Dining out on college athletics


December 26, 1991|By Allen Barra

ERIC RAMSEY, a former Auburn University football player, is spinning tapes in public that could shake the foundation of college football.

Ramsey has apparently taped more than 100 hours of conversations with Auburn coaches, alumni and even the head coach, Pat Dye. They catalog more violations concerning his own wages and working conditions than the National Collegiate Athletic Association can shake a stick at. (But, rest assured, the NCAA will find a bigger stick.)

Somewhere, W.W. (Pudge) Heffelfinger has to be chuckling.

Heffelfinger, the pride of Yale, college football's first all-American, liked to talk about how the game had changed over the 60 years he watched it.

Coaches, he said in a 1950 autobiography, had become gods; in the old (pre-World War II) days it wasn't uncommon for players to get fed up with a coach's carping and shout right back.

In one instance the team captain and two other players forced their coach off the field and told him not to come back until they had finished practicing for the big game. Pudge approved; he even thought it would be great if the coach watched the game in the stands and let the players call their own plays.

The rise to power of the college coach coincided with the rise of football as a big-money sport. Colleges needed someone to watch over their interests.

(The old joke, "We're going to build a university here that the football team can be proud of," dates back at least 70 years.)

The modern coach has no connection to education; he is in partnership with the school to make money out of the bodies of young men. Colleges may or may not consider these athletes' futures beyond the playing field. A few colleges do; most don't, none has to.

Now Dye's empire in Auburn, Ala., is apparently about to crumble and the football establishment is reacting with a mixture of horror and astonishment like that of Claude Rains' police chief in "Casablanca," who was "shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here," even as an attendant slipped him his winnings.

Everyone knows that recruiting violations and under-the-table payments go on all the time in college sports and have for decades.

There doesn't appear to be anything noble in Ramsey's motives. The tapes, portions of which have appeared in Alabama newspapers, make it clear that he not only took money, he often badgered coaches for it.

And he was paid off in more than cash; Auburn coaches like to make payoffs in steaks -- an apt metaphor for a sport that treats players like meat. It seems that if his National Football League career had worked out (he was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs) Ramsey wouldn't be releasing the tapes.

So what are Ramsey's motives?

Money? Well, it's a cinch that he didn't make hours of tapes just to relive his golden memories of Auburn.

And what if he makes a couple of hundred thousand dollars from a self-serving book? How is this form of being mercenary essentially different from that of a coach with a lucrative income from product endorsements, like Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, whose contract with Nike involves having all his amateur athletes advertise for the company every time they hit the floor?

A couple of hundred thousand dollars would seem fair payment for four years of service to a powerful program like Auburn's by L LTC player good enough to be drafted into the NFL.

However cold-blooded Ramsey has been in taking Auburn's money and telling tales out of school, keep in mind that Auburn made a solid profit on him.

The real irony of the Ramsey scandal -- and of all college sports scandals -- is that the school is caught in its own hypocrisy.

Auburn didn't break any laws. It violated an NCAA code to which it had agreed in order to help foster the illusion that big-time college football is an amateur sport.

Ramsey's microphone will have more impact on college sports than all the NCAA committees ever formed. After all, what coach is going to fling steaks at a player knowing that he might be recorded in the act?

Pretty soon the NCAA is going to have to decide to either let the players share in the wealth or return college sports to college students.

Allen Barra is a columnist for the Village Voice.

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