The witches who prophecy Macbeth’s ascent to the throne in Shakespeare’s tragedy warn us at the beginning of the play that human lives rise and fall by both temptation and strange twists of fate. Macbeth’s actions hasten his own death as he sets in motion death upon death in order to realize the prophecy that he will be King of Scotland. By the end, Macbeth’s wife is dead from guilt and madness and he has lost his mind. He muses as to whether life means anything at all. Even so, he continues to fight until Macduff decapitates him in the end.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Friends are foes, and foes are friends. Truths are lies, lies become truth. Such epic and tragic reversals are not just reserved for Shakespeare—they resonate with us because they are a part of the fabric of human life. Perhaps football is so provocative, so beloved to so many because it plays out these deep patterns and profound tragic structures of human life in such clear relief.
Like Macbeth’s tragic and impatient lust for power, there are many who yearn so much for positions of power, prestige, and wealth in football that they do not hesitate to hurt or destroy others in the process. This yearning for power and all that comes with it can overtake any commitment to honesty, to fairness, and even to friendship.
Football is a harsh business. Trusting people is a difficult thing to do. And meaningful, lasting friendships are hard to build and maintain. The very structure of how things work in football conspires against such friendships.
The NFL is a business, pure and simple. And people are climbing and grasping and working to position themselves just as they do in other businesses. There are plenty of people in the NFL who are not such graspers and climbers, but the system tends to reward those who are willing to do “whatever it takes” to get to the top. In a highly competitive business, these win at all cost mentalities are often coveted for what they can achieve even if only in the short term.
We left the NFL five years ago because we believe life in football can and does have higher meaning and purpose and we wanted our lives to reflect those beliefs with more integrity. The higher purpose in college football is, of course, that players are a part of a university campus, they are working toward a college degree, and many of them are playing for the love of the game. Only 2% of college football players will play in the NFL. While the lure of playing in the NFL motivates many of the players who work so hard on Saturdays for their schools, college football also has a higher purpose because it is part of a larger system of values. These values, in the best case scenarios, function at the same time that football is played at a high level and people care about winning.
The NCAA investigation at UNC has opened my eyes to many, many things about college football that threaten its “higher purpose” in university contexts. Anyone who follows football these days knows the litany of issues and ills that face the sport:
- should players get paid?
- how can the NCAA regulate and police all the rules in college football?
- are head coaches paid too much?
- do players get meaningful degrees?
- are concussions an acceptable by-product of the game?
- what are the accountability systems in place in college football for both universities and the NCAA? Are they effective?
- is the BCS system fair? flawed beyond repair? replaceable by a playoff system in Division 1A?
- does football belong on university campuses at all?
These questions are all complicated and there are no easy answers to any of them. One thing is clear to me, however, after being up close to all that has happened at UNC the last two football seasons. What ails football may sound unique and particular to this sport that America loves so passionately. But, at its very core, the disease of this sport is no different than the sicknesses that threaten to afflict us all in human life: greed, dishonesty, abuse of power, and short sightedness.
These symptoms of human affliction are as old as human life itself—Cain killed Abel, after all, because he thought there were not enough blessings from God and inheritance from Dad to go around. Cain lived in a world of scarcity, so he got his just deserts the only way he thought it was possible—he eliminated the competition.
Ironically, in football the resources are not getting scarcer, they are multiplying rapidly. Football is generating more and more money, millions even billions of dollars a year. Yet, the problems associated with its inequity and fairness are not getting better, some would say that they are getting worse. Why in the face of such abundance is the scarcity model– the foul is fair model, thriving?
There is a remarkable lack of fairness and a high tolerance for foul being fair in big time football. If that wasn’t the case how would we have gotten to such a place of inequality—where the young men who generate the revenue have few rights and little to no access to the fruits of their labor? How would we have gotten to a place where rules and regulations have taken the place of relationships and trust? How else would we find ourselves in repeated firestorms of firings, suspensions, probations, and other punitive modes of operation?
These habits of relating to one another do not build strong institutions or communities. They create faulty and illusory values that tend to shift and change to serve those who have the most to lose. All the rhetoric and commercialism in the world cannot mask those truths forever.
Macbeth himself literally lost his head from the horrible ambitions that possessed him after he heard he would be king. Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Like a spell, we learn to live with this skewed reality “just in case” we might find our way to the top of the heap. And we become blind to the distortions of privilege and prejudice. So often football holds up a mirror to us that reflects the larger perils and promises of being human. This “foul is fair” mentality is no different.
A man I met recently at a lecture I gave shared copies of several letters he had written to Chancellor Thorp about football at UNC. This man aligns himself with former UNC system President Bill Friday’s sentiments that football is a problem that must be reined in by the keepers of high academic standards and integrity. In one of his letters to Chancellor Thorp the man I met suggested that football be taken out of the university system and that the Rams Club run it outside the purview of the university. This way students and alumni could still enjoy the excitement and loyalty of having a team, but the university itself would not be sullied by the unsavoriness of it all.
I have heard several white academic elites express this opinion in the last few years. They want to know why universities are dirtying their hands with the likes of football. They believe universities are watering down academic standards, compromising their integrity, and threatening the reputations of institutions of higher learning by having football programs. Their remedy is to somehow distance themselves—sequester the university, protect it from the evils that football brings with it.
I could not disagree more passionately with this sentiment for how to fix the problems there are in football. Why is creating sports enclaves for football more palatable that dealing with the real problems in which we all share? I fear that privileged whites sometimes would rather work at their church’s soup kitchen and give a sandwich to a poor black man than find ways to live in truly equitable communities with the bulk of the young black men who play college football.
And what of the rhetoric we hear on many university campuses today about diversity and multiculturalism. How are these rhetorical values put to work in the questions of how to solve the problems that football brings to light? I have not found those values to be operative in the conversation.
I am deeply saddened by how depersonalized, even dehumanized, so many of the players become in the conversations about these problems. Fair becomes foul, and foul becomes fair. The ones who put their bodies on the line to make football teams thrive are largely blamed for the ills that afflict it. Foul becomes fair when we build a whole regulatory culture around stereotypes and out of touch, elite mentalities.
As a white person myself, I confess that I use to be one of those academic elites and I would have never dreamed of suggesting that college football players should be compensated beyond a scholarship for their work. My mind has been changed because of intentional decisions on my part not to sequester myself from people who are different than I am. It is from the reality of relationships that I see things anew. If integrity is increased in football, I realize that could mean less for some who have so much. But I choose a world any day where integrity is a real value, not simply a word we throw around to make ourselves feel better.
Calling an audible here will take a lot of courage when the game is going so well for some. Playing fair means sometimes you will lose. Playing fair means you have to work hard and play together as a team. Playing fair means you make a commitment for the long haul. And playing fair means you have got to be able to trust those around you to recognize and call foul when they see it.
I don’t believe life is a series of accidents or strange twists of fate as suggested by the witches in Macbeth. We are all both created by and helping to create the causes and conditions of our lives together. That means your actions matter and so do mine. And that means, too, that the world’s bent toward love and justice is a more excellent way than the one toward greed and dishonesty.
The audible here can be no accident, no busted play. It is not arbitrary. For big time football to play fair there must be deep and collective intention to resist temptation and to listen to more voices than the ones who tell us what we want to hear.