This whole Nerlens Noel bummer has called to mind that for those just landing on these distant American shores, there's something weird about us you should know. It pretty much separates us from all other peoples on the Earth. It's an old habit. Please try to understand.
We pack coliseums to watch students or alleged students oppose each other at a major, televised sport. We holler and harass and say bad things about opposing students or opposing alleged students. Then, if one of those students goes down gruesomely with an injury as did the Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel on Tuesday night, the people who cheered against him applaud in a gracious show of respect.
Then, with his season flukily concluded and his rehabilitation grinding up ahead, we relaunch an old discussion. Some of us bemoan David Stern, the NBA commissioner, for making a rule that closes the NBA to those fresh out of high school, thus staving off the good living Noel already would know. Others back Stern for making that same rule because Stern must rule in the best interests of player readiness in the private entity he represents. Others note the sprawling duplicity of college sports, which get to act as sort of a business and sort of not, and that the "not" comes in the area of market wages, an aching concern in Noel's case.
Still others remark that providing employees for the NBA is not and should not be the foremost purpose of universities.
Still others hear that and say, "Really? Who knew?"
View us among the 7.066 billion people in the world as of Wednesday, and with our 315 million counting for 4.4 percent, and you can see the strangeness of our behavior. Tell people from elsewhere that 100,000 people go to watch students or alleged students play football on a Saturday, or 24,000 for basketball on night after night after night, and sometimes they don't even believe you.
How do these this mutant giant sustain itself? To understand, go to Autzen Stadium in Oregon and let the great noise raise your goosebumps and enliven your very being when some fleet sort in a funky uniform goes free through a secondary. Go to Oxford in Mississippi and spend the pre-game eating. During winter, go indoors in Lexington or Lawrence or Durham or Syracuse or a few hundred other places, and see if you can avoid the infectiousness.
This odd and sprawling habit galvanizes communities. It brings deep meaning and sentiment to many people (especially on signing days, but please don't make me explain signing days). It enables people to go out and vent their venom toward the villainous people down the highway in a manner that almost always ends up safe and well shy of war. It brings to the culture Uga in Athens and a moving tree in Palo Alto and a mighty animal we know as Bevo.
So if you're from Pakistan or the Philippines or Paraguay or Portugal, get this, because here's one strand of how the whole thing has evolved -- some would say metastasized -- over the last 100-plus years:
On Tuesday night in America, 12,480 people went out to a coliseum in northern Florida. The students they liked would oppose students they liked less, who had traveled from three state lines away. What? Yes, by air -- often non-commercial. What's that? Oh yes, the universities do conduct classes on Wednesdays, sure.
What again? Yes, on TV.
Nobody finds any of this strange. We long since stopped finding this strange. I realize that in 99.99 percent of the world -- or more -- college students either don't play any sports, or don't play any sports in front of many witnesses, and certainly don't play anything in booming arenas or on national television or as a worn path to the big leagues. We're isolated enough that we don't really think about that, and besides we don't care, and some of us don't care so much that we paint our faces.
All countries have their quirks, and so the game began, and the fans bathed the visiting students in as much distraction and resentment as they could muster, but then a likable star from Kentucky became injured, and we all started to fret about his NBA future.
Years before, in a more open market, somebody with his height (6-foot-10) and his energy (wondrous) and his talent (budding) would have gone directly to the NBA and made the living we all deem his province. But now, such people stop off at one of our universities, often for one season only, before proceeding to the NBA. While even Thomas Jefferson himself said the duration of a stay at a university should not be uniform for all people, one year does seem brisk.
So when a guy bound for the No. 1 spot in the NBA Draft stops off at a university to play for one year and goes down in a rare case of atrocious luck on an admirable play, we look at our bizarre college-pro construct and ask a question.
Does he have insurance?
Yeah, we're weird.
So the next day, his coach reveals that he does have insurance, especially because in this system that has budded to gigantic, some shrewd people have learned to specialize in this kind of insurance.
We're relieved for him that he has insurance, because even as people care enough to fill coliseums and to watch on TV, he worked this year in a system that makes a lot of money in general but remains "amateur." What? Yeah, would you mind if I explained that some other time?