Sport in American Culture: An Interview with Former College Athlete Jacob Sumners, Part I

By Drew Laurens

Jacob Sumners was a personal trainer at the gym I used to frequent when I got married and moved to Canton. The first impression I ever had of the guy was simply this: he’s big. He stands well over six feet tall and has very little body fat with some of the broadest shoulders I’ve ever seen, and every inch of him is plated in muscle. He doesn’t look like a bodybuilder, though. He looks fit and tough and practical. He probably tips the scales at 275, but the way I’ve seen him move playing basketball and messing around in the CrossFit box belies his weight. Jacob played D1 baseball at Auburn University in Alabama for three years as a pitcher, so I believed his perspective would be helpful with this series.

During our first meeting, Jacob and I spoke about a lot of things. My primary reason for interviewing him was to get more clarity about the role and experience his college athlete status afforded him. I wrote a very biased piece about what I viewed as the unearned privilege our private university afforded to college athletes while I was an undergrad; perhaps I am seeking a little absolution for that with this project. The fact remains that my experience with athletics then was varied and unencumbered by school obligations, so I have no idea what it was like for Jacob or his teammates, nor did I know what his opinions were about the subjects we discussed beforehand. I tried to make sure he understood where I was coming from with my questions, so we actually spoke freely for a long time before I even began the interview. What follows is the first installment of our interview, which covers some of Jacob’s experience with college athletics, the bottom line driving sports programs at colleges like Auburn, and the benefits athletics are believed to confer.

DL: How old were you when you started playing sports?

JS: I was five. I was bigger than all the other kids my age, so I played on seven- and eight-year-old’s teams and did really well.

DL: Did your parents push you into sports or did you make that choice?

JS: Nah, man, I wanted to play. My dad didn’t make me get into it, I asked to.

DL: You wanted to have fun as a kid?

JS: Yeah, plus the older kids did it. I wanted to be like them.

DL: Tell me about sports where you come from.

JS: I lived in Birmingham, and my parents put me in the Catholic school instead of the public one, but with sports… We lived right by the rougher part of the city, and on the sports teams, the kids were from that part of town. It was bad for those kids, man. My parents would always take home like three other kids when they picked me up from practice. Once a kid on the All-Stars team dropped a quarter behind some fan blades and just stuck his hand in and got it. Shredded his hand and arm. I told him, “Man, it’s just a quarter,” and he looked at me and said, “I need it.”

DL: That mentality stays with kids, doesn’t it?

JS: If you came from the hood, then played for the NFL, would you go back?

DL: I don’t think I would.

JS: It’s hard to blame someone for wanting to get out of their bad environment. Some of these kids, it’s all they’ll ever have.

DL: Do you have a positive or negative view of professional sports overall?

JS: (short pause) I have a realistic view. When I watch a college game, I know the school has taken out a $5 mil insurance policy on that quarterback. The pros are always trying to keep that spot on the squad because they know that a younger, faster player is coming in the next draft. They know cortisone* is one of the most destructive tools in the game, and they still get that shot because they don’t have anything else outside the game to make money to live the lifestyle. I realize at the top end it’s a rich guy shell game because they only keep teams for the tax write-off. And the NFL has tax exempt status. What’s that about? And you know why they have an injury board**? It’s for Vegas, bro. Betting. FanDuel and Draft Kings [online pay-to-play fantasy football sites] are paying out $75 mil a week. And the agents these kids can’t trust… They gotta trust someone, but the money completely corrupts the game, including their agents. So I’m realistic about it while I enjoy the actual sport. I’ve seen behind the curtain, you know?

DL: You played sports in college, right?

JS: I was a pitcher for Auburn’s baseball team. Transferred there sophomore year and played through my senior year.

DL: I know you experienced preferential treatment as a player. What did that look like?

