Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston isnt exactly living the life of a typical undergraduate.
  • AP Photo / Tony Gutierrez
  • Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston isn’t exactly living the life of a typical undergraduate.

The regulars in our Sunday morning breakfast group were talking about Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, and somebody said NFL players “live in a bubble” and believe they can get away with anything. He meant a bubble of entitlement. I think there’s a bubble, but it’s not exactly how he imagines it.

The day before, I’d watched a lot of college football. By my count of the listings in the Sun-Times, on Chicago TV screens alone there were 30 games that Saturday, starting at 11 AM and not ending until past midnight. Many of those 60 teams —Eastern Michigan, Troy, Louisiana Lafayette!—would no more have attracted network cameras in an earlier era than a Pop Warner game would.

Thirty games, 60 teams, and I couldn’t guess how many advertisers. For a taste from that pot of honey, schools will play their games Saturday at any hour of the day or night, or on Thursday or Friday if they have to. And where would the NFL be without such a flourishing pipeline?

When I read that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston had been suspended for a big weekend game because he’d stood on a table in the student union and shouted a vulgarity, my first reaction was surprise that he knew where the student union was. Student unions are for students, the ones who crisscross campus from class to class and head into the union for a Coke or a frat council meeting. Jocks don’t do that much trekking from class to class—instead they check in with tutors. For that matter, Division I football players don’t pledge frats much either—they’ve got no time for stuff like that.

To learn more about the “student-athlete experience,” three years ago the NCAA surveyed athletes on campuses across the country. Football players at Division I schools reported spending 43.3 hours a week on athletics. They spent 38.0 hours a week on academics. That was in-season. But 70 percent of those football players said they spent just as much or even more time on athletics in the off-season. And one football player in five held down a paying job during the school year. They averaged eight hours a week doing that.

When do these players have time to be college students? Seven years ago Sports Illustrated interviewed a former Missouri wide receiver, Sean Coffey. He described a cosseted life, but not exactly a privileged one:

Coffey says he entered a world of groupthink in which he and his teammates were blank-faced “assembly-line workers” doing whatever they were told. “I wasn’t encouraged much by our coaching staff as a whole to do anything outside of football,” he says. “Lots of [the] things I was encouraged to do, they were all to benefit the Missouri football program.” Even though he was from the inner city and had no interest in farming, Coffey followed the advice of athletic department academic counselors and became an agriculture major. “All the athletes start in ag because it’s easy,” says Coffey. On the recommendation of an athletic-department adviser he eventually switched his major to hotel and restaurant management (another subject in which he had no interest). “Our academic people’s job is to keep us eligible,” he says. “They know every class and which ones are easiest.”

Thanks to the tutors, time spent on academics isn’t the same as time spent in class with other students. The athletes eat in their own dining halls, and if they’re no longer segregated into their own dorms (which the NCAA outlawed in 1996), schools have gotten around that restriction by building luxurious residence halls to impress recruits and house athletes, and permitted some ordinary students to live there too.

The unruliest of the college games I watched last Saturday was Nebraska against Miami—two schools with a history of national championship encounters, the latest in 2002. Not that today’s players would remember those games, but they seemed inculcated with the notion that bragging rights were at stake, and several times the action teetered on the edge of a brawl. I think it was this game whose jacked-up players brought to mind the Kazuo Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go.

This is the story of young people growing up in a bubble—a place where they’re treated as well as people can be treated who don’t matter: they’ve been raised so their organs will be available as needed to people who count. Wrote Roger Ebert, reviewing the film version, “Essentially it asks, how do you live with the knowledge that you are not considered a human being but simply a consumer resource?”

The school they’re at, Ebert told us, “is the last one that still encourages the children at all. The society wants these Donors for one purpose and doesn’t want to waste resources on them for any other. If you can walk through this plot without tripping over parallels to our own society and educational systems, you’re more sure-footed than I.”

Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are responsible for their actions. You cannot simply forgive those actions, nor can I, and they must pay the price. It doesn’t matter if they were stars. As last week’s college football TV schedule clearly demonstrates through sheer numbers, replacement parts are constantly being groomed and are always available.