In an effort to bore and alienate as many people as possible, my first lead post on this blog will be about sports and religion. Well, it’s not really about sports; it’s about something else, but it uses sports to come at that something through the back door. And it’s not really about religion, either, but that does get discussed. Anyway, you’ve been warned. If you’re not bored or alienated yet, hopefully, you’ll find something of interest here, but, proceed at your own risk. Sports and religion. Can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Also, this is about the longest post ever. You may want to take it in shifts. Strangely, for such a quiet person when it comes to the vocal words, I can’t seem to shut up when I’m typing.

Reggie Bush

A while back, Reggie Bush was in the news for returning his Heisman Trophy to the Heisman Trust, who Heisman awarded it to him in Heisman 2005. At the time, it was being reported that the Trust was going to revoke the Heisman from Bush because his family had accepted about $300,000 in gifts from USC boosters, which is a violation of NCAA rules. Bush decided to beat them to the punch, and returned his Heisman, which means he is now not only the first Heisman winner to date a Kardashian, but also the first Heisman winner to return his award.*

“Look. Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be.”
*If you’re a sports fan, you can skip this paragraph; it’s intended to get the non-sports fans up to speed. For non-sports fans, Reggie Bush is a football player – a running back. In 2005, he was playing college football for Southern California (USC). He ran around like Sonic the Hedgehog that year; no one could stop him. Really, it was amazing to watch. You half-expected to see the Coyote running after him with one of those Acme rockets strapped to his back. He (Bush, not the Coyote) was awarded the Heisman Trophy, which is college football’s highest honor, and it wasn’t a close vote. He won by one of the largest margins in history. Now, the NCAA is the governing body for collegiate sports. The fundamental philosophy of the NCAA is that collegiate athletics is to be played by amateur student-athletes, and it has a vast and intricate body of regulations to ensure that the athletes maintain their “amateur” status. These regulations prevent student-athletes from receiving money from college alumni, or working “jobs” for boosters that aren’t really jobs, or getting “tutoring” help which is really just grade-fixing. But they also extend to prevent student-athletes from receiving “benefits” that are less obviously inappropriate, like attending a party hosted by an agent or accepting a plane ticket from a former player or accepting help from the community to raise your 11-year old brother after the death of your mom. But more on that later.

Okay, everybody up to speed? After Bush returned his Heisman, there was a lot of discussion about whether it was wrong for Bush and his family to have taken the benefits. A lot of people defended Bush; mostly for three reasons:

  1. “It’s $300,000! That’s so much money! Are you telling me you would say no to $300,000?” We might call this the Gordon Gekko defense.
  2. “NCAA regulations are stupid and unjust. The big colleges make millions* of dollars off of these kids, and we expect them to take their scholarship and nothing else? Stupid rules were meant to be broken.” We might call this the Tax Code defense.
  3. “Are you telling me Bush is the first Heisman winner to take inappropriate benefits? Everyone commits rules violations; Bush just got caught.” We might call this the Teenage Drinking defense.
* Seriously, it is so many millions. The University of Texas brought in $85.7 M last year. That’s more than anyone else, but lots of other universities are also bringing in lots of millions of dollars from football and, to a lesser extent, basketball. How many shoulder pads can you buy for $87.5 M? All the shoulder pads! Tangent Warning: Justifications Tangent

If you’ll indulge me, a brief tangent on justifications. These, of course, are three of the great justifications that people give for all kinds of behavior. People are so good at justifications!
“I could just change my behavior, but I find it more enjoyable to do what I want and then come up with a justification for it afterward.” – Everyone.

Some other great justifications:

  1. The Monster’s Ball defense – “It made me feel good.”
  2. The Jessica Alba defense – I assume you’ve seen Jessica Alba. Related to the Gordon Gekko defense.
  3. The B.F. Skinner defense – “I had no choice, as a result of my genes/environment/parents/the devil, etc.”
  4. The Glass Houses defense – “You don’t know me! What gives you the right to judge me?!”
  5. The No Harm, No Foul defense – “What’s the big deal? Nobody got hurt.”
  6. The Herm Edwards, “You Play to Win the Game” defense – Basically an ends justify the means defense.
  7. The Stoner defense – “Dude! Chill out!”
“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that taking $300,000 from boosters is, for lack of a better word, good.”

