My Granddaddy Goodman was a confirmed skeptic. He didn’t believe the Russians had Sputnik orbiting the Earth. When he watched the Big Top on television he accused them of using camera tricks to film high-wire acts. He didn’t believe any politician, with the possible exception of Big Jim Folsom, the populist governor for whom he served as a “Beat Captain.” (That’s the rural equivalent of a ward heeler.)
But come Saturday night granddaddy would be tuning in a Nashville television station to watch Live Studio Wrestling. He gloried in the mayhem. People tearing down the ropes and tying each other up. Smashing people over the head with folding chairs. The evil manager getting in a low blow on the good guy while the ref had his back turned admonishing the bad guy. I could never understand why such a confirmed skeptic could absolutely revel in the most obviously fake sport in existence.
Looking back I have come to realize that he decided that live studio wrestling was so much fun that he would set aside his skepticism and just enjoy it. Coleridge called it the willing suspension of disbelief—it allows us to enjoy fantasy stories, ignore the bare stage, and focus on the drama or enjoy a magic trick.
We’ve reached the point where it requires the willing suspension of disbelief to continue to enjoy college sports. I love college football, especially SEC football. The pageantry, the rivalries, the athleticism. The tail-gating. Trading good-natured insults with fans of other schools. I love everything about the experience.
But we keep seeing the tips of icebergs out there. Agents. Under the table money. Big-money shoe contracts. Coaches cheating. Boosters cheating. We spent years admiring or hating on the spectacle of University of Southern California football as they won championships and produced a Heisman Trophy winner. Only to find the Heisman winner’s family was paid off. The program reeks of corruption. The coaches move on to further millions and the fans and the left-behind players pay the price.
It is getting harder and harder to ignore. It is hard not to believe that everyone cheats.
We know, for instance, that the Vols have cheated. In football and basketball. The only mystery is how extensive it is and what the penalties will be.
The sad thing is that there is no solution we can implement alone. The college presidents of the NCAA are cowering in their offices, afraid of big boosters, highly paid coaches, and the fanatics that support their teams. It is unlikely these spineless academics will clean up college sports, given that they can’t even buck the BCS bowl system and institute a playoff to pick a national champion in football.
We looked the other way when Lane Kiffin and Ed Ogeron were leading the SEC in recruiting. We didn’t really want to know how they were doing it. Even now, when we know that Bruce Pearl cheated and then lied to NCAA investigators, there is no outcry for him to be fired. It’s not unusual. Big-name coaches are a law unto themselves, and the television money that comes from successful seasons are built into athletic budgets.
One suspects that the Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and yes, Tennessee, fans would not be content to “do the right thing” and field teams on par with Vanderbilt. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course—if the college presidents would get together and reach agreements that level the playing field on some of these issues. Get a zero-tolerance policy for every SEC school on drug use. Set penalties for lawbreakers, whether they are second-string players or stars. Ask each state legislature to pass bills setting criminal penalties for agents and boosters who tamper with players and threaten their eligibility.
There are things that could be done to clean up the sport without impacting the quality of play.
But no one can unilaterally disarm. The fans won’t stand for it.
Where does that leave us? We either find other ways to spend our fall Saturdays, or we do like Granddaddy Goodman. Set aside the evidence before our eyes and suspend disbelief.
But it’s getting harder all the time.