Football season once again, and a profoundly depressing time of year it is. Sundays are all right—football’s an interesting game and the NFL plays it superbly. It’s Saturday afternoon that always makes me blue. Being a good citizen, I cheer for our team, of course, but we really have no business playing Clemson, much less beating them.
When I started writing these letters awhile back, I said that they wouldn’t necessarily reflect “the Southern viewpoint,” even when there might be such a thing. Well, when it comes to big-time college sports there is a Southern viewpoint, it’s perfectly clear what it is, and I don’t share it.
Look, I know I’m out of step, and I do hate to be a walking cliche. Few things are more banal than professors wringing their hands about the scandal of college athletics. There’s not even much point in it. Most Southerners care more about sports than about anything else that goes on in our colleges; in many schools, even the students feel that way. It hasn’t escaped the attention of on-the-make college presidents that fielding winning teams in the “money sports” (football and men’s basketball) pays off in public and alumni support. Few Southerners would agree with Columbia historian James Shenton, who said that he found his university’s record losing streak reassuring because it suggested to the world that Columbia’s priorities were in order. We like winners down here, maybe because we got a bellyfull of losing a century and a quarter ago.
But we really have lost our sense of proportion—so much so that I teeter on the edge of being embarrassed for the South. I mean no unmerited disrespect for Southern higher education, but few lists of top colleges and universities overrepresent our region: one, however, is the list of schools that raise the most money for athletics, where half the entries are Southern. Just so, publishing has never been a Southern specialty, but 19 of the 24 universities that published sports magazines in 1982 were in the South. There was an outcry awhile back when the attorney general of Georgia removed the state troopers who had traditionally escorted University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley on and off the field, and when the president of the University of Alabama hired a football coach with an unimpressive win-loss record he received death threats.
All this may sound like good clean fun, but I don’t think it’s accidental that 12 out of 22 colleges under NCAA sanctions in the fall of 1987 were in the South; for violations having to do with football, it was 8 out of 11. The truth is that to field nationally-ranked teams in the money sports requires highly-skilled, highly-paid, highly-recruited mercenaries, both athletes and coaches. To enlist them and to keep them happy and working requires more than a little corruption.
Stories are legion, and there are new ones each year. One of my favorites involves the avid booster at Texas (get this) Christian University who sequestered a recruit in a motel room to keep him away from the competition until signing time and arranged for prostitutes to entertain him. A friend who knows about these things says Texas Christian is unusual only in using professionals. Perhaps that’s why, when nailed on this and several other counts, TCU had the barefaced audacity to complain that the penalties imposed by the NCAA were too severe. (TCU, by the way, is the alma mater of Shake Tiller and Billy Clyde Puckett in Dan Jenkins’ novels Semi-Tough and Life Its Ownself—and I once thought Jenkins was exaggerating.)
Another recent example, less colorful but perhaps even more telling, comes from the University of Virginia. Recruiters there, being smarter than your average TCU booster, did an end-run around NCAA regulations. Finding that the athletic department had used its full quota of basketball scholarships, they offered a hot young blue-chipper a football scholarship instead, with the understanding that he would be allowed to “change his mind” about what sport he wished to play once he was enrolled at Charlottesville. Now I ask you: is this honorable? Is this gentlemanly? Is this building character? Is this what Mr. Jefferson had in mind?
I pick on Virginia not because it’s the worst but because it’s one of the best, one of the few major state universities for which there ever was much hope. When you find a school that seems to have things in perspective (Rice is one example, and Emory seems to be another) it is either private or poor. But even some private universities with aspirations to academic respectability bend to the cultural wind.
After Tulane’s most recent scandal, for example, it had a chance to do the right thing. A committee was set up to look at the athletic program, and it could have called for the school to return sport to its proper place as an extracurricular activity slightly less important than debate. The trustees would have been unhappy, though, and no aggregation known to man is more pusillanimous than a faculty committee, so of course they blew it. Tulane is still going head to head with Alabama and Auburn.
Wake Forest also competes with much larger and less selective colleges; people used to alter the road signs around here to read things like “Interstate 85 / Wake Forest 0.” Wake could have taken pride in having no students with SAT’s lower than their body weights—but, no, they recently hired a football coach who used to be at North Carolina, where he recruited a player (now in the NFL) whose SAT scores were the lowest ever recorded for an entering freshman.
Maybe it helps to be a little dim if you’re going to get within a hundred yards of the drug-crazed animals some colleges put on the football field. But basketball’s no better. When a star player at a cow college near here was arrested (for theft: he wasn’t allowed to play for a while), a reporter got hold of his SAT scores: they totaled 470, on a scale from 400 to 1600. Three of him, in other words, might add up to one MIT freshman (which raises the question of whether three MIT freshmen could handle him on the court, but never mind). This “student-athlete” was in fact illiterate, but that didn’t matter to the schools that recruited him. Duke has gotten uppity since The New York Times called it a “hot school,” but it was one of them; Sports Illustrated published a passionate mash note from their coach to this talented juvenile delinquent.
