By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) I was headed toward the school exit Tuesday afternoon when I crossed paths with Julian Crum. Julian is in his final semester at our school, runs track, plays wide receiver and is one of the good guys I’ve seen go from wide-eyed, frightened August freshman to cool, calm and collected almost-college student.
Upon seeing me he sighed, “We never see each other anymore.” He used to be in my classroom daily, but a new schedule this semester has taken our respective third periods to different places.
Now, the idealistic educator in me would take that as one of the fulfilling “aww” moments in which this student has been so impacted by my teaching that he laments not being in my classroom anymore. You know, one of those priceless instances that teachers will tell you are the true reward of the profession.
The jaded realist in me that so often kicks the idealist in the groin knew that while perhaps Julian misses our interactions, his too-big smile misses more the opportunity to haggle over why students are only allowed to take mints or the Whoppers (a.k.a. travesty of somehow making chocolate candy terrible) still leftover from Halloween from the jar on my desk instead of the mini Reese’s cups behind my desk that will get you tased should you venture near them.
“Northern Michigan, huh?” I replied to Eddie Haskell (note: teenagers do not know that reference). “Congrats.”
“Yeah… wait, what? How’d you know?”
“The school’s Facebook account.” And I eat lunch with a few football coaches.
Julian will sign a letter of intent today to play football for the Wildcats of Northern Michigan University. Today’s National Signing Day, a day on which annually I am really proud and happy and disappointed and disgusted.
The proud and happy part goes along with that idealistic teacher fluff. I am fortunate to teach at a fantastic college preparatory high school that prides itself on the academic success of its students. It also happens to have a fine athletic department, and several of my students go on to play college sports at the Division I level to all those below. On National Signing Day, I get to see young men like Julian and some of his senior teammates experience one of the happiest days of their lives and share it with their parents and coaches.
Usually this involves a photo op with the student, parents and coaches for a brief time in the morning, and then it’s back to class. The school’s website and social media accounts will promote the happy event in still pictures. Congratulations go around. We adults in the building are happy we in some small way contributed to this culmination. Nothing for me beats this and the many other examples I see of student success on and off the field.
And, to be totally honest, it’s an exciting feeling to think, “Wow, I taught a kid who’s playing for _______” and following him in box scores, small-town newspaper game wraps and maybe on TV. I use the success of guys since graduated for reflected glory all the time. Hopefully, I’ll have one of those televised moments in which a professional athlete returns to his high school and gives me a car or a check, and I’ll pretend to cry and remember his name.
But speaking of televised events, National Signing Day is where I also get disappointed and disgusted. That’s when the realist in me again kicks the idealist in the junk. For several Division I signees, it’s an Event with a capital “E” as in Egregious. Today is treated by rabid college football fans like some sick twisted version of the NFL draft.
Is this child going to voluntarily play football for my favorite amateur team???
The majority of sports fans are irrational if not awful people. I’ve waded in their swallow gene pool quite often myself. But college fans at large tend to be extra terrible. They hold on to some sad romantic vision of the virtue of the non-paid athlete doing it for the love of the game, but they still then give celebrity status to these non-pros and fawn over them and try to talk to them on social media like they are buds. And whenever that fantasy gets tested — which is often these days — they react harshly.
“How dare a young man not want to play sports for my favorite school? Let me take to the intrawebs to insult him from a safe distance.”
These are the saddest of sort of human beings. There isn’t much more pathetic than having a visceral reaction to a person’s choice of college team. And props to those who don’t react by taking to a keyboard, and it sucks that that unstable among you often overshadow you.
Nothing is wrong with wanting your favorite team to get the best talent. I root for Notre Dame football (told you I can be awful), and I hope they get a great recruiting class.
But signing day is one of those where the awfulness volcanoes all over the place. And it’s fueled by TV and the Internet. Now, I can’t really begrudge the college or high school writers for covering signing day like they do. They have their marching orders, and they could well be as uncomfortable with the whole thing as I am.
While I’d also love to take a few more whacks at the piñata that is ESPN, I understand they and other networks are bringing supply to the sad demand for wall-to-wall coverage of kids in their school gyms with baseball caps in front of them.
And it’s messed up people with messed up priorities who create that unfortunate demand. You’re cheering or lamenting kids you don’t even know being flaunted like they’re at Westminster. And some of you really screwed-up people are videotaping your reactions.
If you’re into this objectifying of athletes who haven’t played a single minute of collegiate sports, and if you don’t stand to gain professionally from it, know what you are? You’re a john — but that really terrible one who prefers kids. This is how you get your pleasure. Step back and consider that.
And those feeding you the pageantry signee porn are the pimps, maybe regretfully, but still using these kids for your pleasure regardless. Here’s your announcement schedule menu, sirs and madams.
And the prizes — sometimes unwilling participants or just ones so brainwashed with hollow positivity that they think being 17 and having a press conference for the sake of drooling adults there and abroad is totally acceptable — who knows what will become of them? Some will be very successful on the college level. A few will be solid-to-great professional athletes.
Many won’t live up to the massive hype bestowed on them. Then they get slapped around by the fanbase and tossed aside. So many of the kids from the gyms on TV who didn’t pan out weren’t really going to college for the school part in the first place (or weren’t given the choice), so they end up returning home and being forgotten. They get to be the high school legend working at the factory who we don’t think about anymore. Sometimes their stories that go unnoticed turn out worse. Maybe returning to that small pond that created such a big fish isn’t as comfortable as it was when the only responsibility was showing up for the game.
To paraphrase Emilia in Othello (a reference a few future college players I know do get), fans are all but stomachs, and players all but food. To eat them hungerly, and when they are full, they belch them.
And the beauty of it all is there is fresh meat annually. New show ponies.
I don’t worry about the kids from my school in that regard. They’re usually too bright, too structured to end up as something tragic or warped. And almost all of them don’t have a realistic chance of playing pro ball. The collegiate game is a way to get to an actual post-secondary education. It’s a way to offset the tuition that their South Side parents can’t afford in full or at all. Sometimes it truly is because they love playing the game.
Another student of mine who will play college ball was walking down the hallway past my room Wednesday morning. I heard him call jokingly to another, “I just signed my life away.”
The idealistic part of those words makes me really happy. But I know for so many others, there is something all too realistic about that.