But Pate, who is still searching for a publisher for Experiences of a Tiger," his fascinating look at the inside of a big-time college football program, feels most strongly about the financial and time pressures faced by those who give so much to entertain thousands on Saturday afternoons. His feelings on those things were not among the excerpts printed here last week because they were part of a story I was doing for my real job at The Huntsville Times. Perhaps his thoughts on those things will be of interest here today.
Pate writes: "Most of you have absolutely no idea what we go through as football players at a major program. Hidden behind the fight song, the media guides, sports talk radio and tailgating, college football is a grueling job. But it's not a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job like most of the working world of corporate America struggles through. No, it's more like a 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. job when we tally our hours up. I think many times people forget that we actually go to class, some of us taking the most difficult curricula the university has to offer."¶
Pate made it clear as we talked about his book that he was no malcontent, that he had no regrets. "I had a lot of fun," Pate says. "I made a lot of friends, met a lot of people I never would have had the opportunity to meet. I played in the SEC Championship Game twice. Everything has drawbacks and I voiced some of those in the book. I thought people needed to know about them. It's no different than anywhere else. This is my story, but everybody has a story. It relates to everybody who has ever played college football."
Pate is convinced changes are badly needed. He laughs at the notion that college athletes aren't amateurs. He ridicules the notion of $100 handshakes and fancy cars. "The biggest misconception people have about college football is that players get everything for free--that you go downtown and eat for free, play golf for free," he says. "I'll tell you something: If I go to Tuscaloosa, I know a pro at Old Colony Golf Course and I can play for free. I can't play in Auburn for free. I never saw anybody get any money from anywhere."
Time and money are issues for all college athletes, but in no other sport as much as football. No other sport demands so much preparation time, so much physical and mental pain in preparation to play. The NCAA rule that mandates athletes be required to spend no more than 20 hours on their sport is universally viewed as a joke by those it's designed to protect, especially football players. The issue of money isn't about living in luxury. It's about living like a college student. Football players who live off campus receive money equal to what it would cost to live and eat on campus. At Auburn, that adds up to somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 per month.
Rob Pate and Alex Lincoln (left) take a break during an Auburn football practice.
Money is available for the poorest of players, who can receive a Pell Grant--cash payments of up to $3,750 per year. It is not an issue for the wealthiest. It is players from middle income families, those who don't qualify for the Pell Grant but whose parents can't afford to send significant money, who suffer the most. The NCAA passed legislation with great fanfare that gave athletes the right to work during the school year. It did not give them the time. Sure, they are only required to spend 20 hours per week on their sport. But there is no limit on time spent voluntarily.
"You sign something that says you are abiding by that rule, but you don't," Pate says. "Technically, yeah. Technically, being here in the summer is voluntary. Technically, a lot of things are voluntary. Technically. The truth is it's mandatory if you want to play."
Coaches offer little argument. Alabama's Dennis Franchione says it's a matter of athletes who want to be the best. "If you want to excel, we can't show them all the film," Franchione says. "I tell them you really need to get in on your own and watch some of it. During the season, we can't show you enough practice tape and game tape of your opponent. You've got to want to do some of it on your own. It's like a kid who wants to be a great golfer. Twenty hours is not going to be enough time for him. You've got to spend time chipping and putting. The young man has to make a decision how good he wants to be. The ones who want to be good and are driven manage to find time to do it."
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville told his team at the close of spring practice that they would decide the fate of next season by what they were willing to do. "College football has become a 365-day a year job," Tuberville says. "I told them this football team will be made in the next four months by how hard they work on their own. If they don't do anything mentally, we're not going to be successful. The ones that work the hardest when they aren't with the coaches are the ones who are the most successful. You can tell the ones who do that. It shows up."
At the same time, they will go through grueling strength and conditioning drills all the way up until the week before two-a-days begin in August. Along the way, they have to find time to be students. "I can't tell you how many times I came home, was ready to get in bed at 9 or 10 o'clock, opened my backpack to see what we were doing in class the next day and saw I had a test," Pate says. "I didn't even know I had it. Was I going to study then, when I could barely stay awake?"
Alabama quarterback Tyler Watts says there's no choice but to deal with it if winning is the objective. "It takes a lot of time and effort to be good at this game," Watts says. "It requires you to do a lot of stuff voluntarily. They can't force us to do a lot of things, but by God, if we want to win some football games, we're going to have to do it. So they put a lot of pressure on us. If you want to win games, you've got to do what it takes."
Pate maintains players should be paid, at least a stipend to provide spending money that is often scarce. "The process makes zero sense," he writes in his book. "The coaches get rich, the schools get rich, yet the main attraction, the reason the fans fill the stadiums and arenas across the country, doesn't see a dime of the billions rolling in. "We are really no different than thoroughbred race horses. Think about it. A horse runs a grueling race, and for what in return? Some hay and oats and a stable to sleep in as its owner reaps the harvest of the horse's labor. College athletes are no different than that horse."