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Shawn Vestal: Only a football coach can talk about students that way

Washington State head coach Mike Leach looks on in the first half of a football game against Utah last Saturday. (Rick Bowmer / AP)
Washington State head coach Mike Leach looks on in the first half of a football game against Utah last Saturday. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

I wonder what would happen if Kirk Schulz, president of Washington State University, called students “fat, dumb, happy and entitled”?

Or if President Mary Cullinan said that about any of the students at Eastern Washington University?

Or if Thayne McCulloh took that kind of swipe at some underperforming Gonzaga undergrads?

What if a physics or forestry professor did that – faculty members who doubtlessly have seen some fat students, some dumb ones, some entitled ones? What if an English professor on the public payroll had nothing smarter to say than that? Or some stray adjunct professor, being paid a pittance-plus-no-benefits? Or a grad student, financing her education by teaching lecture halls jammed with freshmen?

What if literally any employee at any public university said that?

Is it only football that makes it OK?

Mike Leach, the highest paid – and most grossly overpaid – state employee, has a well-earned reputation for mocking, insulting and sneering at the “softness” of his WSU football players after losses in which he apparently stands blameless.

Following a pair of disappointing breakdowns this year, Leach took the low road again. Following Saturday’s loss to Utah, the $3.58-million-a-year-man said his players are “fat, dumb, happy and entitled.”

I imagine Leach thinks he’s motivating them.

But for someone whose supporters view him as a strategic savant (and on that point, let me refer you to LaVell Edwards and the pass-happy BYU teams of, say, forty years ago), Leach’s stream of simplistic macho name-calling seems … what?

Dumb? Lazy? Entitled?

For some fans, I’m sure, a few stray insults from this coach are no big deal. He’s always been that kind of blowhard, and, frankly, harsher things are said in locker rooms and on practice fields all over the country. One suspects Leach’s public pronouncements are gentler than his private ones. The upcoming HBO documentary series following the team will let us know if that’s true.

But he is an employee of a state university. Nominally, at least. In theory. Part, supposedly, of an educational enterprise. His team is made up of students, lest we forget.

Yet it doesn’t feel quite right to put it that way, does it? It doesn’t feel accurate to assert that college football players are students, full stop. None of us treat them as only students. Not schools, not coaches, not the media, not those of us watching in the stands and on TV. They are something more – cogs in a machine that brings in vast sums of money to universities, to media companies and to coaches like Leach.

Ironically, Leach has been outspoken lately in his opposition to a California law that will allow college students to make money on endorsements. He’s worried that it will “destroy college football.”

That argument would hold more water if college football as an educational, amateur experience had not already been destroyed. Institutions deploy student-athletes as gears in a vast money-making machine, every free-spending excess is forgiven and coaches are paid like Kardashians – all in pursuit of happy Saturdays.

Leach’s paycheck – in combination with the blithe tolerance of his snarling put-downs – is just one reminder among many that we left those days long ago. Only student-athletes are still required to pretend otherwise.

Over the past decade, WSU has become a revealing case study in how one state land-grant university sells out in pursuit of moneyball. The university has taken on mounds of debt to overpay coaches and fancy-up facilities. The free spending in athletics has continued undeterred, year after year, as the proposed timeline for crawling back into the black is pushed back again and again.

Meanwhile, the rest of the university – the educational part – has been forced to exercise fiscal discipline and climb back into the black. One area, and only one, is seen as so crucial that its excesses must be subsidized by everything else.

Leach stands at the top of that mountain. When he talks about students like a junior high bully, he’s inadvertently reminding us of the devil’s bargain higher education has struck with the game of football.

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