We love the game. We love the players, too, even when they scare us.
Like the blue-chip defensive secondary leader who wrote his personal essay for an openly gay professor on the time in high school he gleefully commanded a posse to bash a girly fag near to death, caved the queer's face, and ruined his smile.
Or the hulking offensive star who brought a friend to help him corner a short, pretty instructor alone in her closet office and scare her within an inch of her life for telling the athletic department he was clowning in class.
Or the top offensive player who sought tutoring from me on a plagiarized paper while tweaking on uppers. Or the standout lineman who never showed for my lectures or turned much in except for a term paper written in someone else's voice, then magically disappeared from the class roll when I resisted the team handlers who pressed me not to fail him.
These guys are all starters at Florida State University. They're probably going to play for the national title; they're almost certainly going to go high in the NFL draft. None of them is older than 22, and they already have longer Wikipedia entries than anyone on the FSU faculty.
My colleagues and I—writers and teachers of writing—are on that faculty. Most of us are Seminole fans as well as teachers. We've dashed off tributes to the game and the players—some conflicted, some not.
We love football, and we really love winning, and while we might be pseudo-intellectuals who idolize tweedy, critical theory-spouting professors, we hate it when they denigrate the game's presence on campus. We want to do right by these players. One of mine was from a sugarfield shantytown best known as the AIDS capital of the state. I hope he never goes back. "You're like, 'Fucking A, man, this is awesome,'" my co-worker Derek says of teaching big-name players. "You're part mentor and part fanboy." (The names of the FSU instructors in this story have been changed to protect their identities and the identities of their students.)
But we're increasingly flummoxed by the football culture surrounding Tallahassee, one that's grown malignant with the wins and the scrutiny, like a traditional Islamic country turned radical and defensive, its craziest pilgrims whirling around Doak Campbell Stadium, the black cube at the center of their Mecca. It's a culture that tells these adolescents that their highest calling is to sacrifice their bodies in the grassy shrine, that all else is distraction. It's the same culture that's now undergoing paroxysms of wild paranoia to spin Benghazi- and Trayvon-style conspiracy theories that might explain these obviously baseless allegations against Jameis Winston, the teenager whose prophetic power can reduce old white men to joyful sobbing.
Before Jameis, there was the gay-basher. His teacher, Robert, was also one of Florida State's superstars, a professor in training with a pile of prestigious awards and grants. He is also gay, a fact that "any of my students are gonna figure out pretty quickly," he says. The defensive back took his required writing class a few summers back, and they met early in the course for a one-on-one conference to discuss an assigned essay exploring a significant personal moment in the students' lives.
"It was just me and him in my windowless office on the fourth floor of an empty campus building," Robert says. The player submitted his essay and went down the hall for a drink, while Robert read it and promptly "freaked out."
The paper was "a very graphic, very detailed, very proud telling of how he basically got his high school classmates together to beat the shit out of this 'fag'"—a word used often in the work—"and literally kick him in the teeth to teach him a lesson." They were sick of their mark "acting like a girl," Robert recalls, and so they went about punching him in the face, emptying his gumline. The tone of the player's essay was that "he was very proud of himself. He had taken the initiative to organize this beating."
Robert panicked. The essay's victim "talked sexually, had tight clothes, and had feminine features—some of which could be certainly be said of me," he says. "Why would he give that to me? I took it in the moment as a personal threat."
When the player returned, Robert faked getting an important text and begged out of the conference, then ran down to a mentor's office to report the paper. The situation was handled well, he said: He never had to see that student again. Still, he had no clue as to the player's motives—or his rehabilitation. "Who knows if he learned anything?" Robert says. "It would be nice if a coach or someone from the Athletic Academic Advising Program said something to him."
The d-back still had to pass his writing requirement, and so the following fall he was placed in a class with Derek, an avid fan and alpha male type who's taught seven or so football players and developed a reputation as a sort of jock whisperer. But although he knew why the student was there, Derek never found a way to bring up the student's homophobic story. Was he performing at fag-hating for the benefit of his ultra-macho brethren, or was he really a violent basher? Could he be a good kid, all things considered except for the hate crimes?
"I know he didn't think that shit was wrong," Derek said, with compassion. Halfway through the semester, the young instructor had questions—for his supervisor, for the coaches. "Did they even tell this kid that what he did was wrong? And if they did, what did they tell him was the wrong part: beating a gay kid near to death, or thinking it was OK to beat a gay kid, or thinking it was OK to write one of us an essay about beating a gay kid?" But Derek never asked them aloud.
