Two seasons ago, my Arkansas Razorbacks finished the football season ranked #6 in the nation. That hadn’t happened since the year I was born! (1977) But, perhaps even more impressive than the #5 ranking is the #8 ranking. Forbes listed the Razorbacks as the 8th most valuable college football program that year, valued at $89 million. That was a 59% increase in value from the previous 2 years, and by far the highest growth of any college program in that span.
But in the midst of arguably the most successful run in program history, Arkansas fired the head coach that got us to that point. Why? You may remember then-coach Bobby Petrino’s “motorcylce accident.” Turns out, a woman half his age (who wasn’t his wife) who he had recently hired to work for the football program was riding on that motorcycle with him. What followed was a series of Petrino lies to the public and to U of A officials, a scandal, a revelation of his affair, and finally, his firing. At the time, I supported my university’s decision to fire Petrino. But, today, a coach who is a liar, a cheater, AND WINNER doesn’t sound so bad.
Like many other southern states, college football is king in Arkansas, and a lot of people in the state didn’t want Petrino fired. He had taken the team to national prominence and contention. So what if he cheats on his wife and lies about it! I, at the time, was in the camp that was proud that the U of A took the stand that winning isn’t everything. But, that was before the Razorbacks endured this historically bad season, losing the last 9 games and going winless in the conference. I supported them the whole way and watched almost every one of those miserable games. And, it made me realize something about myself: my morals have limits.
My stance is in line with a broader culture that will often overlook someone’s moral failings for the sake of celebrating their talent, beauty, athletic ability, fame, or knack for winning football games. I’m sure that if the Razorbacks had finished the year 10-2 with Petrino as head coach, you wouldn’t have heard me complain one bit about his off-the-field shenanigans. In fact, you’d probably see me in a picture smiling with my arm around him at a Razorback event hoisting the bowl trophy we’d just won.
What does that say about me? What does that say about us all? I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Nelson Mandela passed. This has been a rare opportunity for all of us to celebrate someone as a moral example. Mandela’s death should be a wake-up call to us that much of our admiration and praise should be reserved for those who exhibit selflessness, sacrifice, grace, humility, honor, and service to others.
But, this football season was a wake-up call to me as well. I realized that I’m as guilty as anyone in this star-crazed culture of ours: willing to not only overlook someone’s personal failings but also hold them up and celebrate them, as long as they’re talented, or in my case, can win games for my beloved Razorbacks.