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Sports: How Dirty A Game View other pieces in "Harper's"
By Mark Danner September 1985
Tags: Harper's Forums | sports Print
In an age when the peccadilloes of all the traditional idols, from presidents to Miss Americas, are gleefully exposed, athletes totter on their pedestals as the last American heroes. No longer unsullied gladiators - their fabled lives now tend to include the great contract-signing scene and even the occasional drug scandal - athletes nonetheless remain the principal role models of young Arnericans, who spend their days shooting baskets and dreaming of televised miracles.

Behind the heroic metaphors, however, sports is very big business. Television makes possible the dazzling paychecks of the pros: sports broadcasts deliver with admirable dependability the audience of young males so prized by makers of cars, beer, and power saws. But the pros hold no monopoly on the business of sports: great universities now pay their bills with the fat television contracts a winning athletic program brings in its train. Not for nothing are high school stars avidly pursued by the most prestigious universities, and half-literate youngsters coddled, pampered, and bribed.

What does all this money mean for American sports? What is the corruption bred by sports doing to American universities? Is it still possible to clean up so-called amateur sports? Harper's recently invited a group of athletes, coaches, sports officials, and journalists to consider the future of America's dirty game.


The following Forum is based on a discussion held at the New School for Social Research in
New York City. George Plimpton served as moderator.


GEORGE PLIMPTON
has played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, forward for the Boston Celtics,
and goal tender for the Boston Bruins. He is editor of the Paris Review and author of
Paper Lion and Fireworks, among other books. Open Net, his book about
professional hockey, will be published in November.


HOWARD COSELL
is the host and execuuve producer of ABC Sportsbeat,
He has been involved in sports journalism since 1953 and was one of the original commentators on Monday Night Football. His latest book,
I Never Played the Game, will be published in October.

ROBERT LIPSYTE
is the sports correspondent for the CBS news program Sunday Morning.
He was a sports columnist for the New York Times and is the author of
Sports World: An American Dreamland and Assignment: Sports, among other books.

HARRY EDWARDS
is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and
the author of
The Revolt of the Black Athlete, The Sociology of Sport, and
The Struggle That Must Be.

TOM SANDERS
played forward for the Boston Celncs from 1960 to 1973 and was a member
of eight NBA championship teams. He was head coach of the Celtics during
the 1978-79 season and is currently associate director of the
Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.


DIGGER PHELPS
has been head basketbafl coach at the University of Notre Dame since 1971.
The teams he has coached havewon 69 percent of their games.


BILLIE JEAN KING
has won twenty Wimbledon titles and nine U. S. Open titles.
She founded the Women's Sports Foundation and the Women's Tennis Association
and is currently commissioner of Team Tennis.


DAVID J. STERN
is commissioner of the National Basketball Association.
He was the architect of the NBA's 1983 collective bargaining agreement,
which provides for revenue sharing, salary limitation, and anti-drug measures.



GEORGE PLIMPTON:Our subject today is a very large one - the place of sports in America. We hear a great deal about corruption in sports.  Hardly a week goes by that some college coach is not accused of bribing a star high school athlete to come to his school or of paying his supposedly amateur players under the table, or that some professional athlete isn't arrested for possession of one controlled substance or another.  Sportswriters seem more concerned with drugs, gambling, and corruption than with won-lost records or hard-fought championship games.  Many Americans persist in thinking of sports as a heroic realm where brave men and women battle for glory, but this realm seems to have been invaded by the sordid facts of everyday life.

My own attitude about this, as what's called a "participatory journalist"- Satch Sanders will remember my feeble play as a power forward with the Celtics - has been to adhere largely to the heroic spirit. The players, whether on the Celtics, the Lions, or the Bruins, were heroes before I joined them and even more so in my eyes afterward. Drugs, money, the iniquities of the college system that brought them to the pros, the autocratic behavior of the ownersthe underside of sports, in a word-at that time did not concern me as much as they perhaps should have.

I suppose our first question should be: How much has sports changed in recent years? Did this heroic realm ever really exist? Have we entered an era of unheard-of corruption, or have we simply begun to look at sports without illusions?  If the latter, what exactly were those illusions that blinded us in times past? How has the role of sports changed over the years? What changed it? Television, and the huge sums of money associated with it? Greed? Drugs? Finally, can anything be done to correct some of the problems that seem to bedevil sports these days?  Howard, what's your impression of today's sports scene?


HOWARD COSELL: In my view, sports is a deeply perverted element in American society. The frequently touted uplifting qualities associated with sports have become but a murky blur in a morass of hypocrisy, corruption, and deceit that I like to call the sports syndrome. Of course, the inherent rewards of sports are the same as they have always been: the fulfillment of discovering one's own athletic skills, of taking part in a team effort, of learning one's physical limits and pushing those limits back. But these values have become subservient to the sports syndrome, which has at its heart a number of very doubtful postulates that in my view delineate the problems facing sports today. First, sports is a wholly separate and deeply necessary refuge from the daily travail of human existence-a charmed, magical world. Second, victory is cosmically important. Today, winning is truly the only thing-a phrase Vince Lombardi, by the way, never uttered. Third, these games are so utterly complex that only those who have played them can possibly transmit their mysterious essence to mere mortals. Finally, the fan is an entitled being, with inalienable rights not set forth in any constitution. He pays the price of admission and is thereby entitled to enter the stadium and do whatever the hell he wants, including commit violent acts.