The kid muddled through the course, giving Derek little trouble. That January, he helped FSU come back to stuff Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Team superstars get special assistance from the Athletic Academic Advising Program, usually in the form of two clipboard-wielding dudes in garnet-and-gold warmups who pour into the classrooms during our lectures to see whether the players are present. Handlers, they're called. "Like for animals at the zoo," Derek says. "Or like the fucking sellers at the markets. Let's call it what it is."
The handlers' only real job is to keep the players eligible to play, whatever it takes. That includes begging, browbeating, suborning intimidation, and, we all have suspected, writing assignments for the athletes. That's what happened to another instructor, Lacy, when she informed an athletic academic advisor that she had some problem players, including a star receiver, who were turning work in late, cutting corners, submitting seemingly plagiarized work, and pulling childish stunts in her classroom like flipping the lights on and off.
The advisor's response was to get on the players' cases ... and to show them her email, Lacy says. So that was why they were now in deep shit. Two of the athletes, clad in team warmups, stormed into her office unannounced and cornered her, yelling at the small, genteel Southerner as she sat between them, her backed pushed up onto her desk. "They're both just towering over me and arguing with me. They were puffing their chests and pacing quickly, leaning in on me," she says. They told her, "I thought you were cool." They called her a liar.
"It just felt very, very aggressive," she said. "I was very uncomfortable."
She told them firmly to leave her alone and got them to exit without incident, assisted by another instructor nearby. In relating the confrontation to a mentor the next day, "I got kind of upset," she says. "I was tearing up a little bit, which surprised me at the time."
Her mentor was upset, too, and took it up with the team's academic handlers. But nothing ever came of it. This was late in the semester, and she didn't want the players coming back to her office, so she decided not to get on the handlers' bad side. "I was very reticent to fail a football player, because I didn't want to be harassed," she says. "I shouldn't have, but I probably graded them much more easily than the other students."
By all accounts, that star receiver has matured greatly since his run-in with Lacey. Still, when she sees close-ups of him on television, she gets anxious. "I can't help but feel he's a little bit of a punk."
I've had dealings with the handlers. My biggest issue was with a gentle giant of a lineman who was new to college, and to reading, and had trouble making it to the morning class. On the few occasions he made it to class (late) and didn't fall dead asleep, his earnest writing, both in style and structure, was that of an elementary school student. He never turned a paper in on time, but when I contacted the handlers to warn them of his status, a pile of final drafts would suddenly materialize, full of fairly complex, organized thoughts and diction—thoughts that hadn't made it into earlier drafts I'd seen. I was bombarded with regular long emails from handlers explaining how I should arrange extra meetings with the player and extend deadlines for him. But he couldn't overcome his absences, and when I informed them through a mentor that he wouldn't pass and it was too late to drop the class, I was asked if I could give him an "incomplete," even though he didn't qualify for one. I said no.
This was a problem: My lineman was already on academic probation for poor performance in his first semester. Should I flunk him, he would lose his eligibility. At the end of the term, when I went online to enter my students' grades, his name didn't appear on the roster. He had been administratively disappeared from the rolls—a medical withdrawal, I heard, though I wondered what malady rendered him unable to attend class but capable of playing 40 or 50 snaps every Saturday.
Sometimes, it was the handlers' non-responsiveness that disturbed me. Like when a lumbering receiver appeared at my open tutoring hours to receive help with his paper, a series of rough ramblings connecting entire lifted passages from a marketing textbook, several Wikipedia pages, and an online biography of Nancy Reagan.
A few minutes into my explanation of why plagiarism wasn't kosher, the receiver's attention seemed elsewhere. He asked if there was a bathroom nearby; he excused himself. He returned about five minutes later, and his demeanor had changed considerably. His legs were quivering, his arms shuddered, and though it was clear he was making an effort, he couldn't focus on my laptop and the work we'd started. "Hot in here," he complained, sweating and stripping off his warm-up top in the middle of a cool basement space where my fellow tutors and I were still wearing winter coats. With 15 minutes left in our session, he rose suddenly, anxious to go to the library and finish the paper, he said.