JS: I wouldn’t say preferential treatment; I would say that things happened that nobody knew about. If we played over the weekend, we’d miss class Thursday to travel, get some money to eat dinner, on Friday show up for breakfast at the hotel, get money for lunch and dinner, play Saturday, meals paid for that day cuz it’s game day, then money for breakfast Sunday. If I was smart, I made $110 that weekend. Tuition’s paid for, books paid for, that’s my money.

DL: But in the classroom…

JS: (laughing) No, the professors didn’t cut us any slack. Think about this: you’ve got ten college athletes in your class, so maybe 15% of your room. They miss sometimes for early practice, they travel, you know, doing stuff for the team. They’re disruptive, even if they don’t mean to be. So the professor hates athletes, even though the athletic program is what got the donations for the classroom he teaches in.

DL: Donations?

JS: Everyone’s an alumni when you’re winning. Winning makes people want to donate to the school. A few millionaire alumni donations later, and bam, there’s a new Fine Arts Building. Check this: Alabama played Jacksonville State last week. Bama spent more money on their coach than Jacksonville did on their stadium. The NCAA is a racket; it’s a system for generating profit, not promoting education. The athletes are the ones who lose.

DL: One reason I think we as a society believe sports are a good thing is that they teach kids things like perseverance, grit, diligence, teamwork, leadership, all desirable characteristics, in addition to the physical work that builds a healthy body. Would you say that sports taught you those things?

JS: Yes. Absolutely. Sports level a lot of things out. I know what you mean when you ask that because you only ever hear about the Ray Rices*** and the Ndamukong Suhs**** of the world. But what they do isn’t football’s fault. Honestly, my opinion is that Suh —

DL: Every week that guy tries to hurt someone, it seems —

JS: Right, well, something happened to him.

DL: You mean as a kid? Someone —

JS: Something happened. Whether it was abuse, bullying, I don’t know, but something happened. Sports do not turn kids into bad people. Whatever happened to him he’s brought with him into the game, and it ruins the game. Sports did teach me all that stuff you mentioned, in addition to a lot of other stuff. You never hear about all the good things college and pro-level players are doing because it’s boring press. But the bad stuff — of course it goes straight to the top of the news feed.

DL: So sports turn people into better people — or at least they should?

JS: I have a buddy who won’t let his daughter date anyone who’s not an athlete. He says if the kid is good on the team, then the kid’s good enough for his daughter.

DL: Simply being on the team is enough?

JS: That’s how highly the guy regards the principles that are taught in sports. Check it out: the kid’s on the football team, a wide reciever or strong safety or something. So he’s physically strong. He has to be paying attention and making the right decisions, so he’s mentally strong. He has to keep his grades up or he’s off the starting lineup, so he’s got his priorities straight. Isn’t that the kind of person you want your child to be with?

DL: I can see the reasoning behind that kind of decision.

JS: That’s what’s wonderful about the game, man — those things come out of a person when they’re put in. Coaches and assistant coaches and the older players are there to instill those values and qualities in the younger kids, and they do. It’s when you start adding money into the equation that things get corrupted. College ball is where it all started. College ball is a minor and major league farm technique. It’s about making money not just for the school but for the sponsors of the school. They take something everyone loves and commercialize it. Package it. Sell it.

End of Part I

In the next installment, Jacob and I talk more about the role of sports in society, the values and qualities of athletes, being a college athlete and graduating on time, and  diversity on sports teams. Stay tuned in and thank you for reading.

* Cortisone: A corticosteroid that is sometimes used on the sidelines by team staff for short-term relief from pain and inflammation associated with minor injuries, particularly of the knees and elbows.

** Injury board: A “board” which lists the name, team, injury, and expected date of return of an injured player in both the NFL and NCAA. Typically posted on websites and reviewed on nightly sports reports.

*** Ray Rice: A free agent in the NFL after being released from his contract by the Baltimore Ravens following the discovery of videos showing acts of domestic violence he inflicted on his then-fiancee.

**** Ndamukong Suh: An outstanding but aggressive defensive lineman currently playing for the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. To date Suh has accrued more than $200,000 in fines for violent on-field actions, including stomping other players and making threatening gestures.

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