Of course, our great player-commentators don't deign to discuss these trivial matters. Instead, they analyze grave issues like the deportment of one tennis player or another. I, for one, can think of nothing less consequential in the scheme of human existence than whether or not a goddamn tennis player loses his temper with an umpire.


PLIMPTON: Bob Lipsyte, has sports really changed as radically as angry sports lovers like Howard suggest?


ROBERT LIPSYTE: Frankly, I don't think sports itself has changed much at all. Although the problems you and Howard mention may seem new, they all have clear antecedents. For example, there is a great deal of publicity about athletes' use of recreational drugs-the cocaine busts and so on. Drugs seem to have invaded sports like a plague. Yet alcoholism was certainly a comparable problem among athletes during the early part of the century. To give another example, the sports columns today are full of talk about the greed of superstars. But the attitudes of the stars of the 1920s could easily be discussed in the same terms.

So what is different today? By far the biggest difference is the enormous amount of money at stake in sports, a development we owe largely to television. We examine sports more closely today than we did in the past because the higher stakes have made sports much more worth examining.  So we discover to our surprise that our heroic professional athletes - like many people-have a fondness for money and drugs. But where this infusion of money has profoundly changed the basic situation is not in the professional ranks, where it is most visible, but in college sports. Because of the huge sums colleges stand to make from television contracts, many schools have virtually mortgaged themselves to their sports programs. They have expanded their athletic departments, recruited the best coaches and athletes, and built huge stadiums-palaces they now find they must keep filled. These colleges have no choice but to compete among themselves for athletes who will draw crowds to those stadiums, and that has corrupted the entire recruiting system. 

All the money involved has helped sports transcend its accustomed status as part of the toy department. Sports affects decisions made by governments-decisions about land that must be appropriated for a new stadium, roads that must be built to reach it, legislators who must be manipulated to get it built. Sports affects the entire educational system-both directly, by shaping our so-called student athletes, and indirectly, by spreading corruption and hypocrisy throughout the schools. On the most basic level, athletes are routinely given special privileges because of the barely disguised hope that they will someday make a lot of money for their colleges or communities. As early as junior high school, kids see certain of their classmates, the ones who happen to run faster or throw a ball more accurately, given a free pass, waved through the tollbooths without having to pay the price.


PLIMPTON: Harry, would you agree with that evaluation? 

HARRY EDWARDS: Sports inevitably reflects the character of the larger society, particularly the ideological justifications people use to explain what happens in that society. American sports - the huge commercial enterprise Americans have made of both professional and amateur sports - tells us something important about our country: about what is happening to us as a nation and as a people. This is especially so today, when television lets us really see sportsthe corruption and drugs and crass commercialism-for the first time, just as, during Vietnam, television let us see the blood and mess and destruction of war for the first time. We are able to watch at close range the systematic rippingoff of our best nineteen-year-old athletes. The glorification of athletics on television, especially in extravaganzas like the Olympics, encourages parents to push their seven- and eight- and nine-year-old kids through horrendously grueling practice programs in swimming, gymnastics, skating-whatever sport looks like it might lead to a gold medal, if not to some other kind of gold somewhere down the line. 


TOM SANDERS: Dollars have definitely become the crucial element in college sports-those big dollars have made winning necessary. But the corruption starts much earlier. High schools are recruiting in junior highs today. Coaches recruit parents, persuade them to move to different school districts, even different towns, so their kids can play for them.
As soon as a kid shows some athletic talent, he gets that first thoughtful C from an instructor.  "You've got a future, kid,"he says, "and I'm: going to give you a C even though you failed. We're going to help you along."That kid learns right then that here's his reward. Heand his parents-are paid then, not later, with that first C. By the time the kid gets to junior high, he expects that reward; by the time he gets to college, the rewards have become much greater.


DIGGER PHELPS: I think people are getting tired of all this corruption. They read about the player at Baylor who tape-recorded a conversation with his coach in which the coach promised to make the kid's car payments and they discussed the steroids the kid was taking. They read about the kid who was paid $200 a week to play center for the Southern Illinois basketball team. People keep reading these stories, and eventually they will demand that action be taken. 


SANDERS: It's true that investigative reporting has had an enormous impact on our perception of sports. Not so very long ago, sportswriters were mainly cheerleaders and clegists; they were there to add to the glory, to help create the legends.

Today journalists see their job as truthtelling: they are taking a good, hard look at the sports world.


COSELL: Do you really believe that, Satch? Do you really think the media are taking a good, hard look at sports?


