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At This Rate, San Quentin Could Be No. 1

Do you remember the movie, “The Dirty Dozen”?

You will recall the commanding officer is called upon to perform some extraordinary military feat, capture a stronghold guarded by elite enemy forces.

The point is, he doesn’t even consider doing it with civilian soldiers, the young crew-cut draftees or even the downy-cheeked graduates of the officer candidate schools.

He reaches into the military stockades, the army jailhouses, the lists of guys on report, the men who have been stripped of their rank, court-martialed, ostracized. The guys who in civilian life were safecrackers, bank robbers, street gangsters, muggers, mob muscle men. If they weren’t in the Army, they’d be in Leavenworth. They’d be in trouble for fragging their lieutenants, heisting the payroll, black-marketing government supplies.

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The commander knew he needed men like these to win because he was going up against men like these, Hitler’s SS.

I bring this up because college football coaching has apparently approached this melancholy plateau.

We’ve long known you can’t win Orange Bowls with real students. Now it appears that you can’t win it with non-felons.

I mean, take a look at the University of Oklahoma. Judging by the reports, they should move their home games to San Quentin. It may be the only team in the country whose quarterback wears a 10-digit number. They make the Dalton Gang look like the Salvation Army. Rape, drug-dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, which is nearly a euphemism for attempted murder, theft dot the records of this varsity.

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Where did the coach get these “players”? Well, where coaches usually get players in places where football is king--out of pool halls, gin mills, sometimes police lineups, street gangs. They don’t get them out of classrooms, that’s for sure.

The coach’s challenge is a lifelong struggle to keep them eligible and off parole. Sometimes, he just has to hope they don’t eat anybody before their classes graduate and he can turn the problem over to the Green Bay police department.

Nor is the problem indigenous to Oklahoma. Writing in the current Sports Illustrated, reporter Rick Reilly finds no fewer than 10 recent or current University of Colorado football players facing or awaiting assorted charges, ranging from rape and kidnaping to assault, disorderly conduct, burglary and trespassing.

The problem, of course, is a simple one: Talented football players, from the time they make their first touchdowns or tackles, are cossetted, catered to, made to feel they are above the level of ordinary mortals. They are made to feel that the ability to run or catch a football or to separate someone with one from his senses is the most important attribute in the world.

They see something, they want it. Sometimes, it’s a car. Sometimes, it’s a girl. Coaches have been known to enlist the services of a few women on campus to help them with their recruitment. There’s a word for that and it isn’t coach.

The coach knows he has to win. Nobody asks him how. Some alums never get psychologically out of their beanie hats and tailgate-party mentality. If we spent the money on cancer that they spend wooing linebackers, we wouldn’t have any.

Coaches know how to play this cynical parlay, sophomoric alums and street toughs, into a payoff where they become rich men. They run a paramilitary operation. Some even sequester their athletes from the rest of the student body in segregated dorms. They foster an us-against-them mentality. It’s sick.

When Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer found out from his sources that his quarterback, Charles Thompson, was under investigation for dope-dealing, he promptly tipped off the quarterback. And thereby blew up an FBI investigation that was after much bigger game. Switzer was not worried about the FBI, though.

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“I had my program to look after,” he said.

The “program” is the game’s Holy Grail. This is the pipeline that keeps the squad--and the stadium--filled. Not all the players in it are thugs.

Why should there be any? We had football games in this country when the players were bona fide students. The Yale Bowl was full on a Saturday afternoon to watch the game against Princeton. There wasn’t a rapist on the field.

Why should a college football team be like the SS? Full of fancily-dressed thugs, hoodlums, bullies, sadists? When the fans in the stands yell, “We’re No.1!” should they mean Public Enemy?


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