On Jan. 1, 1965, I watched on television as Tommy Nobis and the Texas Longhorn defense "screwed their navels to the ground," as their colorful down-home coach, Darrell Royal, would say later, in a fourth-quarter goal-line stand that preserved a 21-17 victory over Joe Namath and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl. The 'Horns had hooked me.
Although I was not yet out of junior high school in a small East Texas town, I decided that night that I someday would attend the University of Texas and share the collegiate experience of those young men who represented our state so valiantly. Upon learning a few years later that the university also was solid academically, I considered that a bonus. Nothing more.
Some time after arriving in Austin, I got my priorities straight, or at least straighter, which is more than can be said for the university in respect to its sports, particularly football. Not only did the average students at Texas not share the collegiate experience with the football players, we rarely even saw them outside Memorial Stadium on fall Saturdays.
Unlike players at some universities who are confined to athletic dorms, our Longhorns at least lived in the vicinity of other students in Jester Center, the massive dormitory featured in Aaron Latham's Esquire article that inspired the movie "Animal House." But the players had their own floors, their own cafeteria and, presumably, their own food fights.
Many also attended the same classes, which were recommended to them by an academic counselor ("brain coach") and usually had in common professors who were friendly to the athletic department and gave players grades necessary to maintain their eligibility. Too often, it seemed as if there were no more connection between academics and football as there is between the Red River and the Red Sea.
Later, as my sportswriting career bounced me from the Southwest to the Midwest, the East Coast and, eventually, the West Coast, I discovered what I had cynically suspected as an undergraduate: The situation at Texas was not an exception but the rule among our nation's football factories.
So as I watch the Longhorns play the Miami Hurricanes on this Jan. 1 in the Cotton Bowl, I will be fully aware that what I am seeing in that game, as well as in the other post-season bowl games, is semi-pro football. About the only connection the teams have to the universities they represent is those high-minded commercials aired during games that tout the academic wizardry occurring on the respective campuses. How else would one find out about the terrific medical school at the University of Arkansas unless he watched the Hogs play on television?
Unfortunately, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (NCAA), which governs major-college sports, and the news media have concentrated in recent years on what illegal inducements the players in revenue-producing sports such as football and basketball are getting--under-the-table payments, cars, cushy summer jobs, T-shirts--instead of what they're not getting: educations.
Fortunately, the publishing houses have not ignored this fraud, as evidenced most recently by the publication of two books--Francis X. Dealy Jr.'s "Win at Any Cost: The Sell-Out of College Athletics" and Murray Sperber's "College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department Vs. the University."
As Dealy discovered in his research, this is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1898, Brown University called together representatives from the elite Eastern universities that now form the Ivy League, which played higher-quality football than any professional football league that existed at the time, to discuss the role of athletics on campuses.
The subsequent Brown Conference report suggested a number of reforms, including one that would allow teams to use only players who were in good academic standing. But the report was largely ignored. Unwilling to disarm unilaterally, Harvard refused to accept any limitations that were not adopted by Yale. Yale--whose coach, Walter Camp, practically invented football as we know it today--did not even send a representative to the conference.
The Ivy League eventually reformed, but it is an island among major athletic conferences. The precedent for big-time college sports was established. As Dealy and Sperber conclude after exploring the subject in considerable depth, it is less accurate today to refer to student-athletes than to athlete-students. In some cases, even that is too charitable.
For instance, both Dealy and Sperber write about Andrew Gaze, a basketball sharpshooter who enrolled at Seton Hall at age 23 in October of 1988. Gaze played for one season, during which the Pirates advanced to the NCAA finals in March, 1989; then he returned home to Australia to play professionally. Student-athlete? Try mercenary.