Through a supervisor, I contacted the academic handlers about the receiver, but never heard a response. This was early last December, less than a week before the police began investigating a sexual assault that allegedly involved Jameis Winston.
If I kept a schedule like these kids do, I'd probably consider popping a lot of greenies. I don't know what they do over there across campus, in a gleaming behemoth of a new training facility, bankrolled by the booster club that's now developing a series of strip malls and condos and drinkeries for alumni on the once-artsy industrial flatlands outside the football stadium. ("Collegetown," they're calling it.) Whatever our players do takes up so much physical and psychic energy that it's amazing they don't ever kill anyone, much less that they make it to class. But most of them are fine. There are dozens of successful, placid ones on the roster every year.
One of Derek's better-adjusted athletes said it wasn't the practices or the physical abuse that bothered him, but how the coaches force-fed him and his teammates. "They watch me clean the plate," the player told Derek. "'You let that settle and then go lift.'" That's in addition to the supervised supplement-swallowing, the pills and powders of who the hell knows what. "He looks down at me, this monster man, this beast, and now he's got kid eyes," Derek tells me, "and he says to me: 'Mister Derek, sometimes I'm not hungry anymore.'"
That wounded Seminole is now a successful NFL player.
We don't know what our role is in these players' lives. Do they even need our classes? Do they need to be cultural critics, or cogent writers? "You're gonna get 3,600 calories shoveled in you and then you're going to lift and run and hit each other. And then I'm gonna ask you to write an eight-page paper on Q-Tip ads?" Derek marvels. "That's a lot that they're leaving up to an underpaid staff to get these kids to do."
As writers and academic thinkers, we understand that sometimes a narrative works the nerves in such a satisfying way that it becomes stronger than a nuanced truth. It becomes what we tell ourselves about ourselves to make sense of things. In Tallahassee, the narrative is that football is salvation, and Jameis is its prophet. He brought back winning, more than we're used to. He brought back swagger, but not too much. He did it all with an insane arm and a smile and a laugh and he's just such a nice young man. (That's a compliment to a black quarterback that's more than a little loaded in a town whose racist taunts ran FSU's first black player off the field and into mental torment, which he ended by firing a revolver into his own stomach, here, in 1972.)
The current allegations against Winston, even if they're ultimately dropped, threaten our pure victory narrative. But most of Tallahassee, even the local sports reporters, cannot accept that the narrative is overly simple, and that failure is always an option, whether it's a physical failure in the fourth quarter, or a moral one in a strange bedroom after last call on Tennessee Street. Most vocal Noles fans find it easier to bandy about numerous conspiracy theories to explain the news. It's the timing of this thing going public—some Manziel or McCarron fan dropping a bomb before Heisman voting, before BCS selection. Maybe even a (voice drops to a whisper) Gators fan. It's the height discrepancy in the police report—and that chick doesn't know what the hell went on, probably because she was drinking. It's some lying jealous gold-digger. It's racism. It's a state attorney who is grandstanding or maybe corrupt or maybe just has a hard-on for unfairly persecuting football players for rape, except for the ones that were actually guilty or look pretty bad.
Even to casual fans who've never darkened the doors of the institutions whose colors they wear on Saturdays, none of this probably shocks. Maybe they assume every Division I program is a stable of high-toned, ego-motored, big-balled thoroughbreds, surrounded by pushy handlers who are perversely protective and laissez-faire at the same time. And maybe that makes the conspiracy theories easier to form. If the academics can be arranged so that players stay eligible, it's a rather small leap, in the mind of a certain kind of college football fan, to the notion that strings get pulled and palms get greased by rivals trying to derail a season. The fix is in. It's long been a part of the football fan's narrative, anyway—the other guys are dirty dirty dirty that's the only way they could possibly beat us.
But like the on-field play, the excesses of student athletics look different when you teach in these schools: faster, more dangerous. It's the kind of difference that makes us, in our student lounges and off-campus drinkeries, say, yeah, Jameis Winston is great, gifted, a wonderful kid—but yeah, he could have assaulted that girl. Any of them could have.
Maybe that's unfair, but it's hard not to feel that way when you've seen the culture up close. We're a part of that culture, too. We love the game and the school; we may love the players. But we've seen what they get away with, and we know the fix is in.
Adam Weinstein writes for Gawker, scribbles about football on the side, and mumbles about the Phillies and Eagles to his TV. Photos via Getty.