And so forth. I think the Gordon Gekko defense is probably the most popular one going right now, followed by the No Harm, No Foul defense.

Look, here’s the thing with the Bush situtation; I don’t buy any of the justifications offered to defend Bush. Not any of them. Not for a minute. Yes, $300,000 is a lot of money, and, yes, the rules can be arbitrary, and, yes, it’s unfair that the players don’t get a bigger share of the pie when they are the ones buying the ingredients and baking the thing, and, yes, lots of players are probably taking improper benefits without getting caught.

But Bush knew all of that before he enrolled at USC, and he agreed to take his scholarship and to be bound by the NCAA’s rules. And, it’s not like he violated an obscure rule – if you take $300,000, you know that you are violating NCAA rules. Look, the system may have dumb rules, and you may not like it, but if you choose to take part in it, then you have chosen to be bound by those dumb rules. That’s part of the bargain.

Curt Flood

But that’s not what I really wanted to talk about (type about?) anyway.* When all the Bush stuff was happening, I was reading October 1964 by David Halberstam, which is a great book. The book is about the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals, but it’s really about how baseball and society were changing in the 1960’s. Halberstam shows that the major league baseball teams that embraced the integration of black players, like the Cardinals, were having more success than the teams that resisted integration, like the Yankees.**

“Will this guy ever get to the point?”
*“What a jerk! I get 1,000 words into this stupid thing, and NOW he gets to what he really wants to talk about.” – You, right now. **For you non-sports fans, the World Series is . . . Forget it, just google it if you don’t know.

One of the great players on the 1964 Cardinals was their centerfielder, Curt Flood. In 1964, Flood was emerging as one of the best centerfielders in the game. By the end of the 60’s, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were at or near the end of their careers, and Flood was probably the best centerfielder in baseball.

However, if you have heard of Flood at all, it’s probably not because he was a great centerfielder, but because he was the first major league player to challenge the reserve clause. The reserve clause was kind of like the Santa Clause, except that, instead of being trapped wearing a fat suit and riding a sleigh, you were trapped playing for the same team until they got rid of you. After the 1969 season, the Cardinals traded Flood to the Phillies. This was a bad deal for Flood, because the Cardinals had long been one of the best teams in baseball, and the Phillies had long been a great big heap of poo.* Kind of like the current Pittsburgh Pirates or any Eddie Murphy movie made in the last ten years. So, Flood pulled a Bartleby the Scrivener and told the Phillies “I would prefer not to,” and filed a lawsuit against the commissioner of baseball saying he should become a free agent.

“Look, you’re reporting to spring training whether you want to or not.”
*To be fair, the Phillies almost made the World Series in 1964, but their history was, by in large, one of futility until the late ‘70’s.

So, this is how my mind works. While reading October 1964, I started comparing Bush’s situation with Flood’s situation, and I found them to be pretty similar. In the decades before free agency, baseball owners used the reserve clause to keep baseball player’s salaries far below market value. I mean, they weren’t making minimum wage or anything, but most players had to work jobs in the off season; meanwhile, owners (at least some of them) were making a lot of money. Not UT football money, but a lot of money.

The current system in collegiate sports (Why do we always say collegiate sports? Can we just call them college sports?) is about the same. Kids get a scholarship and play sports, and universities make ridiculous money. Many commentators have decried the injustice of this system, particularly the fact that the players are essentially forbidden from making ANY money from ANY source other than their scholarship. For an example of such a commentator, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s anti-NCAA material (scroll down to NCAAA Redux). Look, a full scholarship to a major university ain’t nothing, but, if a university is going to make truckloads and truckloads of money on Tim Tebow or Reggie Bush or Vince Young jerseys, not to mention ticket sales and tv revenue, shouldn’t the kids get some of that money? Aren’t they the ones the fans are paying to see?

