Here's One Fantasy That Could Take All Fun Out of Life

Now it's the University of Houston. Two ex-football players say that the school's coach and his assistants have doled out big money to the team's stars.

This is the latest case in an epidemic of college sports abuses that started about 100 years ago. What can be done?

A Times reader, Lowell Dabbs, writes to say that he has not a solution, but a fantasy.

"It goes like this," Dabbs writes. "Colleges spend what money they must to have fine young players perform for the ticket-buying public. They call it salary, just like the salary they pay students working for the cafeteria, or the groundskeepers. The students, not the colleges, may elect to have some of the salary be paid as tuition and room and board, and thus perhaps have a tax advantage.

"The player may also accept money from the pro teams to sign contracts guaranteeing the pros the exclusive services of the player for a certain number of years, as soon as the player reaches a certain age or graduates. (Don't the armed forces have somewhat similar arrangements?)

"In fact, the players can accept money from anyone--college, pro team, alumni, parents, spouses--for any legal reason whatsoever. And like other pro athletes, they are free to engage agents to get them the best deals going.

"The player is not required to attend any classes during a major sport season. If he or she has the brains, stamina and dedication to do so, then fine. But there is no pretense that the average player can successfully carry a full academic load at a self-respecting college and also play a major sport.

"Thus, in my fantasy, as human beings, the players will have their personal integrity restored to them; they will enjoy a portion of the income their labors produce; and they can receive the best educations their athletic and intellectual talents can earn.

"The college presidents and other officials will sleep better, knowing they cannot possibly be breaking any hypocritical regulations. The colleges will get back to doing what they do best: educating young people and entertaining the public. And everybody, including the IRS, will know that it's all being done honestly and efficiently."

Great idea, Lowell. Only problem is, if your fantasy came true it would suck the life out of college sports. It would strip away the fun, the challenge, the adventure. Let me try to explain.

Let's say you're a loyal alumnus, a fat, rich, cigar-smoking college athletic supporter. Your biggest thrill in life is strutting into the locker room every Saturday afternoon after the game and shaking hands with the team's star player, secretly slipping hundred-dollar bills into his grateful palm.

Now put that kid on your official company payroll. Not only is that sneaky, under-the-table thrill gone, but this kid, who used to stop by your house for steak dinners and to have you wax his Trans Am, the only time you see him is when he comes around with his agent to renegotiate, or demand longer coffee breaks.

Or let's say you're a big-time coach. Like most big-time coaches, you can't coach much, you just have some clever assistants who send in plays, but you can recruit up a storm. That's what you do. You charm the momma of the state's blue-chip high school running back until she's ready to rename the kid in your honor. You round up the cattle and then take credit for the stampede.

Under this fantasy system, though, recruiting becomes as personalized as stock-market trading. Your specialty becomes the work of guys in pin-striped suits carrying briefcases, guys who snicker at your cowboy boots and folksy sayings.

Now if you're a star player, you'll probably have to take a pay cut. With this fantasy system, even the interior linemen will be getting paid something, which will diminish the funds available for stars like yourself. Also, it's a lot more fun (I imagine) to get your money by secret handshake than by itemized payroll check. Try hiding that money from the IRS. Oh, and you'll have to wax your own Trans Am.

If you're a fan, Lowell, this fantasy system would destroy the illusion that keeps college sports alive--the illusion that these kids play for your favorite team out of loyalty and love for that particular institution of higher learning, that he or she bleeds school colors and sleeps under a school pennant.

Furthermore, your fantasy puts a lot of people out of work, people such as high-school-transcript surgeons, surrogate test-takers and investigative reporters. And what about all those NCAA detectives? What do you think they would do if they lost their jobs? They'd be turned loose on society. They'd take jobs in the real world, spying on you and me.

You've opened a serious can of worms, here, Mr. Dabbs. I think it's best you forget this idea and go back to enjoying college sports in their current state of purity.

But if your fantasy ever does come true, I have the utmost confidence in the people who make up the college athletic system. Somehow they will find a way to cheat.

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