Some colleges, including mine, point to graduation rates for athletes that equal or exceed those for run-of-the-mill students without access to tutors, mandatory study halls, and reliable guidance to easy courses and faculty groupies. But that’s a two-edged sword. If young folks without much in the way of scholastic aptitude can hold down what amount to fulltime jobs and still get through, maybe the curriculum is too easy.
Moreover, lack of intellect is not the only problem. It is apparently difficult to win ball games consistently these days without at least a few specimens of low-grade human material, young men who tear up parking tickets, beat people up in bars, steal bicycles (these are all actual cases from my school)—and who expect, correctly as a rule, to get away with only slaps on the wrist, if that.
Consider Mr. Jeff Burger, starting quarterback for Auburn in 1987. In a little over two months Burger was suspended once for plagiarism, once for accepting a free plane ride from a booster (to go dove-hunting), and once for taking money from an assistant coach (to post bail on a concealed-weapon charge). Each time he was unsuspended on appeal in time for the next game. Auburn’s vice president for “academic affairs” let him off on the plagiarism charge; the ever-obliging NCAA winked at the others.
Now, I should say that most college athletes I know are self-respecting and/or God-fearing young men and women. And it may even be that thugs, liars, petty thieves, vandals, and unwed fathers are no more common among football and basketball players than among late-adolescent American males in general. But, frankly, I don’t believe that. The adulation and special treatment—not to mention the steroids—meted out to big-time college athletes don’t exactly build character. Consider the football player (also at the nearby cow college) who was charged with rape: part of his defense was that a star like him wasn’t used to girls who said no, and he didn’t think this one really meant it. This character actually went to jail, but he was recently freed when the court ordered a new trial and his victim declined to go through the ordeal of testifying again.
I could go on and on. Memphis State, Oklahoma, Maryland, Georgia, Kentucky, SMU—I get them confused. Not long ago some Arkansas alumni lobbied to pull their state university out of the Southwest Conference, pointing out that it was one of only three schools in the conference not in trouble with the NCAA. Coach Broyles reportedly vetoed that move. Presidents come and go—sometimes for countenancing abuses, sometimes for opposing them—but athletic departments seem to go on forever. At Clemson a few years ago the president gave the trustees an ultimatum to the effect that it was either him or the athletic director, whereupon he was wished the best of luck in his new job, whatever that might turn out to be.
I can’t be smug about that. A half-century ago, my own university’s sainted president (a man remembered in these parts as a sort of male Eleanor Roosevelt) proposed to do away with athletic scholarships. When it was made plain to him that he was going to be president of a university with big-time athletics or he wasn’t going to be president at all, he had a change of heart. One consequence, if you want to look at it that way, is that 50 years later—two years ago—we fired our football coach; or, rather, he was allowed to resign with an $800,000 settlement to make up for the years on his contract that, we were told, he had freely chosen not to work. (I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how they said it happened.) There had been an “erosion of confidence” among some “elements of the community”: this is what a modern university administrator says when members of a booster club are unhappy.
Now, I’ve served on the committee that considers the admission of students with “special talents,” and it certainly seems that our team should have won more games than it did. I won’t get into specifics; let’s just say that we have some very large students with IQ’s about par for 18 holes. If our coach couldn’t win with that material, maybe there was something wrong with his coaching. I don’t feel sorry for him—for $800,000 I’d leave, too—but I am sorry he lost his job, because it makes it too plain for comfort what the conditions of his employment were. It’s hard to mouth the old platitudes about why we have an athletic program when losing coaches are let go without reference to how much character they’ve built.
Enough. I’m starting to rant. Foaming at the mouth is the next stage. Can anything be done? Probably not. The NCAA continues to tinker with its pathetic regulations, trying to palliate what even a few coaches and college presidents have come to recognize is a smelly situation. But rule changes won’t help; to steal a simile from Albert Jay Nock, assimilating semiprofessional athletics is for a college or university like building a perpetual motion machine: some do better than others, but the undertaking is impossible in the first place.
Ideally, professional football and basketball would have farm clubs, like the baseball leagues. If it were up to the athletes, I’m sure they would. There’s no reason novice professionals shouldn’t be paid for their labors, and no reason they should have to struggle with Western Civ as a precondition for plying their craft. But of course there’s also no reason for the NFL and NBA to have their own minor leagues so long as colleges are willing to provide them.
The Ivy League with its characteristic, superb arrogance has chosen in effect not to play that game. Its attitude seems to be: let the Dukes, the North Carolinas, the Texases, Nebraskas, Michigans, and UCLA’s—all the academic no-hopers of the world, the intellectual Siberias—let them train players for the professional teams; we’ll just play with real universities. Down here, though, folks won’t buy that approach: they want their colleges, by God, to compete with Valley State and Nevada-Las Vegas.
Well, call me an effete snob, but I like the Ivies’ attitude. The Harvard-Yale game seems to be no less hotly contested just because all the players can count to 11 with their shoes on. As someone once said, athletics are to education what bullfighting is to agriculture.
(That’s an analogy, son—like on the SAT, you know? Don’t worry if you don’t understand it. What was that bench-press weight again?)
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