“The NCAA is even more ridiculous than my hair.”
Change You Can Believe In

So, what if, instead of taking money under the table, Reggie Bush pulled a Curt Flood? What if Bush said, “look, USC and NCAA, I appreciate all you’ve done for me, but, if you want to make millions and millions of dollars off of me, I deserve a slice of the pie. Doesn’t have to be a big slice; maybe just a sliver, but something. And, if not, I’ll take my amazing talents and go home and wait until I’m eligible for the NFL draft. And while I’m there, I might just call my friends Matt Leinart and Vince Young and Tim Tebow and see if they might be interested in joining me. We can play Madden all season and train together. It’ll be fun.”

“Yo, dawg. Rock Band 2 at my house this weekend.”

Ok, hang on, hang on. Look, I know that no one likes a quitter and that everyone has to pay their dues, and, who does Reggie Bush think he is and all, but, if we assume that the system is unfair (which I know not everyone does, but let’s leave that conversation for another time), how else is the system going to change? Unless someone being taken advantage of says, “that’s enough” where’s the incentive for those in power to stop what they’re doing?
“You know, this is just too much money. We should really share some of it.” – No one.
If everyone always just plays the game and does their best to work the system then why will the system ever change? Someone has to force someone else’s hand, and one way to do that is to say, “your system stinks, and I’m not going to play by these rules any more.”

Look, I know the NCAA is not the gestapo, or apartheid, and I’m not saying Reggie Bush had a duty to stick his neck out, but I’m trying to look at this situation and see if it can teach us anything about, you know, life and the universe and whatnot. Some things about the world stink. What do we do about it? How do we make things better? How do we effect positive change?

Here’s what I believe. Ultimately, if we are going to change an evil or corrupt system and make a lasting change for the better, then someone must be willing to sacrifice what power he has for the purpose of challenging the system. You have to have a Curt Flood or a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King who’s willing to stick his neck out and lay it on the line for a cause he believes in. And here’s where the religion comes in.* One of the things I find compelling about Christianity is that it teaches just this. The way to advance the kingdom of God, the way to advance the reign of justice and mercy on this earth, is the way of the cross. It’s not the path of violent confrontation or the way of compromise or the way of withdrawal, but rather it’s the path of laying down your rights, and offering up yourself sacrificially to fight against the evil and injustice you encounter.

*I hope this doesn’t seem like I’ve suckered you in under false pretenses so that I can beat you over the head with what I believe, because that’s really not my intention. I’m just trying to explain something about the way I understand the world, and this is the best way I know how to do it. There will be no invitation hymn waiting at the end, I promise.

If Bush had challenged the system, would it have worked? Probably not, at least not in his case. The NCAA would have kept rolling along with its other star players, and Bush would be reviled for costing USC a chance at a repeat national championship. Then, Bush would have been drafted in a somewhat lower position than he was, and he might have had to settle for dating a different Kardashian sister.

Curt Flood lost his court case challenging the commissioner, and he was never the same player after he came back. In choosing to sit out to challenge the reserve clause, he gave up a reasonable chance at a hall of fame career. It rarely goes well for those who initially buck the system.

But, you know what? In major league baseball, eventually it did work. Flood got the ball rolling, and, in 1974 the reserve clause was struck down,* giving players the right to become free agents.

*To be fair, the Flood case had no direct legal impact on the decision to award players free agency, but, without a doubt, if Flood had not made the initial challenge, the 1974 case would not have happened.

So, maybe Bush wouldn’t have won, but maybe Tim Tebow or Sam Bradford would have taken up the cause and eventually forced the hand of the NCAA. Maybe.

Sports is a pretty trivial thing, I know, but, for the millions of us that watch it regularly, it can sometimes teach us about the things that do matter in life. What should we do when faced with injustice? Play the game? Go along to get along? Or do we stand up, using what power we have, knowing that it likely won’t turn out well for us? Who will we be? Curt Flood or Reggie Bush?