There's a powerful story in the excesses of big-time college sports. "What Price Victory" isn't it.
Anyone keeping track of sports is aware that colleges face a major task in exorcising their demons when it comes to athletic recruiting. Occasional disclosures of jock exploitation or special favors that include under-the-table cash and other violations of National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules are probably small items compared with the vastness of the problem. What grist for the dramatist.
But ABC's movie (9 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) about the corrupt football program at a fictional university is a case of a good idea executed poorly. Very poorly.
Desert State University finally finds a solution to its string of losing seasons: a new coach. He's unscrupulous old-timer Buck Brayton (George Kennedy), raised from the ashes by fanatical Desert State booster Billy Bob Claiborne (Robert Culp).
Buck makes out his shopping list. "I need some fast black boys," he says. "I need some big ones on defense. And I need some itty bitty ones on the corners."
That's exactly what he gets--the best college team that money and dishonesty can buy. It includes shrewd black quarterback Trumayne James (Eriq LaSalle), who negotiates a house for his parents in exchange for attending Desert State. And it includes near-illiterate white running back Denzil Ray (Brian Wimmer), arriving in a package deal with his high school coach Jake Ramson (Mac Davis), who's hired on as an assistant coach/academic coordinator.
There are infinite reasons to dislike this movie.
The numbing performance of Davis and the mannered work of Culp are a couple. Comic stereotypes are another.
NCAA-offending SMU may be the model for Desert State, but models for the story's caricatures appear to be elsewhere. Start with the names. Buck Brayton? Billy Bob? Is this "The Waltons"? "Dallas"? Not only that, but Billy Bob regularly cruises the campus in a white stretch limo, wearing a cowboy hat and Western tie.
In fact, elements of this story are so overdrawn as to trivialize the issue they depict. The maniacal Buck makes late Ohio State coach Woody Hayes--who once slugged an opposing player--look like Pee-wee Herman. Here's a man who not only shouldn't be on a campus, he shouldn't be out on the street.
Seldom has there been a university, moreover, so pervasively corrupt and gutless--from the regents on down to the self-righteous professor who gives Denzil an F for cheating on a quiz with answers that were fed him, only to change it to a D after intervention from above. There is no subtlety or nuance in D. M. Eyre Jr.'s script or in Kevin Connor's direction, no ambiguities or gray areas, only heavy-handedness en route to the obligatory tidy ending.
There also is no one to care about, least of all the hypocritical Jake Ramson, who is cast as Desert State's moral conscience, yet sinks deeper into his own sanctimonious slop with each platitudinous speech. It is Jake who preaches to Denzil about shady recruiting, then virtually forces the boy's drunken father to sign a letter of intent for Desert State, manipulating the man to serve the coach's own career.
That such weak, two-faced coaches exist is surely believable. That one should be made the hero of a movie about scandalous college recruiting--merely because he later has a change of heart after exploiting the trust of a naive boy--is ludicrous.
This David L. Wolper production re-states the obvious, adding no insight or pertinent observations. Hence, it misses a grand chance to make an important statement about the symbiosis governing major college sports:
Whether they admit it or not, average fans tolerate the abuses in exchange for winners. They pay lip service to wanting the NCAA rules honored, expressing the appropriate horror at recruiting scandals or stories of ill-educated college jocks fading into oblivion after their usefulness to a school is over. But in their heart of hearts, winning is all that matters.
And what matters to the schools is the fabulous TV money that triumphant athletic programs bring from such networks as ABC. So indirectly at least, TV is a partner, providing the carrot that motivates the system. And as college sports explode, creating bigger and better attractions for the small screen, so do TV profits.
What price victory? What price ratings?