Michael Lewis' The Blind Side is an excellent tale of football's redeeming powers and unlikely heroes, Bruce Feldman's Meat Market is a brave look at the soulless gamesmanship of college athletic recruiting, and Warren St. John's Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer is a hilarious take on fervent fandom. But no text singularly captures football in the South - its glory, its pitfalls, its social impact, its significance, its triviality - as well as Willie Morris' The Courting of Marcus Dupree.
Centering on a 6'3", 230 pound, lightning fast high school tailback from the hardscrabble and troubled town of Philadelphia, Mississippi who was, and still is, considered by many to be the greatest football player to ever grace a Magnolia State field on a Friday night, Willie Morris' tale of a young man's rise from obscurity, recruitment, and transformation is so much more than a simple rags-to-riches tale. It's an anthropological study, a historical narrative, a societal allegory, a redemption story, and the author's personal homecoming all rolled into a single tome - and then some.
Of course I'm biased towards a Mississippi-centric work written by a fellow Mississippian and long-time Oxonian, but even the New York Times called The Courting of Marcus Dupree "a document of significance and undeniable truth," so please don't simply take my word for it. It's truly fantastic and deep and, even though nearly twenty years old, still relevant to many of the on- and off-field issues we college football fans are so invested in.
This is no less the case regarding recruiting, the sort of "secondary sport" the coaches, fans, and even players compete in during the primary game's - you know, the one on a field with a ball and points and things - offseason.
Under these circumstances [football's emerging profitability in the 1970's], the gravity of recruiting was more pointed than ever, and the demands on the individual recruiter to sign the superior prospect had increased. As Temple Drake [a pseudonym given to a real coach with whom Morris spoke regarding recruiting] would say to me, "Better watch out. Better keep the losses down. You ain't got no tenure."
The coach [with whom Morris spoke regarding the recruiting of a particular player] was prompted to add a footnote. "The kid's father was about six feet two and 140 pounds, thin as death, with only four front teeth that went in all directions. When I saw the father again a month later he had gained about twenty pounds and had a new set of teeth. I knew then that I'd lost the kid."
In one black family in Mississippi, several of the sons had grown up picking cotton and had gone on to excel in sports. The youngest, a senior in high school, was a superb football player. The word around the recruiter's network was that an out-of-state school had offered a substantial amount of cash. A Mississippi recruiter, who knew and admired the father, discussed this with him. "Coach," the father said, "I've raised seven boys, and I ain't sold any of ‘em yet."
Bear Bryant of Alabama told of a college which offered a high school player $15,000, and lost him to another school. Another offered a young man $48,000...and he went elsewhere. "The athletic departments aren't doing it, of course, because thatd would be suicide. They let alumni do it." Could anything be done about all this? ... "Sure. Do a net worth on every kid and his parents when he's in the eleventh grade...and then do another net worth on them when he's a junior in college and see what they have earned in the meantime. That includes clothes, automobiles, everything. You would either end the gossip or find some interesting things. Can the NCAA do such a thing? Hell, yes, if they want to."
It's been said before that if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin', or something equally as kitschy and simplified. And people who cheat do so because they want to win, not out of some truly nefarious motive. They do it because they want to be better than their friends, peers, and neighbors. They do it out of the fundamental human desire for success. Of course this applies to college athletics which, as a multi-billion dollar industry, adds such a powerful set of resources and incentives to an already powerful competition.
So when it surfaced that Mississippi State and Auburn had gotten into a six-figure bidding war of sorts over the quarterbackin' services of Cameron Newton, I was hardly surprised. I mean, just look at the guy, he's gigantic, fast, nimble, an accurate passer, and sharp enough to run Gus Malzhan's offense. Who on earth wouldn't want Cameron Newton on their football team? He's the kind of guy who names his own price and, if you want him, you've gotta play ball and do so by his rules.
And the fact that Mississippi State is essentially snitching on Auburn? That's also hardly a surprise. If someone got the better of you in a bit of an under-the-table competition and are now grossly reaping rewards which are very much out of proportion with the initial investment (if the Tigers can muster a BCS title out of $200,000 that's pretty damned impressive); why wouldn't you at least be tempted to try to spoil the party? Also, it's State, and such juvenile behavior as tattlin' isn't exactly past them.
Football is a zero-sum game. Someone else's victory is someone else's loss and someone else's loss is someone else's victory. I haven't a clue what this could mean for Auburn - spoiled BCS chances, loss of scholarships, television probation - but whatever happens to them, assuming something does in fact happen, will be at the benefit of others in the same way that the wins they've earned with Cameron Newton at quarterback have come at the expense of us and everyone else they've faced. So, in such a competitive scenario with so much exposure, prestige, and money on the line, is it truly any surprise to anyone that such cheating and subsequent subversion exists?
Is cheating wrong? Sure as shit it is. It's dishonest, conceited, and in generally poor taste. In a perfect world, nobody would cheat, but this isn't perfection; it's football. This isn't some honest, gentleman's game contested in the name of good sport amongst aggregations of scholars and humanitarians; it's a violent, revenue-generating source of entertainment played by young, brawny men led by obsessive egomaniacs. The moment we all as fans come to grips with what college football actually is - the NFL's de facto minor league - is the moment we're all liberated from our idiotic concerns with academic integrity, coaching ethics, and player conduct.
So just admit it: everyone cheats, even Ole Miss. So long as we're not dumb enough to get caught, I'll conveniently feign naiveté and not arrogantly wag my finger at any school subjected to the NCAA's "wrath."
Schadenfreude, though, is entirely acceptable.