SANDERS: Well, more plain truth is coming out today than in the past. All athletes used to be heroes, and the job of the press was to depict them as such-gods, larger than life, out there performing miracles.


BILLIE JEAN KING: Right. Remember the hype around Red Grange and Babe Ruth? 


COSELL: Don't you think sports coverage is still mostly hype?


SANDERS: No. Today, sportswriters mention the hero's .350 batting average only so they can go on to describe his latest cocaine bust. 


LIPSYTE: That isn't investigative reporting. A story about an athlete's cocaine habit is just an extension of the entertainment of the sports event itself; it sells tickets just as surely as tawdry gossip about a movie star sells tickets. We hear a lot about which star athletes are using cocaine, but the serious drug issues in sports-the abuse of pain-killers and anti-inflammatory medicines, the fact that "well-meaning"parents and coaches are feeding steroids and other drugs to high school kids-are pretty much ignored. It's not that sportswriters go too far-they don't go far enough, and most of them aren't even pointed in the right direction. 


COSELL: Yes, "investigative"reporting about sports is mostly gossip-column stuff. Sports in America confronts us with deep questions about law, politics, economics, education, medicine. Real investigative reporting would explore these issues.  For example, a real investigative sports reporter would look into the fact that the National Football League fields one of the most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill, and he would describe in detail the NFL's efforts to win exemptions from the antitrust laws.

Don't be fooled: as far as sports is concerned, we don't get truth from the media. It's still mostly celebratory prose and Hollywood gossip, a style of reporting which, as Billie Jean observed, thrived during the twenties with all the baloney about Babe Ruth - who was nothing but a lush-and Red Grange. The writers of that era - Grantland Rice, with his Four Horsemen dramatically etched against a grim October sky-created a picture of sports that persists to this day. The stock of images they built up still forms the basic lexicon of American sportswriting, and the failure to replace those images, or at least to revise the celebratory attitudes they represent, is the essential failure of sports reporting today. Sports journalists are promoters, nut reporters.

The reason for this failure is not only lack of talent, although. that ptoblem should not be underestimated. No, my friends, the reason is even more simple: corruption. Television, my medium, is overtly corrupt, openly for sale to the highest bidder. And the. print medium, however sober and austere by comparison, is covertly corrupt, Why should these institutions jeopardize the huge sums to be made from sports by examining it seriously? Are you crazy? 


EDWARDS: But most people like it that way. The average American doesn't give a damn how many lobbyists the NFL has on the Hill. He wants to watch his heroes perform. 

COSELL: It's a cop-out to say the American public doesn't give a damn. The American public has to be taught.


DAVID J. STERN: Harry's right. This image of sports survives because Americans like it. Look at the surveys. As soon as subjects like drugs, strikes, and contract disputes are raised, great numbers of fans turn around and walk away. People aren't looking for hard news about sports; they don't want to know how it "really is."They go to a game to sec a contest, to watch highly skilled gladiators battling it out-in a word, they want the metaphor. They want to see hard work, discipline, teamwork, sacrifice, and hero-: ism succeed before their eyes, on a playing field where all struggles are resolved in a few hours.  That's what sports gives us, that's why people go out and watch.

The question we should be discussing is: What can professional athletes do to have a positive impact on all those people who want nothing more than to watch their every action and hang on their every word? 


COSELL: But whv choose an athlete as a role model in the first place? That's the worst thing to do. 


SANDERS: Athletes are role models, whether we like it or not. Kids take them as such, and we have to accept that fact. Our job is to do what we can to make sure professional athletes are the best possible role models.


PLIMPTON David, do you feel the athlete has an obligation to society? Is he obliged to set an example?


STERN: Frankly, I think that an athlete, once he joins the professional ranks, accepts that big salary, and thereby becomes part of the business, does have obligations. He has press conferences to attend, interviews to give, appearances to make. He doesn't do these things as a favor to journalists. They are obligations designed to sell his image as an athlete and to promote his business.

The fact is, a third of the people in this country wi\I be illiterate within fifteen years, and a disproportionate number of them will be minorities.  Athletes are the most visible role models we have. They are a huge resource, they have an unlimited capacity to do good. Sports is still the metaphor. Without pretending we're something we're not, why not use it to help solve some of these problems? 


COSELL: Here is David, commissioner of the NBA, proudly declaring, in effect, that people don't care about the truth, that ignorance must prevail, that we must resign ourselves to living in a mobocracy. Well, I disagree. When Harry says college sports has polluted the whole American educational structure, he's absolutely right-sand people are starting to admit it. Attitudes toward sports have changed; they're changing every day.


EDWARDS: Yes, attitudes are changing. Athletes used to be perched on a pedestal high above society. But we're beginning to recognize that athletes can't be isolated. If the society is drugsaturated, athletes will have drug problems. If the society is plagued by debauchery arid corruption, athletes will be plagued by them as well. The simple fact is that it is irrational for an athlete or a coach to behave ethically today.  Perhaps Americans have grown up enough to face that.


