March Madness is still upon us and everyone's thoughts are on the amazing games we are witnessing as half of the Elite Eight has been decided. Our affiliations are often based on our alma mater which has provided a heighten level of drama for every win and loss so far. During this time of high drama as each school fights for a championship, most of us seem to forget that we are watching not just watching athletes -- we are watching students.
Now that the Fab Melo situation has taken a back seat, it is time to focus on the student instead of the athlete. His ineligibility to compete during the NCAA tournament had many Syracuse fans worried about their chances of reaching the Final Four. He was the center of the SU team, and when he was out earlier in the season due to academic reasons, the Orange suffered their only defeat in conference play to Notre Dame. Anyone who watched that game knows the Fighting Irish were playing out of their minds and SU lost handily. It was then that everyone in Syracuse, including myself, knew how crucial Melo's role was to this team.
Knowing this importance, the fans prayed for his return. When Melo did come back, there was a renewed hope that this could truly be the year for another championship. Orange Nation didn't lose hope when they lost to Cincinnati in the Big East Tournament. After all, we still had Melo on team and ultimately, that is all that mattered. So, brackets were filled out with the anticipation of SU taking it all the way, despite what Doug Gottlieb says.
Then, out of nowhere, an announcement was made that states Melo is not eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament and everyone loses their collective minds. Melo's Twitter gets overrun with hateful and, quite frankly, stupid messages about how dumb he is. Understandably, he apologized to the team for letting them down but it makes me wonder -- at what point did the system let him down?
First and foremost, he is a student. We do not know his situation or what his grades are. Secondly, it is none of our business -- a fact people tend to ignore when he is thought of as a pro athlete. Students struggling with life, personal situations, even trouble in the classroom should have a resource available. Many students have mentors or advisors that push them to excellence. What many fail to connect is that Bernie Fine was Melo's mentor and coach.
Fine's absence to the SU team has not proved to be a distraction, however, he was assigned to work with the centers for many years as a coach. While he provided direction on the court for novice centers, he also provided much-needed mentorship to those student in need. Bernie Fine should have been the person responsible in following up on grades if it got out of hand. While any student can be blamed for their own shortcomings, student leaders have a mentor or advisor to really help guide their path. Say or think what you will about Bernie Fine and his despicable acts off the court, his absence as a mentor could very much play into this situation.
What infuriates me about Melo's situation is that we put these players on a pedestal and expect greatness from them at such a young age, without recognizing the pressure they already feel outside of the court. When players do not meet those expectations, they feel the enormous weight of broken dreams. This is not a LeBron James situation where he made a bad decision that just led him to more money -- this is about a student who probably made the same bad choices that many students make. The fact that people feel entitled to make death threats and racial remarks over Twitter is not acceptable -- especially when SU is still a great team without him, which they proved last night with a win against Wisconsin. Now that the Orange is in the Elite Eight, much of the attention on Melo's situation has died down -- but this doesn't mean that he doesn't need the right kind of attention.
This is the same system made Jamar Samuels, from Kansas State, ineligible for the second round tournament game, ironically, against Syracuse because he accepted money from an old coach in order to have enough food to eat. Where were the system checks to ensure this student athlete had enough food to sustain the amount of training needed to play for his school? Why did it have to get to the extreme that it did, only for this student to be punished in the end? What lesson does it teach our students? How does Jamar's situation encourage other students to ask for help earlier, so they don't feel forced to make a poor decision? It seems that officials and fans alike forget that the word "student" is in front of the word "athlete."
We need to find better ways to support our student athletes as a community and in higher education.