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Football Once Was a Sport

March 13, 1994|JIM MURRAY

A fable, not by Aesop:

Once upon a time there used to be a sport in this country called football and it was played between competing elevens of students from the institutions of higher learning.

Sometimes they came out to the practice field direct from the chem lab or the library. They not only played for nothing, their parents paid for them just to go to school.

They really played for just a sweater with a block H or Y on it. The letterman was the real big man on campus, frequently the student body president and sometimes a straight-A student.

They played for the old blue and gold, alma mater dear. They had school songs like "Boola Boola" and cheers from a Greek chorus and classmates came in raccoon coats and beanies and waved pompons and the Yale-Harvard game sold out and so did the Army-Navy game, even though it was played with real undergraduates.

Coaches were really part of the faculty--Knute Rockne taught chemistry--who treated football as just another P.E. class.

It's hard to say when it changed. But the media got in the act. Intercollegiate athletics sold papers and the poets of the press box pulled out all the stops. Football players became mythic. They became Galloping Ghosts, Four Horsemen, Dream Backfields, Fighting Irish.

The coaches caught on. Somewhere along the line, one coach figured if he could find a way to get just one player out of a coal mine and smuggle him into school, he would have an edge. Then, some other coach figured he would top that by getting two players out of a coal mine, or a roundhouse, he would go to a bowl game. They entered the mix. They told the story of the coach on a trip through Minnesota who stopped to get directions from a plowboy, and when the young man raised the plow with one hand to point the way, the coach knew he had his fullback--also his conference championship.

They called guys like this ringers. Pretty soon, the whole first team was composed of ringers, then the whole squad. The coach became a staff and you had more people teaching football on campus than physics. Students became walk-ons. They could pick up the towels.

Then, they began to figure ways to eliminate the middleman entirely--the college. Coaches housed their players in "athletic dormitories," segregated from the university as a whole. They found ways to eliminate annoying entrance requirements. The football team had as little to do with the university as the sanitation crew. Literacy was no longer an issue. You had guys who not only could not read or write when they entered college but, 4 1/2 years later, they still couldn't. In the old days, someone with a weak mind and a strong back was given a shovel. Here they were given scholarships.

If their scholarship wasn't at issue, neither was their citizenship. They stopped looking for Eagle Scouts. Vultures were better. Football is not for the genteel, the role models. Football was for the kind of guys who might go join the Foreign Legion. They didn't need their pictures in Sports Illustrated, they needed them in the post office. You not only looked on the farms for prospects, you looked in the courts. You not only needed people who weren't afraid to hit people, you needed people who didn't mind it at all. You didn't need permission of the parents, you needed the permission of the parole officer.

Pro football entered the equation. When the bards of press row invented the Galloping Ghost and the Four Horsemen, the professional game was invented. Red Grange and the four Notre Damers against a blue-gray October sky sold more tickets than Dempsey-Tunney. In a sense, they invented the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and, ultimately, the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. Football hit Wall Street.

Coaches were overjoyed. They had a new selling point. You were no longer playing for God, country and Yale. You were playing for the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins.

It came a long way from "Boola, Boola," Walter Camp, Hold-that-line! or "Far Above Cayuga's Waters." It is such a big business, you expect the Japanese to buy it any day now. The players today want to be paid to remove the last hypocrisy. It is claimed they bring money for the school, business for the community and sponsors for the telecasts. It can't be argued. Game day in, say, South Bend, is a fiscal bonanza.

But they are getting an education free of charge that is worth $100,000 over four or five years, to say nothing of future benefits.

That used to be enough. A football player named Eisenhower became a five-star general and President of the United States. A football player named White became Supreme Court Justice. A football player named Ford became President.

Football went from being a sport to being a business. It is a college dropout. But you knew it had to come to this the first time you heard a coach say, "Winning is the only thing." The rest was foregone. The game had left the halls of ivy and become just another mercantile or entertainment conglomerate.

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