Anyone who’s ever sat through a faculty meeting or been part of a tenure review knows that the academy offers no shortage of story lines ripe for the stage. Drama is just as likely to infiltrate a locker room or a college coach’s office -- places that seldom serve as theater backdrops, but do in a new play about the uneasy relationship between athletics and academics at sports-hungry institutions.
The playwright Dana Yeaton finds tension everywhere he looks at Tennessee Southern University, the fictional Division I institution where "Redshirts" (playing through Sunday at Round House Theatre, in Silver Spring, Md.) is set. The primary conflict involves a good old-fashioned academic scandal. An assistant professor of English accuses several football players of plagiarizing a poetry assignment. Her ultimatum: accept a failing grade or take the case to judicial affairs.
What's at stake is clear: the athletes' eligibility (and pride), the program's reputation, the coach's roster, and the professor's standing at a university where boosters are held in high regard.
Even the most casual fans of big-time college sports will recognize the themes in "Redshirts." They are the ones haunting college presidents, trustees and athletics directors; the issues being dissected in sports pages and fan message boards across the country.
Yeaton, a visiting lecturer in theater at Middlebury College, considers himself a casual fan of college athletics. As an undergraduate at Middlebury, he played three weeks on the soccer team but quit after deciding he couldn't keep up with academic work. The experience got him thinking about the pressures put on college athletes.
His introduction to Division I athletics came during visits with a theater colleague who worked at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. They went to football games and talked about collaborating on a project that delved beneath the surface of a big-time sports program.
"I'm always on the lookout for contradictions and inner conflict," Yeaton says. "This is about two camps" -- academics and athletics -- "that can't understand each other and are forced to deal with each other. Because I don't really have any ultimate wisdom on the subject, I don't have a point of view I'm trying to proselytize, I figure that qualifies me to write about it."
Yeaton spent fall 2004 embedded in Tennessee's football program. He was granted access to team meetings and closed practices. Yeaton taught writing and directing that semester and tutored many of the football players. As part of an orientation for first-year players, he interviewed the 23 students about life as high-profile athletes, and then assigned them to rewrite and ultimately present their shortened transcripts as part of a theater production.
Some offered quite candid assessments of their experiences in the classroom. And while "Redshirts" isn't based on events that took place during those months, the conversations Yeaton had with athletes clearly gave him some artistic inspiration.
"We were thrilled with their openness," says Blake Robison, then the artistic director at Tennessee's professional theater and now the producing artistic director at Round House Theatre. "The important thing was to make them understand that whatever [Yeaton] wrote wouldn't be an exposé. We weren't out to trash the athletic department."
One player who stood out to Yeaton for his bravado became the inspiration for the lead character -- and occasionally free-styling narrator -- in "Redshirts." Dante Green is a precocious freshman and much-hyped running back for Tennessee Southern, a player whose decision to attend the university prompted students to hold an impromptu keg party.
But Green is just one of the program's celebrated running backs who works with running backs coach Tyrell Moore.
"Every one of my backs, every single one, believes in his heart, there’s only one thing keeps him off the cover of Sports Illustrated and that is me," Moore says. "Gimme the ball, coach. Just gimme the ball. That’s what they’re thinkin’. That’s what they came here to do. ... That and get an education."
Green and roommate Jahzeel Wilson are slated to redshirt (sit out a year of competition while regaining four years of eligibility) until the team's star back suffers a neck injury. Wilson gets his shot at starting before Green -- a setback for a player who expects his mug to appear all over ESPN.
Meanwhile, the threat of academic probation (or worse) weighs heavily on the running backs. Charlene Bigelow, the assistant professor making the cheating accusations, wants to keep the matter internal. The players' defense in the case: Their papers look so similar because the same graduate student tutor helped each of them on the assignment.
Tori, the tutor, makes her own accusations against the professor:
"Trust me, these are academics, these are people who worry all day long about losing their jobs to affirmative action," she says.
" 'Cept she's black," Wilson says.
"The professor?" Tori asks.
"Yeah. And [one of the players being accused] is white," he responds.
"She probably just hates football players," she says.
Much is made during the show of Bigelow's professorial status. (She is told that her tenure review could be problematic because of her involvement in the case.) In one contentious scene, Green tests Bigelow's will to send the case to an independent investigation.
"What I want to know, assistant professor, is why? What you so worried about?" he asks.
"I'm not worried," she says.
"You’re not worried? First-year professor and you’re not worried what might happen if you accuse the entire TSU backfield of academic fraud, create a national scandal, and come to find out, you’re wrong? That doesn’t worry you?"
Later in the exchange, Bigelow explains her disappointment with the players.
"I do have issues ... with the fact that less than half the players on your team will graduate. With the fact that unlike all the other students on this campus, you have a dedicated study center stuffed with technology and staffed with an army of aides, counselors, tutors and learning specialists whose job security is directly linked to keeping you eligible."
"See, she hates athletes," Green asserts.
"I have issues with the way popular black culture seems to equate academic achievement with acting white. I have issues, Mr. Green, major issues with the fact that people were clubbed and fire-hosed, attacked by dogs, jailed and killed, so that people of our race could have the possibility of entering a Southern university library and I’m not sure you actually know where ours is."
Yeaton says the choice to make Bigelow pre-tenure was obvious in an effort to illustrate the power struggle at play. "I'm more proud of the choice to make the professor black," he says. "That makes the predicament richer for everyone. It's taking racism off the table, and yet it's not."
Despite being ostracized by his teammates for showing an interest in academics, Wilson keeps working with Tori, whose methods of teaching mirror the methods used by Yeaton to tutor the Tennessee players, he says.
So, does Yeaton think college football is exploitative? "I would have to say 'yes' and 'no,' " he says. "Any activity that has too much money involved is bound to be corrupted. So many people's employment is tied to wins and losses."
On the other hand, he says, Division III, the non-scholarship brand of college sports played by Yeaton's home campus, Middlebury, "seems to have it right."