Players' Ball

University of Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins is a boozy hick, a (formerly) good basketball coach whose black talent doesn't graduate as successfully as they play. They might not even be able to read

University of Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins is a boozy hick, a (formerly) good basketball coach whose black talent doesn't graduate as successfully as they play.

They might not even be able to read this. Whose fault is that?

UC President Nancy Zimpher is overzealous, an insecure powerbroker who, like most women who've likewise ascended the corporate power ranks, prematurely threw down her trump card.

Despite the hard line according to the administration or the sob story from the athletic department, only Huggins and Zimpher privately know what the real beef is. And judging by how quickly Huggins took the money and wept, neither he nor his lawyer thought Huggins' gig was worth fighting for.

It's much more absurd and hilarious, however, to watch their respective supporters and detractors slug it out for them.

My favorite sound bite so far is from the caller into WDBZ-AM host Lincoln Ware's Sunday morning TV show on Channel 38. Mayoral candidate the Rev. Charles Winburn was the guest. In between talk of Winburn's plans for jails and jobs, a white guy called in.

"Hey," he said, "I'll vote for you if you git rid of Zimpher."

Here's a voter willing to throw a vote away in one of the city's most important recent elections in order to reinstate a basketball coach. What a beautiful non sequitur.

The war between Zimpher's and Huggins' supporters is a classic Cincinnati three-way: his side, her other side and the truth.

This is about beer-fuelled college sports fanatics and the Drunk Girls who love and support them, all of whom have missed the nuances of Zimpher's decision and the lack of Huggins' accountability for his own ousting. This is about how profoundly and embarrassingly misdirected college students really are and about the pushy, misdirected post-graduation alumni they'll become.

By the prevalence of their handmade signs calling for Huggins' pre-buyout reinstatement and for Zimpher's head, they're trivializing the equation between college sports and all the parking garages, stadiums, auditoriums and beautiful landscaping a decent sports program can purchase. Further, the argument illustrates the lopsided nature of athletics over academics, an age-old symptom of America's sickness with That Championship Season.

And this unevenness extends far beyond college campuses.

Scan the urban landscape of any major city, and sleeping, panhandling and struggling in the shadows of Name Brand/ Corporate-Sponsored sports complexes are those cities' homeless, poor and otherwise disenfranchised who'll never be able to afford admission. Unless, of course, they're invited to seek refuge there during hurricanes.

I get sports. I do. I understand the rules. I do my share of barstool celebrating and shit talking. I marvel at the abilities of even mediocre athletes in any sport. I'll watch just about any sport. I've even started watching golf.

But there must be balance. (Wo)man cannot live on sports, adrenaline and escapism alone.

Besides bragging rights, pennants and trophies and the right to stiff-arm wealthy alumni for bigger and bigger contributions, what do we get from front-loading college teams while other populations on campus fight for scraps? When was the last time students made signs of protest or news vans scrambled for satellite feeds when an English prof refused to teach a certain work of literature or when a beloved history professor was fired?

In a more perfect world, everyday academics and progressive programming sponsored by student organizations would elicit the same fevered pitch. But in media terms, it's not sexy.

What Huggins' student supporters might be missing is that they're the ones being disrespected. And it's got little to do with watching their beloved Bearcats at Uncle Woody's over 50 pitchers of beer.

At the least, a lesser basketball coach and team will adversely affect what the university can provide students from the team's proceeds. So Huggins' supporters should've been demanding compromise between Zimpher and Huggins and not merely one or the other staying or going.

Zimpher's public mindfuck with Huggins isn't the first time UC administrators have made a misstep, throwing students' needs under the bus in the process.

It took UC what seemed like a lifetime to realize great numbers of its students weren't traditional, live-on-campus students but in fact were older, working, commuting single parents not being served by rigid class offerings, inadequate, unaffordable parking and irrelevant programming.

Then there's the appearance that, for years, UC herded minority students through University College as a money-making diversion rather than working to place them more immediately in degreed programs. No disrespect to two-year schools, but when I was at UC, University College was like having a then-Cincinnati Technical College (CTC) on campus, and it stigmatized students.

Ultimately, the struggle for relevance, support and attention between college academics and college sports lies with students. Because without their tuition, there'd be no Zimpher, no Huggins, no basketball and no UC.

I hope Zimpher remembers that when she comes up for review. I hope Huggins remembers that when he cashes his $3 million check at his favorite sports bar.

contact Kathy y. wilson: [email protected]. Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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