These rules are unwritten. Cutting in line at the grocery store check-out counter is frowned upon. Mowing the grass at 8 in the morning on Sunday is forbidden. By all means, holding the door for that elderly woman who walks with a cane is required.
Those same kind of norms – again nowhere inscribed in any rule book – apply in just about every sport. Baseball players understand fully that an attempted bunt with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to break up a no-hitter is strictly prohibited. Full-court pressure late in the game is not kosher when a basketball club holds a sizable lead. Under no circumstance should a football team throw a pass to the end zone with a 35-point, fourth-quarter lead.
Believe it or not, a longstanding rule of the unwritten kind has existed in sports writing as well. Simply put: The writer refrains from criticism of an amateur athlete’s on-field performance.
The premise for adherence to this code has always been that amateur athletes are off-limits to criticism because they are not employed and do not accept a salary. College athletes who receive academic scholarship money to participate in sports are, at least in principal, students.
Interestingly enough, this unwritten rule also has been understood and practiced over the years by coaches and fans alike. With few exceptions, college coaches have not offered public criticism of their athletes. College fans seem more intent on support of their athletes, perhaps knowing their stars cannot be traded or released based on performance.
Professional athletes, on the other hand, are open to whatever written abuse a writer, coach or fan wants to heap upon them. These athletes are beyond handsomely paid to perform, and perform well. If your team’s quarterback can no longer make that post-pattern pass, well, it’s time to get rid of the bum.
Now, though, when it comes to criticism of amateur athletes, the times – in the words of Bob Dylan – are a-changin’.
The advent of social media, and with it, the emergence of an unfiltered opinion with every Facebook post, tweet or Instagram, has altered the landscape of objective and fair-minded criticism of athletes in general, and with it that of amateurs. Everything is fair game in the Internet world, where an “expert” is anyone with an opinion, and responsibility for an attack can be hidden behind the anonymity of a handle or hashtag rather than an actual name.
“Twitter has made everyone a journalist,” says Shakeel Rashad, a senior linebacker and co-captain for the North Carolina football team who graduated earlier this week. He says criticism via social media is now part of the landscape for college athletes.
“You just have to take it for what it’s worth,” he says. “As long as you can look yourself in the mirror and understand you did your very best to prepare for the game and play in it, you can sleep easy at night.”
Throwing another twist into the complexity of the problem is the NCAA’s recent legislation to pay stipends to athletes. If there were any holdouts to the old belief that amateur athletes are immune to media criticism, the NCAA’s decision might have changed their minds.
Technically, a college student who is being paid a stipend is not an amateur anymore. So, the thinking might go, rant all you want when a base-runner charges through his third-base coach’s stop sign and makes the nonsensical third out at third base. Call the kid what he is on that play: an idiot.
Jay Bilas, the former Duke basketball player, long ago lifted the veil of amateurism from his subject matter as a men’s college basketball analyst for ESPN. Bilas is a frequent critic of the NCAA and what he calls its hypocritical stand for amateurism in college athletics.
“If I can praise them, I can criticize them,” Bilas says. “So I don’t think the door only goes one way, or the street only goes one way. . . . I’m not necessarily questioning anybody’s character, maybe their athletic character. I’ve never subscribed to that theory. I happen to believe that this is pro sports, that just because they’re unpaid doesn’t mean that this is not a professional enterprise.”
While I understand perfectly the logic in Bilas’ thinking, I still grapple with the idea that these are young men and women competing at a time in their lives in which we should be more forgiving of their mistakes. Just as their fellow students are going to make foolish decisions, so too are college athletes going to make mistakes based on lack of maturity and experience.
The difference is the non-athlete generally is reprimanded for wrongdoing behind closed doors. The athlete is judged and convicted in front of thousands of fans and a media now more apt to view sporting events with an ever-increasing critical eye.
Call me old-school, if you will. I still believe the criticism should be restricted for the coaches, not the college athletes.