Caitlin Essig / Arts editor
Stop what you are doing.
Turn on ESPN. What do you see?
A slew of NCAA sanctions, fake girlfriends, falsification of academic records and abusive coaches chucking basketballs at players’ heads floods the screen. It is enough to make even the most extreme college sports fan sit down and do some soul-searching about the future of their fandom.
Admittedly, I myself fell victim to this epidemic. A lifelong college sports die-hard, I had to actively avoid watching collegiate sports through the lens of a bitter skeptic – just waiting for the next story to break that sends the program, the player or the coach toppling.
The sanctity of college sports for me was dying, and dying fast. Fortunately, the road back to the former glory of my fandom began this semester, although it started off with Ohio State redshirt junior Peter Kobelt almost hospitalizing me with a 130 mph tennis serve.
When I was assigned to write for the OSU men’s tennis team for The Lantern at the start of Spring Semester, I fought mixed feelings. I was excited to be steering clear of football and basketball, hopefully sparing myself from the possibility of uncovering anything that would crush the remaining Buckeye fan in me, but I was nervous to be covering a sport that I knew as much about as my seventh grade gym class had taught me.
My first day on the job consisted of getting lost on the way to a building I’d never heard of and arrived 20 minutes late.
Flustered, I entered practice, and was greeted by Kobelt’s serve grazing my right arm. This game was already much more intense than I had expected.
My first interview that day with coach Ty Tucker was ill-prepared and probably full of questions that a seventh grade student in gym class would ask about the game of tennis. I wonder why.
Honestly, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the team entrusted me to report on their season after that day. More than three months later, the tennis team is in the tail end of its regular season. As a sports reporter, I have grown immensely during that time. I now can say with confidence that I can accurately comprehend the scoreboard at a tennis match. But I’ve also learned a few other things.
The players on the OSU men’s tennis team love what they do, and they do it well:
Tucker has coached the Buckeyes to seven consecutive Big Ten regular season titles, six more Big Ten tournament crowns and a decade-long home win streak (which, by the way, is the longest home win streak in NCAA sports), and has barely made a peep about it. If I were not badgering him with questions all semester long, I am pretty sure he would not talk about it at all. The humility he emulates trickles down to his players. These guys are here to play tennis, and it shows.
The players love each other, too:
It took me a while to realize, but the tennis team is comprised of the most random assortment of players ever. There are four international players on the 11-man roster. To the naked, untrained eye, you would think the men had known each other their entire lives, and not just during their time at OSU. Their chemistry off the court is equally, if not more obvious and impressive, than when they are on the court.
The players use their game to capture what’s special about collegiate sports:
This is my favorite part. On Friday, when the team captured its 164th straight home victory and officially went 10 years without a home loss, the celebration that followed was what many would consider uneventful. There was no confetti falling from the ceiling or camera flashbulbs firing, but what there was were a group a college kids running around, laughing and throwing arms around each other while their head coach smirked at them off to the side. Several fans cheered in the bleachers, but they were mostly parents of players. The energy in the room, though, was contagious – even palpable. The players were ecstatic, and they didn’t need a fat paycheck or swarm of media attention to evoke it.
Maybe it’s just me, but that’s what a college sports team should be at its core. It’s what I now believe many teams at many schools across the country must look like. It just took a lesser-publicized sport, men’s tennis, to remind me of that. Consider my faith in college athletics restored.