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The Financial Rewards for a Winning College Program Have Never Been Greater. Yet Most of the Athletes Who Make It Happen Are Living in Grinding Poverty. How Fair Is That?

August 31, 2003|Irvin Muchnick | Irvin Muchnick is a Berkeley-based freelance writer.

Rush hour in Sacramento customarily finds an exodus of suited lobbyists pouring southwest on Interstate 80 or south on I-5 at the end of a day of Capitol-style arm-twisting. But this particular Tuesday afternoon in July they were joined by a caravan of muscular but low-power colleagues dressed in Dockers, college T-shirts and tieless buttondowns. These neophyte contributors to California's legislative and vehicular gridlock--six football players from Stanford University and UC Berkeley--had just finished testifying before the Assembly Higher Education Committee in support of SB 193, the Student-Athletes' Bill of Rights, which passed the state Senate in May.

The reason theirs were the only teams represented was that none of the players from the other two California schools in the Pacific 10 conference, UCLA and USC, could afford the transportation from Southern California. And the reason they were making such a hasty getaway from the hearing was that they feared missing their own teams' "voluntary" workouts that day.

If you're wondering why the prospect of skipping a single, putatively noncompulsory practice in the middle of summer can bring almost as much sweat to the brow of a brawny jock as the practice itself, then you're starting to grasp why state Sen. Kevin Murray, a Culver City Democrat, thinks California needs a Student-Athletes' Bill of Rights. What you wouldn't yet know, however, was that these proud representatives of Stanford red and Cal blue-and-gold, weaving through traffic in a Jeep Cherokee and a Ford Explorer given to two of the players by their parents, were streaking home on empty stomachs. Greeting them at the Capitol at 12:30, Murray had offered to take them to lunch. They politely declined. Under National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules, the acceptance of any kind of gift from anyone other than an immediate family member can be construed as a gratuity from a booster--punishable by loss of eligibility.

At the hearing, UC Berkeley wide receivers Chase Lyman and Joe Crenshaw, cornerbacks James Bethea and Mike McGrath, along with Stanford linebacker Jon Alston and wide receiver Grant Mason, reviewed this and other indignities visited upon them by the NCAA, whose administration of the intercollegiate sports programs at 1,200 American colleges and universities seems straight out of a playbook from medieval Byzantium.

Lyman told of a teammate who had to pay for his own knee surgery after landing on a screw in the grass during a voluntary practice, and of how his $899 monthly scholarship check during the academic year--from which $135 was automatically deducted for the daily training table meal--didn't cover his portion of the rent and utilities on the Berkeley apartment he shared with two fellow undergraduates. Don't think of big-time football as the setting for limos and jangling jewelry, said Crenshaw: "Everything is not as glamorous as it seems."

Then the players excused themselves for their respective 120- and 80-mile freeway dashes. The Stanford guys, whose longer drive ensured they'd be hopelessly late, stopped along the way at one of their favorite affordable eating establishments: a Popeye's Chicken drive-thru. By the time Alston and Mason arrived at the campus Arrillaga Family Sports Center, their teammates had finished showering.

The NCAA bars coaches from supervising off-season weightlifting and sprinting, so they are overseen instead by strength and conditioning staff, who can forward attendance reports to the coaches. That's why the players sardonically refer to these sessions as "volandatory." The sneakiest coaches figure out how to get their charges onto the field for conditioning work--sometimes for as little as a scheduled 10-minute stretch--then seamlessly fold it into borderline-legal seven-on-seven football drills.

Last year at Stanford, in the midst of a chaotic head coaching transition from Tyrone Willingham to Buddy Teevens, attendance at the summer voluntaries was truly discretionary. Mason, a civil engineering major, felt free to spend the summer as an intern at a development company in Washington, D.C. But after Stanford proceeded to win only two games, Cardinal strength coach Ron Forbes warned that players falling short of perfect attendance this summer would have to submit to an unspecified special conditioning test before the official start of training camp on Aug. 10. Fortunately for Alston and Mason, Forbes agreed to let them make up the lifting and running they missed the day of the legislative hearing.

Across the bay, the four Berkeley guys reached Witter Rugby Field, the practice facility above Memorial Stadium, at 5:30, a third of the way through the Bears' 90-minute workout. To their relief, strength coach John Krasinski let them off the hook. Best of all, after practice they got to partake of the evening training table, the one daily meal paid for by their scholarships.

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