On Our Devotion To Sports Teams

The axe fell on my beloved Syracuse University Orange men’s basketball team last Friday. After an investigation that commenced when my oldest son was a high school senior (he is now a practicing attorney,) the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s committee on infractions handed down penalties that, by any standard, are quite severe. The Orange loses three scholarships in each of the next four seasons; coach Jim Boeheim, who is an icon in Central New York, is suspended for the first half of the 2016 Atlantic Coast Conference schedule; a large number of wins (the exact number is in dispute) are stripped from the team’s record for the past 10 years; and the university must return revenues reported at more than $1 million.

The infractions that earned the team this kind of wrath are pretty serious. Over a period of many years, but particularly during the 2011-12 season for one player, basketball team personnel stepped over the line (“jumped” over the line is more like it) when it came to making sure the players had grades high enough to keep them eligible to play. The NCAA reported that staff logged into players’ email accounts and sent messages to professors; completed homework assignments and wrote papers submitted under the players’ names; and generally did whatever they deemed necessary to keep the guys on the basketball court. At one point, a group of seven people, including the university’s athletic director, met to discuss how to solve a star player’s academic eligibility difficulties.

There were other infractions, including failure to follow up when some players tested positive for marijuana use, and a few thousand dollars that a local YMCA employee paid some of the players, who apparently did not work in return for the money. All in all, it’s pretty sordid business.

As a longtime fan of the team, I find this all incredibly sad. The players who benefited from the rule violations are long gone – it’s the current players who are paying a price. For the first time that I can remember, our team is not playing in the postseason; the university self-imposed a ban on it participating in any tournaments this year. This is particularly unfair to the team’s star center Rakeem Christmas, who is one of the most improved players in the country this year. His play carried the team through a lot of games this season. Oh, and by the way, he finished his undergraduate studies in three years and is pursuing a graduate degree now. Don’t put him in the category of players who need office employees to do his homework.

The NCAA’s committee decided that, as the man in charge, Jim Boeheim bears ultimate responsibility for what happened. Their report does not allege that he participated in these shenanigans or even knew they were happening. Nevertheless, they threw the book at him. Nine conference games is the harshest suspension I can ever recall the NCAA imposing on a coach. The vacated wins affect him the most, as he was within shouting distance of 1,000 wins for his career and had the second most wins in men’s college basketball history.

Clearly, people associated with the program did some pretty bad things, and the university has punishment coming. Whether the punishment it has received is fair, I don’t know. I can tell you that the whole thing has come as a shock to the people in this area, at least those who care about the team. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now – in Syracuse during the winter, there are two topics of conversation: The snow and the SU men’s hoops team. To say that people here are passionate about basketball is like saying that children kind of like birthday presents. To illustrate: In the evening on Valentine’s Day, a winter storm moved through the area, dropping snow at the rate of an inch or two an hour, producing winds gusting to 40 miles per hour, and pushing temperatures well below zero (Fahrenheit) with the wind chill factored in. The conditions were inhuman.

The Orange hosted a game against Duke University that night. More than 35,000 people showed up.

The community and the university will survive this scandal. The players will be back on the court in November, and Coach Boeheim will be on the sideline for some of them. People will pack the Carrier Dome and boo the referees. But for now, there’s a sense of gloom here, even as temperatures popped into the 40’s today, sending a clear sign that the winter that has abused the northeast will eventually wane. We love our team, and the news of the wrongdoing, and the subsequent punishment, hurts.

We as a society tend to take sports too seriously. People agonize over the fortunes of their favorite football teams on autumn Sundays. In some places, the performance of high school football teams are all that matters. I’ve watched grown men behave shamefully at children’s baseball and basketball games. I personally had trouble sleeping the night the Boston Red Sox lost the 1986 World Series to the New York Mets (I still have bad dreams about game six of that series.)

And it’s not just in America. Football (we call it “soccer”) fans in Europe riot when their teams lose. Brazilian fans at last year’s World Cup were literally in tears in the stands as Germany destroyed the home team in the semi-finals. The Olympics have been plagued by scandals for decades over doping of athletes and abuses by various countries in preparing their youth to compete and win on the international stage. Sometimes, it feels like we’ve all lost our collective minds.

There is something, though, about devotion to a team. I can’t even really explain it. It’s not always explained by geography. Yes, I became a Syracuse basketball fan when I moved here 30 years ago. But I was also a kid from rural upstate New York who saw his first major league baseball game ever as a 10 year-old on July 3, 1972 at Fenway Park in Boston. I fell in love with the Red Sox that night and have never fallen out. To be devoted to a team, to feel the joy when they excel and the pain when they fall short, and to share those feelings with other people whose names you don’t know but who share your passion for the team – these are all parts of the human experience that pull us in, wrap us up in strong arms and refuse to let us go.

Sometimes, people involved with those teams lose sight of the important things. Huge amounts of money ride on the success of university football and basketball teams. Pressure comes from the fans, the media, the alumni, the boosters. So someone decides that, if it means keeping that winning streak alive, then why not write a paper for that academically-challenged center? The pressure is no excuse: Maybe athletics does take priority over studies for these young men, but they are students at least part of the time. No one will do their work for them when their basketball days are through. The people who thought they were helping by making homework problems go away were just plain wrong.

But I have to be honest – I’m part of that mob howling when a layup is missed. I’m part of that culture. I’m one of those heaping that pressure on. Yes, university staff did some bad things, but they did them with my encouragement – with all of our encouragement. This seems like a good time for all of us who love the thrill of athletic competition to take a step back and gain a little perspective. Sports is part of life, but it’s not life itself.

We are blessed with so many types of beauty – the vibrant flowers that will bloom as we escape winter for the comforting warmth of spring. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone solo on Jungleland by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The bird call of the clarinet line that opens Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. And those graceful moments in sports: The loopy swing of David Ortiz’s bat as he delivers an errant curve ball into one of the bullpens in Fenway’s right field. A crisp pass to the low post that sets up a reverse dunk on a basketball court. The impossible catches that two different wide receivers have made to help the New York Giants win Super Bowls. Breanna Stewart nailing a jump shot from downtown. These are all things that we should and do appreciate. But we need to appreciate them for what they are, for what these gifted individuals can do, and not make them into life-or-death struggles.

Syracuse University basketball fans are in sorrow today. Maybe the experience of that sorrow will teach us what is crucially important and what is less so. Winning is not worth breaking the rules and allowing young men in their formative years to get a pass. Their universities, and we as fans, owe them more than that. Let’s try to remember that going forward.

See you at the Dome next season.

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