By Drew Laurens
Click here to read Part I.
This is the second part of my conversation with Jacob Sumners. In it, we discuss the academic success of college athletes, kids and sports, and the destructive side of the sports we love.
DL: You said before that everyone’s an alumni when you’re winning. Do you think that the kind of money a university makes from alumni donations after a championship actually benefits the students there? I’m asking about students as a whole, including the athletes.
JS: It’s true that donations and financial support increase when a college team wins a lot of games. The money that the school makes sometimes turns into positive things for the whole student body like a new Fine Arts building or whatever. But the fact is that the sports teams need money reinvested in them in order to make more money the next season, perhaps with a bowl appearance or even a championship. So you’ll see sports teams’ needs take precedence over the school’s as a whole. They have to support the system otherwise they lose money on it. Most schools don’t start making money on their teams until they start winning for exactly that reason. And those schools trying to break into the sports side of things lose money for years.
DL: Reaching back a bit, you spoke a little about not receiving “preferential treatment” as I understood it. My experience was that athletes were given leeway that wouldn’t be afforded to average students like longer deadlines, extra help outside of class, or even “rounding up” grades that otherwise would have sidelined them. Can you comment on this perception?
JS: Being an athlete for the school, especially on a scholarship, that sport becomes pretty important to you. I’m not saying it’s the most important thing because the team and the coaches know that without good grades that scholarship is gone. But I can say this: quite a few college athletes don’t graduate. But there is no reason to fail. You just said it, and I can’t deny it — the help is there, you just have to ask for it. There are tutors, there are extra sessions, there are study halls and study groups and computer programs… There truly is no reason not to succeed. As far as academics go, all you have to do is say you need help, and you’ll get the help you need.
DL: So the stories that I always heard about coaches going to teachers or administrators and having them change things so that their star players could still make a game —
JS: (smiling) I’m sure that kind of stuff has happened, but it didn’t happen for me.
DL: As far as being a successful student, meaning getting good grades and graduating on time, you’re saying those responsibilities are completely on the athlete?
JS: Absolutely. Again, there’s no reason to fail. The school wants you to be successful, and they make all those programs available for that specific reason. And I know things have changed drastically since I was in school. You can’t tell me that no star-struck sophomore or junior won’t accept money to write a paper. What’s that site, turnitin.com? Bro, they didn’t have that until I had almost graduated. Hell, now I think people would do it for an autograph and a story for their kids: “I helped so-and-so write his English paper once.” Think if you’re a big sports fan, grew up near Auburn* or ’Bama**, or wherever, and even though you don’t play, you feel the pride every week when your team plays, and you tailgate and all that with your buddies — wouldn’t you want to help the team? It has a lot of pull on a person.
DL: How about getting into trouble? Did you ever get a pass from authority figures on certain behaviors just for being an athlete?
JS: Once while we were traveling for an away game, me and a couple of other guys were out past curfew. The assistant coach finds us and starts giving us all the usual stuff: “You won’t play tomorrow, you’d better get back to bed, you’re gonna run all day,” and we knew he meant it. But behind him the head coach came out and told him to hush. The head coach looked at us and said, “You boys gonna be ready to play tomorrow?” and of course we said, “Yes, coach,” and he told us to get some sleep. That was that. We played, we didn’t have to run. Again, I don’t know if that’s the norm everywhere because I’m sure some coaches are more strict than others, but that was the way it went that night. I never really saw or experienced anything more than that, but again, I think my experience was different. Our coach knew his players and his main concern was if we were going to be ready to play.
DL: Jumping a little bit forward in a player’s career, I’m curious about the physical toll that football particularly and sports in general have on a person’s body. I’m thinking about concussions, yes, but also wear and tear on joints, like a pitcher’s elbow***, ACL/MCL tears****, that kind of stuff. Do you have any insight?
JS: One of my good friends was a professional football player for many seasons. He’s only just now after years of doctors, surgery, therapy… Only now is he healing the damage that was done to him using more natural methods. He’s doing yoga, he’s trying to eat anti-inflammatory foods, really using a lot of therapeutic exercise and even meditating and stuff like that. The physical side of it is — well, it’s like being in twenty traffic collisions every Sunday, you know? Your body breaks down, despite the PEDs*****, despite the training and the nutrition and the techniques. We’re resilient, but it’s the nature of a competitive sport to push the envelope of what’s possible for the human body.
DL: I’m glad you brought that up because what I think of when this subject comes up is kids’ sports. I think there’s something to be said for having kids play sports like we discussed earlier, but I don’t want my kid in a wheelchair because he got hit by a jerk when he wasn’t looking.
JS: That’s something I thought about too. I have a daughter, so she’s not playing football, but with kids, man, that competitive spirit is there with some of them. My buddy I was telling you about? He has his son working with a trainer, doing speed drills, doing hand drills, doing footwork and ladders and stuff, and the kid is only maybe 10 or 11 years old. He’s grooming him for the life of a college and professional athlete — and this is a guy who knows firsthand the destructive nature of the game!
DL: So if you had a son —
JS: If I had a son, he wouldn’t play football. If he wanted to do something, I’d recommend golf. Really anything that’s not full contact. The thing about kids and sports too is that it’s really easy to get them to want what you want as a parent. If they see you really rooting for them and wanting them to win, they’ll eventually tie performing well to pleasing you as a parent. I can say, “Bet you can’t grab the remote and bring it back in 10 seconds” to my competitive kid and she’ll do it to prove it to me. This can be a good thing, to a point — they’ll want to stay in and succeed to make you happy. But the longer that goes on, especially if it’s one sport, the weaker the drive gets to make you happy. That can’t be the primary motivator for any athlete because it’s external. Eventually they won’t care anymore. That’s why it’s important for the coaches to instill the values we talked about in their players: they’re going to get out of those kids the qualities they instill. So if there’s no internal motivation to get better, they won’t.
JS: Definitely, and for all the reasons I’m sure you read about. It has a lot to do with a person’s adaptability, their ability to play with others of all different athletic backgrounds, their competitiveness, and their toughness in addition to teaching a bunch of different motor patterns they can call on in extreme circumstances — like a championship game or final-second play.
DL: I guess a lot of people see one sport all the time and get tied up in thinking that training for that sport should be round-the-clock just like the pros do.
JS: I’m sure that’s part of it, but the other half is those kids’ leagues you’re always hearing about that play softball or baseball or soccer year-round and travel and all that. I think that has its place too, but when it becomes the sole priority with a kid’s athletic development, I think it’s detrimental in the long run.
DL: Changing gears again: We see a lot of faces in the sports industry, and one of the most amazing things about sports is its ability to transcend class and race. If your team is winning it doesn’t matter who’s making the plays, you’re winning! But I always wondered if that was the experience of the players themselves. Is race a big deal when you’re playing a competitive sport?
JS: (deadpan) Sports will beat the racism out of you. The most hateful things I ever heard came from our own fans and were aimed at our black players. We shrug it off — I mean, I never got called the things they got called — but I realize that if the fans had grown up where I grew up and played the same places I had played, they wouldn’t be saying that stuff. Because you can’t play a sport and think you’re better than someone else. You can’t play a sport and not trust somebody on your team. When you start having those kinds of thoughts, it’s gonna affect your performance on the field and never in a good way. As a player, [racism] isn’t there. But our fans, man… (shakes head) people suck sometimes.
End of Part II
The final installment of my interview series with Jacob Sumners will include such topics as the future of sports, how to “fix the system,” and the way to truly enjoy the sports you play and watch.