South Florida football fans have plenty to gab about these days. The Miami Dolphins — who haven't won a playoff game in more than a decade — are preparing for this Sunday's opener at home against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. And this past Monday night, the University of Miami Hurricanes debuted with a disappointing 31-13 loss to the University of Louisville, the same squad that spanked them 36-9 in last year's Russell Athletic Bowl.
A lot has changed since I arrived in town at the dawn of the 1990s. Back then, the University of Miami football team appeared unbeatable. Once the laughingstock of the region, the squad was in the midst of an epic 29-game win streak.
More impressive, the Hurricanes had developed their own official mythos, which went something like this: The team had united a racially divided city. Their athletic excellence had erased the dark memory of the riots and bridged the gulf between the stately avenues of Coral Gables and the inner cities of Miami.
It's taken me years to confront the reality — the many ways in which football, at all levels, represents just another con in the long nefarious history of South Florida, where conning is a way of life.
The meteoric rise of the Canes was, in fact, a remarkably venal partnership. A well-heeled, academically mediocre university got world-class players with which to build a hugely profitable program. Young men, often from economically vulnerable neighborhoods just down the road, got a possible golden ticket to the NFL. Education had little to do with it.
When it was later revealed that UM football players had accepted cash from boosters and illegal funds from Pell Grants, a Sports Illustrated writer suggested the entire program be shut down.
But this "scandal" was the logical result of the college football plantation system, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars for universities and corporations while paying the kids who put their bodies at risk exactly nothing.
Two recent lawsuits — one filed by members of Northwestern's football team, the other by players seeking compensation for commercial use of their images — may forever change the landscape of college sports. Some day soon, "student-athletes" may enjoy the right to unionize and get paid, like actual people. For now, though, they receive only scholarships, room, and board.
And thus, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the UM football team has continued to face scrutiny, thanks most recently to a Ponzi-scheme convict named Nevin Shapiro, who reportedly supplied cash and gifts to players as well as hiring prostitutes to hang out on his yacht for their pleasure.
This scandal has resulted in... well, not much. After a lengthy probe, the NCAA suspended half a dozen players for a few games, placed the entire UM Athletic Department on probation, and withdrew a handful of football scholarships. Wrist, meet slap.
In the end, the UM program amounts to this: an exaggerated portrait of the hypocrisies inherent in college football.
Media wags (most of them, by the way, white and reasonably well-off) still make a living vilifying players who behave too brashly on the field — as if young men who have been systematically rewarded for their savagery should be expected to conduct themselves like U.S. senators.
But the national passion for football is such that players often enjoy de facto immunity from prosecution. Consider the chilling case of Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston.
In December 2012, you may remember, a fellow undergraduate accused Winston of raping her in his off-campus apartment. According to a New York Times investigation, the Tallahassee Police Department barely probed the claim, despite physical evidence of trauma to the alleged victim as well as a second complaint from another female student who sought counseling after an encounter with Winston.
The detective on the case — who had done private security work for an FSU booster group — went so far as to warn the lawyer of Winston's accuser that Tallahassee is "a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against [Winston] because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable." The detective closed the case without interviewing Winston or collecting his DNA and phone records. FSU officials did nothing to investigate the alleged rape, despite a federal law requiring universities to do so.
In the months after the incident, the alleged victim received death threats on social media and eventually dropped out of FSU. Winston led the Seminoles to a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy. He is now being touted as the potential number-one pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
There's an obvious link here, between a guy like Winston and the UM players who presumably enjoyed the services of hookers supplied by a slimy booster. Football is a realm in which the accepted role of women is sexual and/or ornamental. They are not fully human. They are creatures whose purpose is to dance for the fans or fuck the players.
Not surprisingly, the hypermasculinity inherent in football is often accompanied by virulent homophobia — as any fan of the Dolphins already knows, thanks to the Richie Incognito scandal. Last season, starting left guard Jonathan Martin left the team due to persistent bullying by his fellow linemen, in particular Incognito, Mike Pouncey, and John Jerry.
Media coverage focused on the racist insults that Incognito, who is white, hurled at Martin, who is African-American. But a report commissioned by the NFL also revealed that Incognito and his comrades indulged in homophobic hate speech and engaged in physical harassment.
The Dolphins declined to re-sign Jerry and Incognito, but significantly, the team did nothing to punish Pouncey, a Pro-Bowl center who will likely miss the first half of the season, thanks to a hip injury. Nor did the NFL administer any punishment to the players in question. Jerry is currently on the New York Giants roster; Incognito is still looking to sign with a new team.
This is how it works when it comes to football. It's no longer just a sport. It's a billion-dollar industry. And if that means tolerating star players who beat their girlfriends senseless or gay-bash teammates or possibly commit rape, well, so be it.
What I found most disturbing about the four years I lived in in South Florida (I'm now a Boston resident) was the prevailing attitude I encountered in its poorest neighborhoods, where football was widely viewed as a form of socioeconomic salvation.
The media generally played along back then and still do. We heard breathless reports, for instance, about the massive attendance at the annual Soul Bowl between the high school teams at Northwestern and Jackson, as if this fanatical devotion to a violent game were somehow a signifier of civic virtue.
That's not how I remember it. Back in 1994, I spent months hanging around in the now-razed James Scott Homes in Liberty City. The most revered figure in that housing project was a former NFL wide receiver who recruited kids to play on his Pop Warner team. Those peewee games were well-attended by parents and guardians — and often tense — because success was seen as a vital steppingstone on the path to fame and wealth. Parents or guardians often got into physical altercations — with each other, with the coaches, with the refs. Nor was it uncommon for high school coaches to recruit players who did not live in their districts and to otherwise mangle the rulebook when it came to football.
What was clear to me then, and has since become more so, is the flagrant cynicism of the arrangement. Nobody cared about the content of these kids' characters or the development of their minds. The system was designed to turn them into football-playing machines, and the community was a willing part of that system.
Only a tiny percentage of high school players ever made it to college, let alone to the pros. Most of the rest of the boys who came up in Liberty City and Overtown were left to piece together a future out of broken homes, crumbling schools, and underpaid teachers.
This, it seems to me, is the ultimate con when it comes to football. It has sold a false dream to the most economically vulnerable communities in South Florida and elsewhere: that the path to a brighter future resides in a vicious form of entertainment, one that we now know causes some of its players to suffer dementia.
As fans, we yearn to see football as a noble game, one that instills discipline, perseverance, and sacrifice. But to the folks who run the game, it's an engine of profit. The nihilistic greed of the NFL now pervades the college and high school game.
It's easy enough for us fans to see the evidence, in the warping of our educational values, the criminal misbehavior of entitled athletes, the brain damage that afflicts former players, and most of all in the massive proceeds that get funneled into the pockets of corporations and billionaire owners. Knowing all we do about football's moral hazards, why then do we keep watching?
Ah. But that's the essence of a truly great con, isn't it? The sucker knows he's getting taken for a ride and consents to it anyway.
Steve Almond is a former New Times staffer who will discuss his new book, Against Football, at Books & Books in Coral Gables Tuesday, November 11.