There was a tree in Auburn.
In fact, two stately oak trees stood the test of time for 130 years at the corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue–better known to Auburn University Tigers fans as “Toomer’s Corner.” For generations, the trees, often decorated with steamers of toilet paper strung by jubilant fans after a Tigers’ victory, stood as a beacon of Auburn fans’ pride in their teams’ success.
On January 10, 2011, Tigers fans took to Toomer’s Corner to celebrate the Tigers’ victory over the Oregon Ducks in the NCAA National Football Championship game.
Seventeen days later, a man called a sports radio show and said he poisoned the trees. The radio show caller indicated he was an Alabama University football fan, who after the annual Auburn-Alabama football game–known as the Iron Bowl–drove to Auburn and poisoned the two prized trees.
Over the past year, an influx of media accounts discussing questionable behavior by coaches, student-athletes, parents and even fans, have left many wondering if any integrity remains in NCAA athletics.
This fact isn’t lost on the NCAA–the organization founded 105 years ago to return integrity to the sport of football. The Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (which became the NCAA in 1910) was formed in response to President Theodore Roosevelt’s call for reform of “the rugged nature of early-day football.”
In 2011, the NCAA is seeking to return integrity to the rugged nature that has become the landscape of society’s perception of the association, its institutional participants and student-athletes.
On August 9 and 10, 2011, NCAA President Marc Emmert summoned over 50 NCAA Division I university presidents to Indianapolis, Indiana for a summit discussing issues of “fiscal sustainability, academic performance of student-athletes and integrity.”
With respect to the integrity component, President Emmert noted, “Integrity is a value that cannot be legislated.”
Emmert is correct that integrity cannot be instilled in student-athletes through the NCAA’s bylaws.
However, participants of the NCAA President’s Summit and fans alike must realize that despite the frequent media reports of fans poisoning prized trees, dads attempting to sell their son’s talents to the highest bidder, and tattoo shop owners bartering permanent ink for what should be a young man’s prized possessions, integrity exists in the NCAA.
While recognizing that the NCAA cannot “legislate integrity,” President Emmert noted that the NCAA “. . . can certainly define integrity.”
To define “integrity,” the NCAA should look past Webster’s Dictionary and instead, to former NCAA student-athlete, Charles Gaspard.
While there were two trees in Auburn, there was a vibrant, bustling city in New Orleans.
On August 28, 2005, a storm hit, levees broke and a city was washed away.
Charles Gaspard, who grew up in New Orleans, was a high school senior at McMain High School in the city’s Orleans Parish when Hurricane Katrina hit. A Wide Receiver on McMain’s football team and a soccer player, Gaspard estimated that he was one or two weeks into his senior year when the “costliest national disaster” in United States history struck. Gaspard can estimate this amount of time, because he remembers, “there wasn’t even long enough for us to have our first football game.”
As the storm approached, the then 17 year-old Gaspard and his parents made plans to evacuate New Orleans. Gaspard explains matter-of-factly, “the hurricane came and we had to get out of dodge.”
However, evacuation meant that Gaspard–an only child–would be separated from his parents. Gaspard left New Orleans for Atlanta with his next-door neighbor’s family, who because of the length of time Gaspard had known them, Gaspard considered family. His parents, however, made their way to Houston.
While the rest of the world watched the horror unravel in New Orleans, as citizens stranded on rooftops begged for rescue by passing by helicopters as flood waters rose, Gaspard lived the reality of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Gaspard explained, “You’d look on the news and try to see any area you recognized that was by your house. I remember when I saw Six Flags, and everything [at the theme park] was under water. Everything I had ever known was gone.”
“To top it off, not having my parents there was kind of rough.” For two weeks, Gaspard was unable to contact his parents, due to cell phone towers being down as a result of the hurricane’s destruction. Gaspard noted that evacuating to Atlanta was his first time being away from his parents.
And although they were 800 miles apart and unable to make contact with each other for two weeks, Gaspard “knew they were o.k.,” because he “knew they went to Houston.”