PHELPS: At least they recognize that the prime issue in sports is materialism and money. We do not seem to know how to put money in perspective, not in professional sports, and certainly riot in college sports.


EDWARDS: That's true throughout our society: ends have utterly outstripped not only means but legitimate process itself. Sports is only the most visible manifestation of the voracity that now characterizes all social relationships. The number of attorneys and doctors brought before professional associations for unethical behavior increases every year. Malpractice suits havebecome a growth industry. Americans snort eighty-five metric tons of cocaine a year; they drop twenty tons of aspirin a day; they consume more drugs in greater variety than any other people on the face of the earth. America's drug problem goes a bit deeper than a few athletes taking steroids or speed. Athletes and sports institutions bear the brunt of people's general dissatisfaction with the ethical bankruptcy of their society. 


COSELL: What you say may be true, but let's start with some facts. Everyone is talking about television, but no one has pointed out that sports viewing is declining in this country. 


STERN: No, it isn't. 


COSELL: On the networks it sure as hell is. The reasons for that are many and varied. Market fractionalization-c-competition from cable and the superstations-is one factor. But much more important is the fact that Americans are deluged with sports presentations, presentations which in their packaging and design have become utterly stereotypical and banal. Television now has goddamn clowns providing "insights."I'm a student of television like few others in this country, and I can't even bear to watch a baseball game anymore. A kid from Commerce, Oklahoma, a kid I've known all his life, Mickey Mantle, is now an announcer. He's never been prepared to be catapulted into national prominence in that role: I mean, you laugh at the absurdity of it.


LlPSYTE: But the sort of programs you're criticizing don't constitute all of televised sports. You're talking about what I call rock-and-roll sports, a mixture of celebrity chitchat, sports analysis, and simple entertainment. That's Mickey Mantle announcing, and that's fine.


STERN: Or Dan Meredith. 


COSELL: His name is Don.


STERN: Whatever. Look, you're a demanding critic, Howard, but we're talking about entertaining the masses here. Have you looked at primetime television lately? And don't be so high and mighty. You've participated in rock-and-roll sports yourself.


COSELL: I think what you're calling rock-and-roll sports is a lot purer than so-called serious sports presentations. At least when I do Batrle of the Network Stars there's no pretense that it's anything other than entertainment.


STERN: I was talking about Monday Night Football


COSELL: Monday Night Football - Christ, what do you expect? The whole goddarnn game is a stereotype.  "They're lining up: two setbacks, two receivers go wide, a zone defense"-try repeating that fifty times a game. Look, my point is simple: the hyped-up, mythologized image of American sports won't change until there are more journalists capable of cornmenting intelligently about it. We don't need more has-been athletes with pretty faces. We need reporters who can win the Pulitzer Prize.


STERN: People don't care about Pulitzer Prize winners today, Howard. They want best sellers.  With all due respect, I think most people would prefer to watch Dr. J and Larry Bird go at it in the NBA playoffs than tune in ABC Sportsbeat, as good as your show is. Not everyone watches Masterpiece Theatre; most people watch sitcoms, which is why the networks do so well. 


COSELL: But the networks are not doing well with sports.


STERN: Yes, they are. The declining numbers are evidence of a simple, very American phenomenon: sports sells, so everyone wants to carry it.  WTBS, ESPN, USA, and independent syndicators are battling it out with the networks, and the marketplace will ultimately decide the winners.  But people can't get enough sports. I get hate mail from fans complaining they get "only"fifty-five NBA games a season on cable. 


PLIMPTON: I'm inclined to agree with David that most people don't really care about the issues Howard is raising. I think people watch sports events to see something we've not even mentioned: very highly developed physical skills.  After all, what do you look at when you watch the Olympics?


LIPSYTE: That's a good question, and I don't think the answer is so simple. I've got this crazed vision of a "planet of the jocks,"where all the athletes pour off the field and into the stands and kill the spectators. What I'm trying to get across is the alienation of athletes-particularly professional and college athletes-from the rest of the people out there. The reason this subject is so very important, the reason sports is more than a mirror or a microcosm and is really a thread running through all our lives, is that people first learn about themselves through sports. Very early in their lives, in elementary school at the latest, boys and girls are judged by their bodies - by their performance in sports - as worthy or unworthy. Those children who don't make the team, who are "cut"- a term I have always found provocative - end up with a great deal of emotional baggage toward athletes and toward the athletic system that rejected them. They tend to have very strong feelings about what athletics means in "this society, whether they are aware of them or not. I think the reason so many people watch all these games, apart from the skill or beauty of the performers, is that they remind them of something they failed to attain very early in their own lives.

The privilege of the athlete is in a sense the first privilege. In the fourth and fifth and sixth grades athletes are more likely to be popular, to be picked first - and this is an age when all kids are so vulnerable. The scientists and the poets, the other talented kids, haven't emerged yet.  The only way kids can judge themselves is by the worthiness of their bodies - by their performance in sports.


