Comments by former NCAA executive director Walter Byers, whose ideal of flinty amateurism set the course for that organization during the 36 years he lorded over it. provided a surreal prelude to last week's NCAA convention in San Diego. On Jan. 4 Byers decried the "neo-plantation mentality" prevailing in college sports and called for paying players what the market will bear. This was a little rich coming from the Simon Legree of American athletics, and may have had something to do with Byers's desire to Hog his forthcoming book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.
In San Diego the delegates treated Byers's words like the rantings of some escaped-from-the-attic uncle. "The day the membership decides to pay players to play will be the day my institution stops playing," said University of Nevada president Joseph Crowley, who's also the NCAA's outgoing president. But the organization might have neutralized Byers's criticism if it had made more significant progress on its pledge to address "student-athlete welfare, access and equity" at this year's convention.
To be sure, athletes did win a few last week. Every NCAA school will now be required to establish—and presumably listen to—its own advisory committee composed of athletes. An effort to rescind the year-old "testing the waters" rule, which permits underclassmen to put in for the NBA draft and still choose to return to college with their athletic eligibility intact if they ultimately decide not to go pro, appeared headed for defeat at press time. The membership also voted to delay until 1996 implementation of controversial Proposition 16, which will introduce tighter academic standards for freshman eligibility, to give high school athletes an additional year to adapt to their colleges' new expectations.
But on Monday the membership rejected a proposal that would have extended a fourth season of competition to an athlete who fails Prop 16's test of initial eligibility, even if he showed progress in the classroom by the time he was a senior. In addition, delegates defeated legislation that would have permitted athletes to earn up to $1,500 per year by working while school is in session, and the convention tabled for more study a plan to extend to football, basketball and hockey players the right to transfer once without having to sit out a season. Critics say those latter two proposals are fraught with potential complications. Athletes hardly have time to practice, compete and attend class as is, let alone hold down a job, and by letting them work, the NCAA would risk the return of no-show sinecures and the abuse of the $1,500 limit. An instant-transfer rule would most likely lead to an endless recruiting season, with malcontents lighting out for another campus at the slightest provocation. But the NCAA errs so often, it would be refreshing to see the organization err on the side of the athlete once in awhile. The lumbering pace of reform evident in San Diego only serves to give hysterical proposals like Byers's an appeal they don't deserve.
NFL fans are more than passingly familiar with the excitement provided by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice during their years together on the San Francisco 49ers. Last Thursday college hoops fans also got a taste of what can result when Montana and Rice hook up. After last-second heroics by each team pushed the game into two overtimes, the Grizzlies beat the Owls 90-81.
Obituaries of Woody Strode, who died last week in his native Los Angeles at the age of 80 after a battle with lung cancer, dwelt on his long and successful movie career while making only passing reference to his athletic accomplishments. The Associated Press, for example, mentioned that Strode had "attended UCLA" and "played professional football" but focused on his appearances as "an imposing character actor" in such films as Spartacus and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Yet despite a half century in the movies—he had recently completed work on a new western. The Quick and the Dead, with Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman—Strode's most important role may well have been one he played not on celluloid but on the gridiron.
In 1946 Strode and former UCLA teammate Kenny Washington, who seven years earlier had starred together on a Bruin squad that also featured Jackie Robinson, signed with the Los Angeles Rams, thereby breaking the NFL's longstanding color barrier. Known as the Goal Dust Twins during their glory years at UCLA, Strode and Washington became the first blacks to play in the league in 12 years. The NFL likes to point out that in contrast to baseball, it had accepted black players as early as 1920, and indeed a few of the league's first stars, such as Paul Robeson and Fritz Pollard, were African-Americans. But in 1934, with white players complaining about job competition, NFL owners drew the color line. Only when faced with competition from the upstart Ail-American Football Conference, which agreed to hire blacks, did the NFL reopen the door. Like their old teammate Robinson, both Strode and Washington endured prejudice and abuse during their time in the league. As a 32-year-old rookie—in the seven years after he left UCLA, Strode played semipro football, wrestled professionally and served in the Air Corps in World War II—Strode saw little playing time with the Rams and was released at the end of the '46 season. "I was shoved down their throats, and that made them mad, and they took it out on me," Strode once said of his NFL stint.
He had a better time of it in Hollywood. Strode went on to appear in more than 60 films, and for generations of moviegoers what he once did on the gridiron meant nothing. For generations of black players, however, it has meant the world.