From heated rants to brawls on ice, it seems at least from the occasional sports watcher’s perspective that athletes are angrier about more things today than ever before. The stress of thousands of fans and a slew of reporters constantly monitoring every move made and tweet sent by these athletes would be enough to make any professional frustrated. But what happens when that line of professionalism is blurred by the principle of amateurism?
The most recent example of this amateur frustration occurred this past Saturday, when Marcus Smart, a basketball player at Oklahoma State University, came under fire after shoving an opposing fan out of frustration in a loss against Texas Tech University. Later, it was rumored that the man had been calling Smart everything from a “piece of crap” to racial slurs to incite the struggle. Right on cue, fans and reporters alike took to numerous outlets to voice their opinions, support and confusion about what they had just witnessed. But the word the game’s television broadcaster chose to describe Smart’s behavior was the most telling of all: “disgusting.”
Many of those who have attended sporting events beyond the level of T-Ball have bared witness to outrageous and, dare I say, disgusting fan behavior. From as early as high school sports, and in some places as early as junior high athletics, fans are trained to take the term “opposition” as a synonym for “enemy.” Students see their school’s athletes as their personal gladiators rather than the guys who sit next to them in English class. I have personally seen student-athletes get booed off of courts and fields, reminiscent of what would be done to a lackluster professional, as entire fan sections rejoice.
With some NCAA programs drawing crowds and coverage that rival those of the NBA and NFL on a regular basis, it is very easy to forget that “student-athlete” is more than just a term for a pro who’s not quite a pro yet. It is instead a title representative of the responsibility that these individuals have taken on.
There are many student-athletes who have earned their way into their respective institutions through superior academics paired with their athletic prowess. However, the stereotypical image of “the jock getting a scholarship to toss a ball around” is still one that lingers and affects the light in which student-athletes are seen. In some cases, it can affect how they are treated, be it through a casual conversation in the dining hall or through University of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s mother tweeting that Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston should learn to speak English.
Despite arguments over the ethics of the admission of student-athletes, one thing remains true: Their athletic ability and competition is for the betterment of their institutions. This is true in the same sense that competition among students in the classroom can create a better academic atmosphere for a university. The only difference is that competitive sports programs are an amazing way to bring recognition, money and applicants to a university relatively quickly — though this can certainly carry a nasty backlash for the individual.
I’m sure thousands of fans don’t heckle you while taking a chemistry quiz. I would hope your face wouldn’t be plastered on news outlets if you failed said quiz, and I would really hope a full-scale investigation wouldn’t be launched on you if you were great at chemistry.
This is not to say that passionate school spirit should be extinguished in any sense, nor is this to excuse inappropriate behavior made by student-athletes — playing collegiate sports is a privilege. However, the willingness of fans and media to parade or shame the character of a student based on his or her successes or pitfalls in what should be an extracurricular activity ought to be rethought. If for no other reason than it is inconsistent with the implied “academics first” mindset exhibited in the term “student-athlete,” the scrutiny these students endure is unfair.
Tailgates, boosters and all of the revenue that comes with major sports programs can all be great for universities. But when an atmosphere is created in which the colors of a school are more important than its founding mottos, principles and duties, we lose sight of what can truly be disgusting about a warped definition of “student-athlete”.