PHELPS: Parents today encourage their kids to go after that privilege; their attitudes are truly indicative of what the world of sports has become.  The Texas legislature recently passed a law requiring high schools to impose a "no pass, no play"policy: if a student fails a course, he can't play sports. This rule was designed to put at least some of the emphasis of supposedly educational institutions back on academics. How has the rule been received? About fifty parents brought lawsuits claiming that their kids have a right to play sports - whether they fail a course or not. The Texas Supreme Court disagreed, and declared the rule constitutional. 


EDWARDS: As a matter of fact, blacks especially hate the no-pass, no-play rule, because they see sports as their escalator up and out of poverty which is about the worst self-delusion there is.  A while back, I talked to some of the black parents in Houston who are fighting the rule. I spent two hours explaining what the chances were of their children becoming pros-about one in a hundred, if they're good college players-and, if they were lucky enough to make it, what the chances were of their having a job ten years after they'd played their last professional game. As the rewards become greater and greater, children are putting more and more time into sports at an earlier and earlier age. The game becomes everything. But one day it's all over, and the athlete has to face the realities of life after sports.

I tried to explain all this to these black parents in Houston. Finally, one mother stood up and said: "To me, this rule sounds like another racist trick. Where were the no-pass, no-play rules when Babe Ruth was playing?"

Our society has not yet reached the point where a sportswriter can really investigate the plantation structure of American sports.  Whites dominate the authority positions and blacks supply a disproportionate amount of the labor in football, basketball, track and field, and boxing. This racial division will inevitably exacerbate the antagonism between labor and management that already exists in the sports world. Increasingly; black athletes are complaining that the outcry over drug abuse in sports is really racially motivated: the hierarchy is white, and the players being publicly reprimanded are disproportionately black. And the complaints about player salaries are also seen by many. blacks as racially motivated; after all, the loudest complaints focus on sports in which blacks are making extraordinary amounts of monee,

The plantation structure also hinders efforts to clean up high school and college athletics. Black leaders, even black college presidents, have condemned the NCAA's Proposition 48 - which mandates minimum academic standards for freshman athletes in college - as a racist attempt to undermine the advancement of blacks in collegiate sports, when in fact blacks stand to benefit the most from it. Because blacks are involved in sports in such disproportionately large numbers, people are reluctant to take the steps necessary to clean up the situation.


STERN: You're struggling too hard to fit a lot of diverse facts into a preconceived theory. Most of what you've said may be accurate, but I don't think it all derives from this so-called plantation structure.


EDWARDS: There are only nine black head basketball coaches in the 269 traditionally white Division I schools; there is not a single black head football coach at the professional level; there is not a single black manager in professional baseball; there are fewer and fewer black assistant coaches in football. It will be impossible to reform athletics, even at the college level, as long as the social distance between black athletes and the front offices persists. That distance is underscored by blacks' distrust of white-initiated reforms such as Proposition 48 and Texas's no-pass, no-play rule for high school athletes.  But these rules, inadequate as they are, deserve support because they. clearly communicate to young athletes, black and white, that they must achieve academically as well as athletically. 

STERN: I happen to be head of the sport where this so-called plantation structure was first pointed out. A number of years ago Walter Cronkite asked on national television: "Can the country abide a predominantly black sport?"I think the intervening years have shown the answer to be positive. Surveys tell us that three of the top role models among kids are Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Julius Erving.

EDWARDS: Yet the evidence indicates that a team that is overwhelmingly black must win at least 70 percent of its gaines to maintain its viewership.  and its attendance. A substantially white team can afford a much worse record before its attendance begins to decline.


KING: Maybe the best thing we can do to clean up sports in this country is to reduce the hypocrisy that underlies the whole system, not just the racial divisions you're talking about. Think of our romance with so-called amateur sports. Look at the Olympics, for God's sake-the biggest, grandest spectacle of hypocrisy imaginable.  None of those kids are amateurs! They all live on "athletic scholarships,"a misnomer if there ever was one. Colleges want top athletes because they help build winning teams. And winning teams fill the stadiums, make the television deals more lucrative, and put the alumni in a generous mood. But do we tell parents or children the truth? No, we tell our young athletes, "You must win a gold medal at any cost.  You must set records and make the pros at any cost. Meanwhile, of course, you have to attend classes and get an educations - which, after all, is why you're in college in the first place."

That's a lot of baloney. Colleges want these kids because they're highly skilled in a particular sport, pure and simple. Why keep lying about it? What's wrong with it? Athletic scholarships should be called contracts: you have a contract with this college to play this sport, period ..


PLIMPTON: Do you really want that?


KING: Look, these kids are playing football in front of 80,000 people, and millions more ate watching on tV. Tickets are sold-s-and products are sold-because of the entertainment these kids provide. They should get a percentage of the gate. They're out there killing themselves every Saturday, with no guarantee of making it to the pros, while the coaches are making $200,000 a year.

