A season of discontent

William C. Rhoden

September 30, 1992|By William C. Rhoden

FROM now until June, intercollegiate athletics will be in full bloom, with all the pageantry that has come to represent the industry. This is also the season when the investigative arm of the National Collegiate Athletic Association embarks on its annual campaign of cops and robbers, tracking down reports of misdeeds and questionable maneuvers by representatives of ambitious athletic departments.

The college football season is barely four weeks old and word is already circulating that Auburn University may soon be receiving a preliminary letter of inquiry from the NCAA concerning the university's football program.

Auburn, which is conducting its own internal investigation, says that it has heard nothing from the NCAA.

Regardless of the status of the investigation by the NCAA, the focus on Auburn has uncovered a wound that was dramatically opened nearly a year ago by Eric Ramsey, a former Auburn football player who secretly recorded phone conversations with Auburn coaches and alumni over a three-year period beginning in 1988.

The tapes recorded Ramsey's requests in person and by phone for money and delivery of money as well as arrangement for bank loans, all improper under NCAA regulations.

Two weeks ago, NCAA enforcement officers finished hearing 20 hours of recorded conversations. If they concluded that the tapes were authentic, that would effectively remove any major barrier to sending Auburn a letter of inquiry.

Friday, Ramsey and his wife, Twilitta, appeared at a symposium in Washington. The most emotional moment came when Ramsey's wife began to cry as she described the assortment of pressures, including death threats, that she said she, her husband and their 4-year-old son have endured since going public with their assertions of problems faced by players, especially black players, in Auburn's football program.

She cited the recently published book by Pat Dye, Auburn's head football coach, which questioned Ramsey's motives. She said that Dye, who resigned as athletic director after the the tapes were made public, has implied in private and in interviews that she and her husband were after money.

"The question of who is after money has already been answered," she said. "If you look at the $18 million the athletic department makes each year from football -- played by teams that are predominantly black -- you will see that it is not the student-athletes who profit monetarily from this sport. It is the coaches and university.

"We did this because for five years we saw black athletes get abused mentally and physically by coaches and after football eligibility was over or if they were injured, they were thrown away like dirty dishrags.

"You were taught at Auburn that you either stayed in your place or you would not have a place."

The question that is often asked at any number of universities universities is when will this end. The answer is not soon.

For all of the focus on finances and academic standards, the college enterprises' chief dilemma is a crisis of leadership, a lack of energy, desire and the authority to lead.

Eric Ramsey may represent pain and betrayal to Auburn alumni, but in a larger sense, he is only the harbinger of things to come.

Former Sun reporter William C. Rhoden wrote this for the New York Times.

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