<
>

No surprise college athletes party

I don't know if it's the subconscious tendency to romanticize the yesteryears of sports or just good ol' fashioned hypocrisy, but when it comes to college student-athletes, a lot of people have a hard time staying in reality.

We want these kids to do as we say and not as many of us did or as the culture happily sanctions.

March Madness.

"Animal House."

Spring break.

We have entire industries built around college students getting hammered, and have for decades. If you were shocked by the recent Sports Illustrated story about the drug use of some of the UCLA Bruins basketball players, I have a couple of Circuit City franchises I'd like to sell you.

That's not to criticize the fantastic reporting done by SI or to condone drug abuse, but some of us need to tone down the indignant outrage because it just sounds like self-righteous grandstanding. As the Los Angeles Times recently noted, UCLA basketball players getting high -- even during John Wooden's championship days -- is not breaking news. That's because college students getting high, getting drunk, having sex, etc., is a crucial part of the business model of most bars and restaurants in college towns all over this country -- and we all know this.

Remember Michael Phelps wasn't caught smoking a bong in his apartment. He was at a party with University of South Carolina students. Then-Arizona Cardinals QB Matt Leinart's infamous photo of him holding a funnel as a guest presumably guzzles down beer? He was surrounded by college co-eds -- and Nick Lachey.

The current Bruin who reportedly said "guys drinking, guys doing drugs, guys not taking practice seriously, guys fighting ... you won't find that on the Pyramid of Success," -- referring to the famed Wooden philosophy -- probably should pick up a copy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's autobiography or rent the HBO documentary "The UCLA Dynasty." I'm not trying to tarnish Wooden's legacy, just speaking to the nuanced facts versus the oversimplified fiction. After all, the party-school rankings -- loaded with schools from BCS conferences like the Pac-12 -- are published by a little publication called The Princeton Review, for heaven's sake. (A belated congratulations to Ohio University for topping this year's list, by the way.)

So it is what it is, because it is what it's always been.

Coach Ben Howland should be criticized if player behavior undermined team morale and play, but the drinking and drug use is all on the students. During a teleconference in response to the article earlier this week, Howland said, "I'm responsible for this program and everything that happens in it. If there's any need to make changes, I will make them."

I tend to cut Howland a little slack: He's not responsible for everything that happens in his program. He can't be. There is still personal responsibility; students get drunk and party. Howland is a college administrator, not Homeland Security. He can discipline and enforce rules, but if a 20-year-old really wants to sneak out and get drunk in Los Angeles or Miami or Austin, he's going to get drunk -- and that can't be a surprise to anyone.

Besides, until theater or visual-art programs or the students on scholarship from those departments are publicly berated for partying, I don't see why we're expecting student-athletes to live by some romanticized moral standard that no prior generation has lived by. In UCLA's heyday, we just didn't acknowledge the unpleasant extracurricular stuff the way we do now.

Let's face it, college sports used to exclude women -- that wasn't right. College sports used to exclude minorities -- that wasn't right. Today, the governing body of college sports rakes in billions of dollars annually while the workforce responsible for the windfall gets in trouble for selling their sweaty sock on eBay -- that's not right, either. So if we can step down from our soapbox long enough to be honest, we see that the history of college sports is just as rich with social injustices and moral shortcomings as the present -- if not more so.

The problem at UCLA, such as it is, is not about things somehow being worse today than "when I was coming up." It is about the growing prominence of games and athletes in broadcast entertainment. It is about a 24-hour news cycle that, for better or for worse, is airing society's dirty laundry one piece at a time. And in this case, the garments had been hanging, unacknowledged on the front porch for a very long time before they drew our interest.

We can't genuinely be surprised to learn that some student-athletes on a particular campus were partying because we all know that's what a lot of students do. We can't be truly surprised by student-athletes partying because we all know that's what a lot of non-college athletes do as well -- professionals and amateurs.

Without question, Howland needs to regain control of his program. But a quick trip around Tempe or Ann Arbor or Daytona Beach during spring break will remind us that college students drinking and partying is not a sign of lost control. It's a sign that there are college students in the program.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY ยป