University discovered this fact 24 years ago and Miami has rediscovered it this month. Fans want to win with every fiber of their being, and the mental health of entire states can change with the fortunes of the football team. And it only takes a few of them, sometimes only one, going over the edge to cause serious damage to a program.

"We take a far-right approach" in telling fans and boosters what they can do with players and recruits, says Eric Baumgartner, UGA's associate athletics director for rules compliance. "We tell members of the Georgia Bulldog Clubs that they can have no interaction with [recruits], nor can they do anything for our student-athletes."

You look around the college landscape, right now, and it's not pretty, Baumgartner says. "There's something always on ESPN, and [NCAA] President Emmert is always getting interviewed. I'm glad our colors and logo are not those flashing on ESPN right now."

Of course, college sports itself has something to do with the excesses of its supporters. With players getting no compensation beyond the value of a scholarship, it isn't hard to see why boosters would see some virtue (and a good investment) in giving them walking-around money, no matter what NCAA rules might be. When coaches play fast and loose with rules around, say, recruiting, fans have little incentive to respect the process. And the NCAA never will have the resources to run every rumor to ground, resulting in inevitable complaints about its objectivity and evenhandedness.

The solutions are the obvious ones. Put the onus on coaches to make sure their programs are run with integrity. Educate the fans that can be educated, which is most of them. Very few really want to go so far over the line as to get their teams in trouble. Keep close tabs on the few who can cause problems, and disassociate them if need be. Educate players about the risks and rewards they face. Of course, it takes a strong coach, AD, and university president to take a stand and have their edicts respected.

In other words, all universities can do is minimize the risk. None of the reforms currently being discussed in college sports - raising the value of scholarships to the cost of attendance being the prime example - will do much to reduce the odds of a booster with disposable income deciding to buy a player an Escalade, or the odds of the player being willing to take it.

In the long run, though, I wonder if the rabidity of fans, certainly those with the money to lavish on players, will peak. At Georgia, the students I teach are already cynical about college sports and the business that surrounds it. Student attendance at games was well below capacity last season, even for conference games. When they graduate, few of them will be able to afford season tickets to football games for many years.

If a generation of UGA alumni grows up at a distance from Georgia football, who will sustain the enterprise? Many non-alumni do great things for the program, but can a university whose own community is lukewarm on the team really sustain an enterprise of the size and ambition of Bulldog football? And what about other programs without the resources of UGA, if the nation as a whole passes a tipping point of cynicism on "amateur" college sports?

The fan's challenge isn't to answer these questions. In the short term, it's to invest wisely in the success of the program - investing one's heart and spirit as much as his or her money. In the long term, though, I wonder what the children of Miami and Ohio State fans will think of college football. And what the children in "future Bulldog" T-shirts will think.

David Welch Suggs Jr. teaches journalism at the University of Georgia, and is helping start a new program in sports journalism there. He can be reached at wsuggs@uga.edu.



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