If I were attending college on a tennis scholarship and lplaved in a Virginia Slims tournamerit, I wouldn't be allowed to take any money.  In what other field of endeavor does such a bizarre stricture.exist? If I were in law school, I'd be encouraged to work for a law firm during the summer, and I'd get paid for it.

The NCAA is supposedly concerned that these kids not be corrupted, that they receive an education. Maybe colleges should concentrate on teaching them something useful-for example, that less than one percent of them will make it to the pros. They should tell them:
Look, this is a real high-risk situation you're getting yourself into by signing this contract to play college sports. You want to take that risk?  Fine, here's the ups and downs of it. 


PHELPS: But what about the 99 percent who sign the contract and then don't make it to the pros?  My real concern is with the kid who doesn't make it. After all those years of being told he's a star, he's the greatest, he'll be taken care of, that kid has used up his college eligibility and is suddenly out on the street without a pro contract or a degree.


KING: But if the kid had made some money during the four years he was in college, at least he'd have something to show for all that work. 


PHELPS: I disagree. It's true that in some sense athletes become professionals as soon as they accept free room, board, and tuition. But it's also true that there are degrees of professionalism.  The real tragedy in college sports is that most of these young athletes are intellectually incapable of understanding what's happening to them.  Look at the basketball scandal at Tulane last spring. Hot Rod Williams, the team's star player, accepts $10,000 in cash to enroll at Tulane.  He then allegedly becomes involved with gamblers who pay him to help fix games. Finally, he's arrested. And when he's booked-and this is to me the most shocking part of the storythis senior at Tulane University can't even read his rights.


COSELL: Tulane is by almost every yardstick one of the more selective universities in this country.  Its record for Rhodes scholarships has been surpassed in the last two years only by Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. How under Dr. Eamon Kelly, a former officer of the Ford Foundation, how could John Williams have been admitted to that university?


EDWARDS: Because the athletic departments of our major universities have become separate empires.  They are completely autonomous; college presidents are so cowed by boards of trustees and alumni that they have abdicated their supervisory responsibilities. Of course, you always hear that the profits from athletics will be used to build chemistry buildings and to endow chairs in the English department. At most campuses this is utter nonsense. That money goes to pay for stadiums and so forth. The athletic tail has truly begun to wag the educational dog.  We have to recognize that these are educational institutions, not athletic institutions.

Until we begin to fire coaches for unethical behavior just as we would fire a professor for unethical behavior, until we hold coaches and athletic departments accountable for academic
integrity, nothing will change. At the University of California at Berkeley, seventy-two athletes
were admitted under the "Chancellor Special Admit"policy between 1971 and 1981 - the chancellor simply signs a paper admitting athletes who don't qualify under normal requirements. Two have graduated to date. There are no records available on the others.


KING: If I were a college athlete, you know what I'd want to learn? About agents and contracts. 


PHELPS: These kids can't even read a contract.  What good is knowing about agents and contracts if you don't make the pros?


KING: That's precisely why college athletes should get paid.


PHELPS: What should we do, Billie Jean? Sell these high school kids to the highest bidder? 


KING: But we already do that. That's the way it is.  Why not be realistic about it? Or at least start to clean it up.


PHELPS: That's what we're trying to do. This past May, for example, the NCAA penalized an athlete from the University of Georgia-in the past, the athletic department or the school was penalized.


KING: Look, let's be honest. What do we want these kids to be? Academics, or athletes?


PHELPS: I want them to be both-student athletes.  And Notre Dame produces them. Seven former players of mine are now in the NBA - and all of them have their degrees. What's wrong with that?


EDWARDS: The discussion of whether athletes should be paid a reasonable proportion of the money they make for their schools bypasses the central problem in college sports, which has to do with education. What Billie Jean proposes would in effect take all the labor-management problems now plaguing professional sports and pile them on top of the educational problems, the corruption, and the recruiting scandals that now afflict the colleges. We'll stop debating whether a college athlete should be literate and start arguing about how much money a star college running back should earn compared to the guy blocking for him; whether the quarterback should be paid more than the coach; whether colleges should try to outbid one another or whether they should set up a high school draft.  And what about when colleges and universities start to go broke trying to maintain their athletic programs?

We're talking here about seventeen-, eighteen-, nineteen-year-old kids. Christ, the average black athlete coming to college on a scholarship has never even had a checking account!  We will compound all the problems of college sports if we make these kids professionals.  If we don't come to grips with what we are doing to kids in collegiate and high school programs, the situation will only get worse. Throwing more money at these kids is not going to solve the problem.


KING: We're already throwing money at them.  Coaches are working out deals with these kids every day. All of a sudden their parents have a new car in their drivewav. All of a sudden everyone in the family's wearing fancy clothes. 


