Billy Davis Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 23, 2008

Athlete victim of  system gone jaded

If you want to make me hate my job, make me write sports stories.

Like the readers they write for, sports reporters live for the next ballgame. They dissect the game-winning play and second-guess the coaches’ decisions. When it’s time to write the game story, they write and re-write the lead sentence until it matches the mood when the buzzer sounded in a packed gym.

One point down…

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Three seconds to go…

There’s the shot, it looks good…

One bounce off the rim, then off the backboard…


You can keep it. Let me dissect Mississippi’s 1st Congressional race, and second-guess those nasty attack ads, and I’ll be happy to come to work everyday.

So maybe the news last week that South Panola standout Chris Strong has quit the University of Mississippi is sports news and belongs only there. Like the readers they write for, sports reporters across the country have probably talked that news to death.

And why shouldn’t they? Depending on what sports Web site you choose to follow, Strong was either the No. 53 or No. 82 player in the nation. ESPN named him the country’s No. 3 inside linebacker.

The Mississippi Association of Coaches named him Defensive Player of the Year in 5A football after he amassed 82 tackles and five sacks during the 2008 season. The Clarion-Ledger named him Mr. Football.

The Associated Press story that reported Strong’s withdrawal described him as the “centerpiece of last year’s recruiting class” at Ole Miss.

When news of Strong’s withdrawal spread last Thursday, reporters and sports fans were probably saddened to learn that he would not return next fall under head coach Houston Nutt. Dang, he could have been so good, they probably said to each other.

And there’s the problem I have with college sports, and college football in particular: does anybody anywhere care whether the Chris Strongs of this world earn a bachelor’s degree?

Yes, it’s unfortunate that Mr. Football had to hand in his football uniform. But it’s sad that he lost an opportunity to secure for himself a better future. Does that still matter today in college sports?

There was a time decades ago when high school athletes used a university’s sports program to pay their way through college. Now it seems more common that the universities use athletes to give them an edge toward a winning season.

The sports reporters, the fans, and the alumni deserve most of the blame for change, since they demand a winning coach and a winning season, and will not accept failure. Because of that heated demand, Ole Miss and its rivals fight for the fastest, strongest athletes, including those with poor academics.

I know firsthand about struggling in academics. A decade ago this month I earned my bachelor’s degree at Delta State. I know from experience that pursuing a degree is a challenge, especially since I was no high school scholar. It was very hard, especially college algebra, which butchered my GPA after I flunked it – twice. At times the pursuit of a degree took more willpower than I had ever mustered. It also required a lot of study time outside the classroom, including at nights and on weekends.

So someone please explain to me the morality of taking a high school senior with weak academics, putting him in a grueling university setting, then taking away half of his free time so he can play football.

The sad, pathetic truth is that many high school athletes go to college to play sports, period, and our universities, created to further academic excellence, allow it to continue season after season. That is wrong.

Chris, this commentary is not a jab at you. You had an opportunity to play football at a Division 1 school, and you took it. I don’t blame you. I probably would have done the same. Many others would, too.

I also realize you’ve probably endured a tough couple of weeks. But you should hold your head high. You did nothing wrong. You tried your best. You are simply the victim of a money-worshipping enterprise called college football, which used you every Saturday until you were no longer of any use.

 And that fact makes me sick, and very, very mad.