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Jim Murray

The Con and the Pros in NCAA's Football Image

September 11, 1986|JIM MURRAY

The other day, in a bank parking lot, I locked my keys in the car with the motor running and the radio on. I had no way to get at those keys, short of breaking a window or taking a door off.

I had to make a decision. I borrowed a car from the bank's vice president, Barbara Snedaker, to drive home and get a backup set of keys.

What makes this interesting is that, if I had been a star halfback playing football for the University of Nebraska, I would just have blown the Florida State game. I, and maybe the team, would have been put on probation because I would have violated something called the amateur code.

What is an amateur? Well, an amateur is something like a pterodactyl or a tyrannosaurus Rex. Extinct. In fact, it may be like a unicorn. It never really existed.

The amateur code is a holdover from the days when sports were mainly played on horseback--and only by the kinds of people who could afford horses.

I think the last real amateurs on this planet were the Christians and the lions. They were the last ones not to get a cut of the gate.

In college football, an amateur is a guy who gets paid off in the dark--and settles for 10 cents on the dollar for cash.

It's the last stand of hypocrisy in this century.

The biggest laugh in this world is that the football player is a student-athlete who is playing for dear old alma mater or a block letter to go on his blue and gold sweater or a date with Betty Coed. He's playing for a multimillion-dollar contract with the Green Bay Packers. He's getting the education he wants and needs, and it has nothing to do with the principal parts of the verb to be , or the dates of the War of the Roses or the properties of hydrogen in nature.

If you want to know who's paying for his education, such as it is, get a mirror. You are. If it's a state school it comes out of your taxes. If it's a private institution it comes out of your subsidies, tax-free school buildings, eminent-domain condemnation proceedings--or, if you pay to see the games they play, or watch them on television, your contribution is direct.

You're also subsidizing the National Football League indirectly. You see, you turn over to the pros every year a fresh crop of highly seasoned, trained and developed football players, highly publicized, marketable, at no cost to them. You thought you were getting doctors, scientists, statesmen for your money? You're getting nose guards. Wide-outs.

The college athletic programs benefit because the unwritten clause is that these skilled kids take on the nosebleeds, limps, bad backs and swollen knees for the colleges for four years on the promise that they can cash in big later in the professionals.

It's a delicately balanced quid pro quo. Everybody seems to benefit. The pros get their refined product at no cost to management. Their farm system is subsidized by we the people. The colleges get their cut in gate receipts, TV fees, program sales and concessions.

The only losers, besides you, are the kids who don't make it to the pros. But the system is bucked up and maintained by special interest groups, alums, ticket brokers, sidewalk quarterbacks, guys who sell insurance to the university or book its football tours, and just plain business tycoons who find it advantageous to have big games at which to entertain business clients.

The best thing about it is, it works. Oh, it is periodically beset by the Carrie Nations of our time, the NCAA judges and juries who come in on occasion to bust up the furniture with a hatchet, break a few mirrors, come down hard on an assistant coach or two and put a player in the stocks--and everybody is more careful for a while. Nothing changes.

The fiction that key players perform for the traditional free ride, i.e., room, board, books and tuition, dies hard. For generations, too many top athletes have been riding around in store-bought 8-cylinder cars with license plates reading "Bubba" or "Boz," or their parents are seen cruising the country in first-class luxury on top airlines, for anyone to take the code seriously.

The NCAA is in charge of a fantasy land. It is running a world that went out with the knights of the Round Table. It is preserving an order that has about as much relevancy to today's world as the buggy whip. It is perpetuating a myth. It tilts at windmills. Cervantes would love the NCAA.

It is really time to recognize that Frank Merriwell is dead. It is time to do away with the fiction that a football team is really just a bunch of student body volunteers. It is not. It is a mercenary force and should be treated as such.

The last top athlete who graduated with his class, indeed who ever graduated, should be cast in bronze. The connection of the football program to the university is about what the connection of the German general staff was to the ministry of culture. Purely coincidental.

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