EDWARDS: For better or worse, colleges and universities have become farm clubs for professional basketball and football teams and the principal training ground for our Olympic teams. These kids do not come to college looking for an education; most of them lack the basic preparation that would allow them to benefit from one.  What can Digger Phelps do with a kid who, while he may be the greatest basketball player in the world, can't read, can't write, can't add or subtract, can't·figure out his change at the grocery store? What do you do with this onedimensional human being on a college campus? 

PHELPS: First of all, we have to shift the focus to academic credibility. Colleges should admit only those athletes who have maintained a C average in eleven college-prep units. Once a college accepts that youngster, it should be responsible for him. People are starting to realize the importance of academic standards, particularly on the high school level. We mentioned the no-pass, no-play rule in Texas. A better approach is that taken by the Los Angeles school system: two years ago it passed a rule requiring high school athletes to maintain a C average with no failing grades in order to compete. Well, about 6,000 kids immediately became ineligible to take part in extracurricular activities - including sports in Los Angeles, and everyone was up in arms.

But lo and behold, a year later over half of those kids had improved their grades enough to be eligible to play.

These rules can work-hut parents and educators must have the nerve to demand them.  On the college level, a rule requiring that the holder of a scholarship graduate before it can be used for another athlete would put a lot of pressure on the admissions office, which in turn would put pressure on the athletic department to award scholarships only to qualified youngsters.  And this would put pressure on the high schools and the junior high schools. 

Finally, the NCAA should suspend or revoke the eligibility of athletes involved in recruiting violations or on-campus corruption. College athletes are old enough to know what's right and what's wrong. They shouldn't be allowed to compete after committing a violation. As it is now, the NCAA doesn't even slap their wrists.  Look at the University of Florida. The NCAA put the school on probation for two years, which meant the football team was barred from appearing on national television or going to a bowl game. Last season the team was ranked third in the nation in one of the two major polls. Those athletes played in eleven football games; the team's ranking guarantees them national exposure. They all have agents and a chance at pro contracts, Are they being penalized?


EDWARDS: Look, we're talking about minors. The most powerful universities in this country have gone out and recruited these kids, who are usually the first in their families to attend college. 


PHELPS: Harry, it's inevitable that some youngsters will get burned while we try to clean up the system.  But we've got to start someplace.


EDWARDS: Start with those who are culpable, not with kids who don't even know what their rights are. Hell, half the coaches can't understand the NCAA rule book. How is a freshman who can neither read nor write supposed to understand what the rules are? Particularly when the coach tells him, "Hey, don't worry about it."And when he knows his grades were changed so he could get into the school in the first place. The kid is the most victimized element in the whole system, and he's the only one producing a damn thing. Now you want to penalize him because the coach and the college president and the professors and everyone else involved are trying to pay their mortgages through the exploitation of his athletic talents. 


COSELL: The obvious conclusion is that big-time college sports should be abolished. But David and his colleagues wouldn't like that at all. All David's worried about is the NBA. He wants those college superstars, those highly trained properties, to keep on coming. But I suspect Western civilization would survive the demise of the NBA.


STERN: I'm not concerned' about the NBA. It will survive. We might have to scout a little bit harder, and look beyond the schools that get paid three quarters of a mill ion dollars for making it to the final four of the NCAA tournament.

As a matter of fact, I'm a little jealous of the college programs. We're basically in the same business, but the colleges make more money at it than we do. And, as Bob Lipsyte said, college sports does more than just pay for the stadiums.  Success in sports tends to put alumni - and state legislators - in a giving mood.


PHELPS: What about the almost 800 colleges and universities that manage to survive without being ranked in the top twenty?


EDWARDS: No one expects them to compete at that level. When a school puts a lot of money into its athletic program, the administration and the alumni expect it to compete. The president of the University of Oklahoma proclaimed last year: "We're going to develop an institution that the Oklahoma Sooners football team can be proud of."


PHELPS: As long as we have that mentality, we're going to have the same problems. College presidents get fired today because they've turned in their schools for recruiting violations. That's what happened at SMU. Those heavyweights on the board of trustees who feel their school must be number one at any cost said, "Get rid of that president."But why do they have to be number one at any cost?


STERN: Because of the rewards, obviously. 


PHELPS: Big deal. At Notre Dame we grossed $6 million this year in sports. It costs $130 million a year to run the place. And I don't want to hear that Notre Dame's unique. We're only one of several hundred schools that continue to survive as institutions of higher learning. Our football program has not been that successful during the last four years, but there are still people willing to give millions for a faculty office building. 


EDWARDS: The same is not true at Santa Fe State. 


PHELPS: It should be. We have to begin with a clear idea of what's right and what's wrong. I disagree that youngsters should not be penalized when they violate the rules. They are told when they're recruited that all they will get is room, board, and tuition; they know when they're receiving money and benefits they shouldn't be. I believe coaches should be dealt with more severely as well. They should at least he suspended, if not fired outright.


STERN: Consider the coach who's brought in to a school like Santa Fe State. He's given a six-figure salary, a rent-free home, a local television show, and told to turn the program around. His job depends on making the team a winner fast.  If the team makes the final four, the school gets a million bucks to build a new field house.  And for ten grand he can recruit a player who will take him there. Tough choice, isn't it? 


