Maybe it's because I'm an occasional fool -- my wife has plenty of evidence to support this -- but I believe in second chances. Especially when it comes to college sports. And that's why, right now, I'm OK with Maryland giving troubled junior college guard Tyree Evans a scholarship to play basketball, even though Evans' criminal past suggests it's a major gamble as detailed by SI.com's Luke Winn today.
There are a lot of people out there who seethe with rage whenever they hear anyone wax on about the alleged purity of college athletics, especially when compared to the pros. And those people who rage do so with good reason. Because for the most part, the highest levels of big-time college sports are an elaborate money-making sham. And if you believe differently, you're a little naive.
So many of the people involved in running college basketball and college football are as shameless as they are soulless. Too often, they take poor kids from rough neighborhoods and then both parties enter into "wink-wink" business arrangements that compromise pretty much everything that higher education is supposed to stand for. These kids make, literally, billions of dollars for universities and television networks, and do it in exchange for scholarships that are peanuts by comparison. Instead of being honest with ourselves and accepting the fact that college basketball and college football have essentially become the unpaid minor leagues for professional sports (and then paying the kids accordingly out of the billion dollar television contracts), we cling to the falsehood that they are still amateurs, still student-athletes. Even when they clearly have no intention of ever getting a degree. And on top of it, we expect them to be choirboys.
Despite all that, I still believe in taking the occasional risk on kids like Evans, even if it blows up in your face, which it very well might the first time that Maryland coach Gary Williams screams at him for turning the ball over against Farleigh-Dickinson.
I've written a number of stories about inner city kids who try use sports to escape neighborhoods many would consider hell on earth. Some do -- like Evans -- dream of an NBA or NFL career, but most have ambitions that are far less grand. They come from awful schools with no resources and are surrounded by violence. Some of them have "parents" only in the loosest possible sense. Football and basketball are a realistic shot at something better. And while some do barely stay eligible, don't go to class and never attempt to graduate, some embrace it like it's their one chance to escape a cycle of poverty that most of us simply cannot fathom. Some take that small dose of discipline and structure and use it to refocus their entire lives.
I've always felt that it should be part of a university's mission, especially a public school like the University of Maryland, to be altruistic. There are close to 26,000 undergrads in College Park, and it is a competitive admissions process to get in, especially if you're from out of state. But there is room, I believe, to take a chance on a handful of kids who otherwise might have no business setting foot on its campus. Even if a majority do not make it, even if many abuse the system, not all will. Some will see it as the greatest opportunity of their lifetime. Some, when their athletic career is over, might even decide to teach and coach at an inner city high school. And there is no statistic that can measure the benefit of college educated, strong male role models in urban communities. It's real. I've seen it with my own eyes.
Maryland fans are passionately debating on the Web whether the school is compromising its integrity with this signing of Evans. (Meanwhile, athletic director Debbie Yow told SI.com she wasn't even aware of much of Evans' criminal history, which strikes me as odd. Either she's setting Williams up to take the fall if Evans screws up, or someone isn't doing a very good job of keeping their boss informed of who exactly the program is recruiting.) Some fans are suggesting that it reeks of desperation for a team that has missed the NCAA Tournament three of the last four years, and they're probably right. This doesn't strike me as altruism. It strikes me as a program that is willing to compromise at least some of what it claimed to stand for in hopes of returning to its glory days. If you're a Maryland fan, make sure you read this excellent piece written by Darryl Slater of the Richmond Times-Dispatch which details Evans' background, and then you can decide for yourself whether you think he's using Maryland, or that Maryland is using him.
A part of me, though, wants to believe Williams really does think Evans deserves a real chance, and not just because he's an excellent basketball player. Maybe that makes me hopelessly naive, but I want to believe it. And even if Evans does get booted from school four months from now, I want to believe it wasn't necessarily a mistake. (Although to be clear, Maryland needs to have ZERO tolerance policy with Evans. You can make a very real case that with previous accusations of violence in his background, the UM administration has put some of its student body in danger.)
At some point, the handful of athletes with a checkered past who abuse the opportunity to attend a school like Maryland probably outweighs those who have a checkered past and yet embrace it, but I don't think Maryland is there yet. The school, and athletic department, has enough credibility to give this a shot. For now. I don't know exactly at what point the scale tips in the wrong direction, but I want to believe that there is more to Gary Williams' and Ralph Friedgen's -- and even Debbie Yow's -- aspirations than just winning basketball and football games.
I have to believe that, frankly. We ALL do. Otherwise, big-time college sports like men's basketball and football are just a business. A sham. And we should end the charade of making people like Tyree Evans go to class. We can just make them temporary employees of the university, pay them for their services and make their pursuit of higher education optional.
It would destroy major college athletics as we know them. But it would be a lot more honest.