You can attend an entire season of eighth-grade basketball games and never see a 14-year-old boy adorned with a tattoo.
Turn on the NCCA basketball tournament, now down to the Sweet Sixteen, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a game where at least one player on each team is not to some degree tattooed.
Sometime between his early teens, when he was in middle school, and his late teens and early 20s, when he made the college team, the tattooed athlete let some "artist" somewhere permanently embed ink in the only the epidermis he will ever have.
Of course, you would have seen the same thing watching the college football bowl games this winter.
Tattoos have become a far-reaching phenomenon in American collegiate culture. You see them on student-athletes from all regions of the country and from all demographics. You see them on players from state schools and private schools, large schools and small schools, secular schools and religious schools.
What is going on?
It would be a mistake to conclude that the tattoos seen today on college athletes raise an issue particular to college sports. It is a good bet the young men who play football and basketball in major college programs put in more hard work to perfect their skills in an activity that requires both physical and intellectual focus than most of their non-sports-playing classmates put in at anything.
It is also a fact that the athletes have nowhere near a monopoly on the tattoos on campus.
In 2005, a group of researchers at Texas Tech University published the results of a survey they had done gauging the attitudes toward tattoos of "520 undergraduate students at a large public university in the Southwest."
"While many people believe that tattooing establishments are inspected, monitored or regulated, there are no universal procedural health standards for tattooing," the researchers wrote in the journal Sociological Spectrum. "Thus, obtaining a safe tattoo means the customer must be knowledgeable about the artist, the technique, the equipment and wound or skin care. Tattoos can be obtained in a studio or in many makeshift situations, such as mobile vans, flea markets, rock concerts and even fraternity parties."
"The potential for infections and the transmission of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) are the major physical concerns present with tattooing," said the researchers.
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