EDWARDS: And the NCAA's pitiful enforcement procedures almost guarantee that he will get away with it. The NCAA is one of the most corrupt organizations in America. It has eleven full-time enforcement agents to police almost 800 institutions. Under the circumstances, the chance of them actually catching anyone violating a rule is virtually nil.

Since enforcement is so lax, and since a coach looks at kids every day whom he could recruit for a lousy ten grand and who might mean as much as $3 million a year to his school, that coach would have to be irrational not to cheat. It is the whole system that must be disciplined and reformed, not the kids victimized by it.

To clean up athletics we first have to develop a movement involving athletes, high schools, colleges, the media, sports personalities, sociologists, and so on-something like a civil rights movement that would transcend sports itself, that would extend from the family up through professional sports.


SANDERS: The Center for the Study of Sport at Northeastern University has a program that sends pro athletes to talk to high school kids about the importance of education. The pros also go to school banquets and PTA meetings to impress on parents the need to emphasize a balance between education and athletics. Meanwhile, the center encourages the media to recognize the academic as well as the athletic accomplishments of youngsters. And it recently set up a consortium of universities that will duplicate these programs across the nation. We believe that encouraging all schools to confront these problems is the first step in solving them. 


PHELPS: This nation did a great job of alerting people, particularly young people, to the dangers of smoking cigarettes. That is the sort of educational effort needed in sports. Everyone must get involved, not only pro athletes: coaches, principals, city chancellors of schools, state legislators, state superintendents of schools, the secretary of education. Above all, we need to encourage individual responsibility. When I recruit a high school All-American, I tell him:

"The only thing I want you to thank me for is your degree. You're going to get an opportunity here to try to make it to the pros. But if you don't make it, you'll have a degree that means something."

I let my kids know that there are guys in the NBA who have their degrees, guys who are going back to summer school to get degrees. But the kind of effort I'm talking about has to begin before college. We have to use our imagination.  Every July, New York hosts the Big Apple Games, a five-week program funded by Mobil Oil in which junior high and high school kids are organized to play in basketball leagues at night. Now, a lot of high school teachers are looking for summer jobs. How about hiring them to work every afternoon, teaching those kids an hour of reading and writing, an hour of math, an hour of computer science? The educational program would be closely linked to the athletic program: if a kid doesn't show up for class, he doesn't play that night. At the end of the summer, you reward them by having Jabbar or Dr. J visit the school for an afternoon. 

Television also has a part to play. Howard's Sports beat piece on the Tulane scandal should be shown to every young athlete. But in the end, the system has to impose some discipline on itself. My athletes know they need a 2.0 average to play basketball at Notre Dame. They know that academic requirements are not a game. And our guys know they're not supposed to take $10,000 under the table. And they don't take it, either-even though plenty of them have the opportunity.


KING: That sort of education really has to begin before school. Athletes giving speeches are no substitute for parents imposing discipline. Mine were very strict. My dad once threatened to saw my racket in half because I had been a bad sport. When I got less than a 3.0 average at school one year, I knew I couldn't play tennis the next semester-and I didn't.

If professional athletes have one thing to say to young people, it is this: making it as a pro is very difficult-only one percent of college stars break in. It's important that the top athletes tell them that.


STERN: In my view, a strong commitment by university presidents to take control of their athletic departments is more important than Harry's cleanup campaign. They have to be made accountable.  Corruption in sports is an extension of an attitude that has become pervasive in our society: winning is what's important, winning at any cost. Blood doping, steroids, payoffs - all of it can be traced to that attitude. The rewards in big-time sports are so enormous that the problem is bound to get worse. Drug use and grade-fixing are only the beginning; the Frankensteins of the future will be one-dimensional, drug-built, blood-doped athletes who know nothing but how to win at whatever game they happen to play.


PLIMPTON: Do the athletes themselves think about these problems? Do they sit around the locker room talking about them?


SANDERS: Athletes in general see themselves as protected from the world. Most of them, particularly the very good ones, have been protected all their lives. Basically, they've learned how to sign their names on the dotted line. They are only too happy to avoid the reality they've been helped to avoid. When I was playing for the Celtics, I had roommates who refused to discuss anything political. What do you think about politics, drugs, this or that issue? "Sorry, man, I don't get into that."


KING: It's pretty much the same in professional tennis.  Players today are more protected than ever, surrounded by coaches, trainers, agents, and so on. And of course the coaches and agents have a stake in protecting those players from "distractions,"in keeping them playing tennisthat's where the money comes from, after all.

I remember a discussion I had with Chris Evert Lloyd. She had just picked up a $100,000 check for winning a tournament. I asked her if she knew how hard a small businessman would
have to work to earn that kind of money. She just gave me a blank look. She's done nothing
but play tennis since she was in grade school how would she know?
Harpersmagazine-1985-09-0001

© 2019 Mark Danner