COLUMN: Name game: Student-athlete vs. athlete-student

Jamie Kapalko

I have a confession to make. One of my favorite TV shows is MTV’s “Two-a-Days” – yes, the one about the Hoover, Ala., high school football team. I’m not ashamed to admit it, and I know that many of you are also secret fans. I even saw some Villanova students dressed as Hoover Buccaneers on Halloween – unfortunately, sans the reverse-mullets that the players on the show are so inexplicably fond of.

“Two-a-Days” is entertaining, but I think it raises important issues about high-intensity scholastic sports as well. While it shows many of sports’ positive effects, it also suggests some serious flaws.

First, it is clear that the incredibly demanding nature of Head Coach Rush Propst’s program makes the team successful. He develops the players’ talents, and this, coupled with exposure to scouts, opens the opportunity for many to earn scholarships and go to college. Safety Max Lerner received a scholarship from Division I Furman University. Lineman Repete Smith became the first member of his family to attend college, turning down several scholarships and walking on at Auburn University, where he later quit the team. The program also teaches the players the values of hard work and discipline.

“Two-a-Days” shows that Buccaneer football taught the players some lessons that they should not have learned. In the first episode, safety Alex Binder comments that football players at Hoover are like “celebrities.” Because football is revered, Binder thought that because he was an athlete, he could get away with anything. Once he left high school, however, he came face-to-face with reality. Last summer, he was arrested for breaking into a car. His varsity jacket may have hoodwinked girls and even teachers in high school, but it obviously has no effect on law enforcement.

Binder isn’t alone in this mentality. An athlete friend here at Villanova called me one night and half-jokingly told me to write a paper for him. He implied that because he plays a sport, the regular rules should not apply to him. Furthermore, his membership on a team means that I, a mere mortal student, should venerate him. Student-athlete? Or athlete-student? He’d choose the latter.

Some of the most interesting scenes in the show are the ones depicting team chaplain Terry Slay’s pre-game speeches to the team, which, in effect, suggest that football is equivalent to God. In one episode, the camera pans across the image of a gleaming Hoover football helmet set against the background of a stained glass window (symbolism, anyone?) as Slay reads a passage from the Gospel and compares it to the impending game. He then barks, “Get up in their grill. Stick one in their earhole. Knock them off their feet. God bless every one of you.” I guess when Jesus was talking about the meek and the poor in spirit he forgot to add, “Blessed are the Buccaneers, for theirs is the Alabama State Championship.”

The major problem that this type of environment creates is the mentality that sports are everything. This is especially dangerous for young people because it deemphasizes the importance of education. Smith, for example, makes fun of teammate Goose Dunham for being academically motivated. There may be some athletes for whom a college education is impossible without sports. But there are athletes who never give academics a chance because they believe that sports are, or should be, their only talent. So what happens if they don’t earn a scholarship? They may get into a decent school. However, even if an athlete earns a scholarship, the odds that he or she can go pro are slim.

Take former Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer, for example. He was on the verge of academic ineligibility in 1998 because attending class was not on his list of priorities. Forced to attend summer school, he took a very challenging schedule of AIDS awareness, golf and music. His mother suggested that colleges introduce a professional sports major for athletes. Posing for “Sports Illustrated”? Intro to Trash Talking? Managing Your First Million: Hummers, Hennessy and Hustlers? These sound promising. Unfortunately for Katzenmoyer, an injury ended his brief professional career. What would a pro sports major have done for him then?

By no means am I saying that all college athletes have this mentality. Yale soccer player Mary Kuder spent a season playing for the powerhouse University of Portland. Disillusioned by a lack of challenging classes, she transferred to Yale. Portland won the NCAA championship the year after Kuder transferred, but she doesn’t regret her decision. She says, “I’m going to have a degree from Yale; I’m not complaining.”

While dedication to the game is necessary, athletes must be able to recognize that there is more to life than sports. Team chaplains equating football with religion and mothers suggesting a major in pro sports are not good ways to relay this message. From day one, all students need to be taught the value of education. No one should be allowed to slip through the cracks because of talents outside the classroom. At no point should a teacher expect any less from an athlete than from a non-athlete. This gives all students, including those who play sports, the chance to develop academically.

Another essential is support from family, friends and coaches. For young athletes, like the Hoover football players, the pressure is intrinsic but also dangerous. They need encouragement to keep them from going crazy. Quarterback Ross Wilson, for example, is haunted by the legacy of his older brother, a quarterback at Alabama. The demands are stifling, but Ross is seen discussing them with his brother. For all athletes, the guidance and backing of others can help them keep their priorities in balance.

Just please keep them away from Terry Slay. He’d probably teach them the extended ending of the Bible’s creation story: on the eighth day, God created football.