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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

College Sports Saddled With Big-League Issues

March 07, 2004|Dave Kindred | Sporting News

Sex and alcohol for those wild and crazy party monsters at Brigham Young! A forgery scheme is hatched in Georgia to sneak in an impostor for an athlete's college entrance test! Coach in California smacks player's face! West Virginia linebacker suspended when charged with illegal sale of guns! At Colorado, if it isn't boys night out with strippers, it's promises of sex on demand, and if not that, rape!

Once upon a time, had these headlines appeared in a year's worth of newspapers, the accumulation of scandal would have been so shocking as to send university presidents into paroxysms of moralizing. We'd have heard about the corruption inherent in big-time athletic programs operating independently of the university. We'd have heard about the tail wagging the dog.

In sorry fact, these headlines didn't appear sprinkled throughout one year. It was one day's news. On one Monday in February 2004, the athletic programs of five universities from coast to coast were in the news. A reader looking for a bright spot in the reporting might have decided the cheeriest line printed was, "No criminal charges have been filed against any players, BYU spokesman Carri Jenkins said." Here, a pause for a question.

When exactly did BYU become Orgy U?

During LaVell Edwards' tenure as the Brigham Young football coach, the grand old man explained why his team never attracted much attention from bowl committees. "We used to go to the Holiday Bowl," he said, "and our fans would bring a 50 dollar bill and the Ten Commandments and break neither."

But now the Salt Lake Tribune reports that four BYU players were kicked off the team for violating the school's honor code at a party that included alcohol and sex. The newspaper said the school's investigation began after a student claimed she had been raped by several players. She later confessed that the sex was consensual, that she'd made up the rape story to avoid honor code discipline.

Next question: If it happens at BYU, is there any place it doesn't happen?

Chances are, if scandal hasn't arrived on the quad at Your Alma Mater, it will soon enough. Here's why: There's a fundamental lie about big-time college athletics that transforms the slightest transgression into a cause celebre. The lie is, it's amateur sports. Judgments then are made against the ideals of amateurism: honesty, sportsmanship, fair play, love of the game. And though it's naive in a Show Me the Money world to think those ideals obtain today, college athletes yet are drawn and quartered when they fall below the ideal.

So a night at a strip club becomes scandalous when, if it involved professional athletes, it would be nothing more serious than the Knicks hanging at the Gold Club. What's seldom acknowledged is that big-time college athletics is not amateur sports.

To quote former University of Michigan president James J. Duderstadt, it's a "highly commercialized, professional" enterprise operated "for the entertainment of the American public, the financial benefit of coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners and NCAA executives and the profit of television networks, sponsors and sports apparel manufacturers."

A third question, this for Duderstadt: Have university presidents surrendered to almighty athletic departments?

"University presidents are not going to be the solution," he says. "They have too many irons in the fire, and they're not going to take out one that can burn them."

Instead, Duderstadt believes reform can come only through faculty organizations that rise to defend the integrity of academics now threatened not only by the normal run of corruptions but by athletic departments that, under cover of slick accounting practices, cost universities money intended for students.

In what he calls a "tilting with windmills" exercise, Duderstadt once proposed 12 reforms to bring big-time college athletics back to earth.

Among the reforms: freshman ineligibility, need-based scholarships, rigorous financial audits of athletic departments, reduced schedules, even -- praise be, Don Quixote -- one-platoon football.

Otherwise, he says, "We're headed for a train wreck." He reckons it will be a financial wreck caused by, say, a federal antitrust lawsuit or by arrogant athletic departments overtly cannibalizing student programs to keep football and basketball programs afloat.

"It'll be financial because how much worse than the Colorado scandal can you get?" Duderstadt says.

Good question. Whatever happened at Colorado -- no one has been arrested let alone convicted of raping kicker Katie Hnida or any of the other women alleging rape by football players -- the truth is, it's only a footnote in the history of big-time football abuses.

In 1975 I reported allegations of sex, drugs and point shaving in the Kentucky football program. A friend of a star player was murdered, his body dumped in a river. I quoted a player who'd been shotgunned by drug dealers; the next time I saw him, he was in a wheelchair with two broken legs.

I have a note from a source on that story. It reads, "For God's sake, don't quote me. I don't want to get bumped off. And you ought to take it into consideration, too."

Next to that, a night at a strip club gets you a Boy Scout good-conduct badge.

And here's how much the Kentucky incidents changed big-time college football: not a jot, not an iota, not even a little bit.

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