Upon arriving in Atlanta, Gaspard and the family he traveled with found refuge in a home provided for them by an anonymous Atlanta Falcons player. The adults Gaspard traveled to Atlanta with made sure Gaspard enrolled in school in Atlanta. Thus, 17 years-old and 800 miles away from his parents, Gaspard did not play hooky from school, and enrolled at Atlanta’s Westlake High School.
Two weeks later, the family Gaspard fled to Atlanta with left the city for Tampa, Florida.
For the second time in his life, Gaspard was alone.
But Gaspard is a young man with drive, a young person defining “ambition.”
He quickly connected with a counselor at Westlake High School, who he found out lived in the same Atlanta neighborhood he had been staying in. Gaspard explained his situation to the counselor, and the next thing he knew, Gaspard was living with his high school counselor until the day he graduated from Westlake High School.
At Westlake, Gaspard continued pursuing his athletic passions and played soccer and Wide Receiver on the football team.
Gaspard’s Quarterback at Westlake?
A 16 year-old future Heisman Trophy winner and first overall NFL draft pick named Cam Newton.
At one Westlake football practice, a Tulane University Wide Receiver’s coach came to recruit players from the team. Gaspard’s coach introduced the two, and Gaspard told the Tulane coach he was thinking of attending college at Tulane, since his mother worked at the university.
Ultimately, Darryl Mason would make Gaspard an offer to join the Tulane Green Wave football team as a walk-on. Without a scholarship or promise that he’d ever play a game, Gaspard accepted this offer and enrolled at Tulane University.
As no playing time was promised to Gaspard, Gaspard did not see any playing time his freshman year at Tulane.
He explains that his first year on the football team was “hell.”
“I was behind all of the other guys in the weight room by 100 pounds. I was smaller than them in terms of weight. My football, as far as playing-wise was under developed,” said Gaspard.
So Gaspard invested time in improving his game. “I took a lot of time with Coach Woods, the Wide Receiver’s coach for Tulane, after practice, running routes. I’d work out with the team at 6 a.m. and after practice, go back and lift again to catch up,” said Gaspard.
Gaspard’s efforts proved fruitful.
He saw playing time as a member of the Tulane Green Wave football team. “It was a dream come true. It was really fun playing in the ‘Dome, after sitting in the stands for so many years,” Gaspard reminisced.
And although Gaspard came to Tulane without a scholarship as a walk-on member of its football team, he left Tulane as a scholarship student-athlete.
Gaspard’s commitment to improving himself as a football player is depicted by the story he tells of his senior season, which he calls his “most enjoyable.”
“I didn’t get to play much, because I had knee surgery from an injury I got at summer camp right before the season. The doctors said I wouldn’t be able to play football anymore and told the coaches not to expect me back. It was a big hit. Coach told me that I had been great, but to handle my academics—this was almost like receiving walking papers. I couldn’t accept that, so I was rehabbing three times a day. I was able to play the last five games of the season. Nobody thought I could come back and play. It was fun. Really fun.”
As a Tulane student-athlete, Gaspard served as the president of the school’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee (“SAAC”). Through his own desire to give back to the New Orleans community after Hurricane Katrina, along with the help of various athletics advisers at Tulane, Gaspard spent a significant amount of time visiting youngsters in New Orleans, sharing his experiences and life skills in an effort to prepare them for college. In meeting with New Orleans’ youth, Gaspard sought to instill a desire within them to get good grades, respect their teachers and elders, and pursue further educational opportunities. While Gaspard clearly gave greatly to his city’s youth, he is quick to note that in giving back, he “learned from [himself] and the kids–not so much from what [he] said to the kids, but what they asked [him] in return.”
The next time someone tells you there isn’t integrity in NCAA athletics, tell them you know the story about a strong, dedicated, committed and mature young man.
Because Charles Gaspard is proof that there is integrity in the NCAA.
Today’s post is the first of a series RulingSports.com will be running on integrity in NCAA athletics. Check back on Monday for a story highlighting another Division I institution.