Time to Stop Playing Games Over Payoffs to College Athletes


The year was 1964, and UCLA would win its first national basketball championship. Not only was there a wizard in the making, but there was also a monster.

According to Jack Hirsch, a starting forward on that team, boosters paid players $5 a rebound up to 10 a game and $10 for each rebound beyond that. UCLA, which had the smallest team in what was then the Athletic Assn. of Western Universities, led the league in rebounding.

"It was a helluva great feeling to pick up $100 for a single night's work," Hirsch was quoted as saying in "The Wizard of Westwood."

That was a start at UCLA. Later, Sam Gilbert, a dynastic booster for a dynastic basketball team, would emerge to help players get cars, stereos, clothes, airline tickets and scalpers' prices for their basketball season tickets.

It's an old story. There are many such stories. We know about Kentucky. And about SMU. And UNLV. And Tulane. And all the rest. Handshakes with a $100 bill in them. Shoe boxes full of money. Slush funds. There's a story that goes back years about the player who had a summer job winding clocks in the school gym that had just gone electric. Lots of old stories.

We know about athletes who left school after four years still unable to read. We know about colleges arranging for players to take summer-school courses they never attended, but for which they received passing grades.

We know the stories by heart, and yet it is fashionable these days to suggest that college sports have turned some kind of corner on the issue of integrity. We see the school presidents putting forth halfhearted, warmed-over ideas that are nevertheless perceived, at least by college coaches, as radical and threatening to the system.

The system lives, like a great, fire-eating beast.

It's an ugly system that, from time to time, is defended as being not as bad as it seems. This is the 1- or 2- (or 3- or 20-) rotten-apples-in-a-barrel defense.

Now, we have evidence, hard evidence, that that particular argument does not hold.

Allen L. Sack, a sociology professor at the University of New Haven, mailed surveys to 3,500 active and retired National Football League players this year. From the 1,182 who responded, he learned 31% admitted taking under-the-table payments from alumni and coaches, and 48% said they knew of people who took such money.

Of the 115 respondents who attended Southeastern Conference schools, 52% said they took the money and ran, or tackled, or blocked.

One player said he received $80,000 during his four years in school. There was once a joke about a Los Angeles high school basketball recruit that to sign him would put the school over the salary cap.

"For me," Sack said, "the results said that it's far more than what they say at the NCAA--that it's not just a renegade institution or the deviant player. There's a substantial underground economy that's likely to be unstopped.

"I think the problem with the system is that it's humiliating for athletes and degrading for higher education."

There is a school of thought that says college athletes should be paid. The argument follows that athletes are paid only with a scholarship, while their product, if they are football or basketball players, can bring in millions of dollars annually.

OK. How much do you pay the athlete--$50 a month, $100 a month, $1,000 a month? Or should you just have open bidding? And if you don't, isn't that restraint of trade? Do you have to begin a draft of high school students? If a player is to get $100 a month, what makes you believe the same schools that now cheat won't just offer $200 a month plus the standard late-model used car? Won't standard payments make it even easier to cheat?

Most of us can agree that college athletes are routinely exploited. But when a coach says he has to give an underprivileged kid money to fly home for his mother's funeral, I wonder why this same coach had to recruit a youngster who lived 2,000 miles away.

There are solutions for those really interested. Make rules we believe in, and then when schools cheat, let's punish them. Really punish them.

Let's make the death penalty--temporarily closing down a program completely--standard for any serious violation.

Let's throw in probation, and even the death penalty, for schools that don't graduate a certain percentage of their athletes.

Let's take all the television money and all the bowl money and all the NCAA basketball tournament money and divide it among all the participating colleges, not simply those most successful.

Let's make coaches professors, give them tenure and limit their salaries while banning them from accepting shoe contracts. Let's fire them when they cheat.

Let's not put our heads in the sand and pretend there's no problem. Let's get serious.

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