'Sports for Sale' isn't new but compelling


March 19, 1991|By Michael Hill

I had a teacher in high school who had gone to Georgia Tech in the days when it was a perennial national football power. This state institution was also a respected engineering school, the type of place that seemed an odd match for high-powered athletics.

But such marriages were those of convenience. That teacher told of taking a class with one of the football players. At exam time one fine spring day, the player positioned himself next to an open window and proceeded to hand his test paper out the window where some unseen person filled in the answers.

According to this teacher, there was no way the professor in charge of the class could have missed this action, but turning a blind eye was apparently the safe route. The football player stayed in school, the team kept winning, the alumni stayed happy.

And, not only that, no one was really shocked at such shenanigans. It was considered the price you paid for having a top-class football program at a first-rate school.

That incident took place probably close to 30 years ago. It helps to illustrate one of the most important points of "Sports for Sale," the Bill Moyers-hosted PBS documentary that airs tonight at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Broadcasting, Channels 22 and 67, which is that the current brouhaha about scandals in college sports is nothing new.

Indeed, the documentary points out that in 1894 Michigan's national championship football team had seven players who were not even enrolled at the university. And that was before there was TV money at stake.

Not long after that, President Theodore Roosevelt called for a clean-up of intercollegiate athletics, primarily because of abuses football. Out of that came the National Collegiate Athletic Association, currently producing that major prime time program, the NCAA basketball tournament for CBS.

The NCAA adopted the then-popular Victorian notion of amateur athletics, the same sort of stuff that was used for the modern Olympic movement, also just getting off the ground. The athletes were just there for healthy bodies to go with the healthy minds they were getting in the classroom.

Right. Fast forward through the years of lionizing college athletes -- the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, Red Grange -- through the basketball point-shaving scandals, up to the present day when even the co-called "clean" programs seem laden with sleaze as their coaches and other hired hands poke and prod 17-year-old kids, sizing them up as physical specimens, figuring out ways around the admission office and the NCAA rules before sending them out on the field to entertain the masses and attract the network television money.

And, in return for helping to bring the university thousands, maybe millions, of dollars, the athlete gets what is called an education. Which all too often means he gets to live with other athletes, eat with other athletes, take the easiest courses possible and, with the assistance of hired tutors, make grades that won't help him graduate, but will keep him eligible to play sports.

It's not a pretty picture and, though Moyers and crew use few surprising images, they paint it in dramatic and understandable hues. "Sports For Sale" doesn't really surprise, but it does do one of the things that Moyers does best, it frames the argument quite well.

The cameras take you to Southern Methodist University, where the school is putting together a football program that was dismantled by the NCAA after repeated recruiting violations. It takes you to a basketball camp where the Nike shoe company pays the bill to put the best high school players on display for coaches every afternoon, after putting them through classes every morning.

It takes you to another basketball camp run by a former Duke player who argues that the college players should be paid. You hear Iowa State football coach Jim Walden bragging that 52 percent of his players graduate while saying the popularity of sports proves that they belong on campus in their current form; and Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum bragging about the number of players he has sent to pro leagues as if he were running some sort of vocational program.

It's quite a tour, though there's nothing that new here. What's lacking is any sort of special insight from Moyers. He might be saving that for the half-hour panel discussion on today's release of a major commission report on intercollegiate athletics that will follow at 10:30 or the hour-long call-in show that comes after that.

What would have been nice in the historical overview was some explanation of how athletics got so identified with our colleges in the first place, why sports in America didn't develop along the lines of the club systems found in England and Europe.

The way to eliminate the current rampant hypocrisy might be some sort of hybrid, clubs associated with colleges. You could join the club and play for it with or without going to class. Michigan might have been onto something in 1894.

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