Maryland's unusual uniform
The NCAA calls them student-athletes. Emphasis on student.
Has anyone ever heard a head coach (beside Jim Tressel, of course) refer to one of his players in a post-game press conference as a student-athlete? He's a great kid, he's a great player, he's a great athlete. Yes.
He's a great student-athlete. No, no, no.
And maybe that's why in the last 15 years the student-athlete moniker as it applies to the sport of football has gone to the wayside and now he's just called a football player. He's grindin', he's ballin' or he's making bread. He went HAM on that play.
Catchy jargon aside—and we do love the jargon—football purists are probably wondering what has happened to college football. It's changed. There's more swag and flash involved.
Some schools have stuck to tradition and it has served them well. Alabama has won 200 national championships (according to what a fan told me this last week) wearing plain crimson red and white uniforms.
Penn State's unis were plain until the school added names on the backs of its uniforms—this actually made headlines—scratch that, they're still plain. But we like them because their uniforms, like Alabama's, represent tradition. It's chicken soup for the soul, a comfortable old shirt that's worn on Sundays. More than anything else, the plain uniform allows the players to make the uniforms stand out, not the other way around.
Plain uniforms represent black-and-blue football—we can see the blood, the grass stains and the paint from their opponents' helmets on those dull white jerseys or pants. Heck, we can see—some of the more recent uniform changes by schools have scorched our retinas beyond repair.
Which brings up the Oregon Ducks football program. No school has done a better job of branding itself than Oregon. Others have tried—we're looking at you Maryland, as well as Notre Dame basketball—but both have suffered wrath from the court of public opinion.
The problem with trying to show a little swag on the field is that a flashy uniform doesn't cut it if the team can't back up the swag. Oregon went the flashy, shiny route in its uniforms and that has matched its flashy, shiny offense. The Ducks have managed to back up their street cred with four consecutive BCS bowl appearances, winning the last two.
Even Oregon's mascot, The Duck, has swag, including a Twitter account. A sampling of the Duck's tweets:
The mascot's Gangnam Style parody video has racked up over 6 million views on You Tube. A duck, people. That's swag.
There's nothing wrong with modernizing tradition if it's done right and doesn't upset the booster with the fat wallet in the stands—this is probably why USC hasn't seriously toyed with the idea of changing its uniforms. Private schools depend on donations from their wealthy alumni and many of them are in their golden years—they probably don't like change as much as the younger alumni.
Despite the fun of new uniforms, other types of swag appearing in college football haven't been welcomed with open arms. Like social media.
One of the more disturbing trends in social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook is the proliferation of trolling—that which can involve harassment, cyber-stalking and death threats. College football prospects' Twitter pages are rife with fans begging them to commit with their favorite team and when they don't, they're besieged with adults who can't seem to grasp the concept of human dignity.
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples shed light on this phenomena in 2011 when he published an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Staples used the recruitment of 5-star linebacker CJ Johnson's flip from Mississippi State to Mississippi as an example of social media gone mad:
"People on Facebook trying to tell him this school is this and that school is that," Johnson's mother, Linda, told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. "Mississippi State fans posing as Ole Miss fans and Ole Miss fans posing as Mississippi State fans. It was just crazy. To me, that's a little too far. I was just surprised at some of the things adults were saying."
So on Tuesday, C.J. Johnson ended his recruitment by committing to Ole Miss and pledged to quit Facebook in one sweeping status update. "I will not be a Mississippi state bulldog and I'm not considering Mississippi state anymore bc you have constantly comment on my page and send me crazy inboxes and has made my recruiting experience a living nightmare," Johnson wrote. "Goodbye facebook."
Disturbing? Yes. Surprising? No.
Adults running around like fanboys and "helping" their team's recruiting efforts have been going on for decades. But social media has finally put that problem front and center where every fan can see how a kid's life is disrupted by idiots. True, that kid decided to have a Twitter or Facebook account—no one forced him, unless you count peer pressure—so the onus is on him to control its content.
Some prospects have done well with Twitter while others have not. The smart ones simply retweet a tweet that shows a fan's begging for his commitment or cussing him out for his decommitment—his commentary is non-existent. By retweeting the lunacy of some fans' tweets, he's essentially saying, "look at how often I get harassed."
Is he bothered by it? Probably, but to others, it's a sign he's wanted by the public. He's a BMOC. And he knows it. That kind of swag isn't appreciated by either the fans or, ostensibly, his teammates.
The fact remains, however, that the swag infiltrating college football does give us a more intimate look at a player's personality, albeit all from a safe distance. Players have tweeted photos of their surgically repaired injuries, their girlfriends, their friends, their families, their pets and their antics at parties.
Why do they do it? One possible theory is that the more followers on Twitter a student-athlete has, the more respect he has from his peers. And the more street cred or swag he incurs. All things considered, a Twitter account is a pretty harmless way to get your swag—it could be worse.
Isn't a player's Twitter account really just a fan club without the "fan club" in its title? Adults don't want to be known as fans of student-athletes because, you know...a grown up idolizing a teenager is kind of creepy, isn't it? Twitter makes it easier to follow a football player's journey anonymously or, if he's a real fanboy, have a personal interaction with him.
Of course, having a large following also validates a student-athlete's big ego, if he has one, and that's not such a good thing. Big egos have ruined team chemistry. And dumb tweets have gotten the attention of the NCAA, especially when players (or recruits) tweet about the free stuff they're getting or the great party they were flown to at no expense.
A player's swag isn't ruining college football. Neither is social media. If anything is ruining college football, it's greed.
Back in the day, student-athletes played college football for the opportunity to receive a college education at little-to-no cost. The players felt indebted and grateful for that opportunity. That feeling appears to be not nearly as predominant as it was in the 1970's or 80's.
Thanks to the BCS' influx of money into the current college football landscape at the FBS level, many prospects now give grandiose speeches, conduct hat tricks or hold huge press conferences to announce which school is lucky enough to get his signature.
Instead of a top-rated prospect jumping up and down after announcing to which school he's signed, the coaches are jumping up and down.
A top recruiting class might get the team's head coach a bonus, it might help get his team a BCS bowl berth which in turn, makes his school a big cash cow. The bowls doled out close to $282 million in payouts at the end of the 2011 season—the BCS' payout was estimated at $181 million.
Student-athletes know this. The more revenue the school earns, the more facility upgrades, the more season tickets sold (which means more revenue) and the more televised games (ka-ching!) for the school. And the more publicity its student-athletes receive.
Don't blame swag for the negative perceptions of college football. We built this monster. The student-athletes are just a byproduct of its collateral damage.
Swag won't ruin college football. But greed may.
It's all on the grownups—not the student-athlete—to keep college football on a stable and fair course.
In the mean time, student-athlete, go ahead and keep entertaining us with your goofy dances, urban dictionary jargon, funky clothes, instagrams, tweets and keeks.
It's 163 days and counting until college football kicks off on August 29.
Not that anyone's counting.