You, dear reader, could have lucked out this week. Rather than slogging your way through the following screed, you might have had the chance to read something fresher and more compelling. You could have been reading an account of life in the Big Ten as seen through the eyes of Dan Kreft.
Kreft is a senior electrical engineering major at Northwestern who describes himself as "the world's only 7-foot-tall, Division I-basketball-playing computer nerd." Last fall he created his own home page on the World Wide Web, and throughout this sorry Wildcats season—Northwestern was 7-17 at week's end—he has updated it with postings that reflect his frank and salty sensibility. In a manner that sometimes strays into the realm of Beavis and Bull-Head, Kreft ruminates on the love-hate relationship he has with his coaches, the stress of studying linear convolution while playing a Big Ten schedule and the traumas of a relative's dying and a teammate's quitting during the season. Kreft is an athlete who actually does what universities are chartered to encourage, which is to ask questions. Among them: Why is abbreviated such a long word? What is Styrofoam shipped in? And, as he puts it, "if bread always lands butter-side down and cats always land on their feet, what would happen if you strapped your bread and butter (butter-side up, of course) to the back of a cat?"
We asked Kreft a question of our own: Would he like to contribute a story to our pages? He said sure. He said he would even do it for free if that's what the rules required. But, alas, that wasn't good enough for the abominable no-men at the NCAA. Invoking Article 126.96.36.199 of their constitution, they ruled that if Kreft were to write a bylined story, he would be helping a commercial entity, i.e. SI, sell its product—and that would constitute unacceptable exploitation of his status as an athlete.
Never mind that we wanted Kreft to write for us not because of his basketball ability—he'll admit with disarming candor that he has very little of that—but because of his way with words. The NCAA was resolute: It simply can't have athletes at its universities writing for national magazines. (Why, the very idea might disabuse the public of the notion that college jocks are illiterate.)
The rules that govern athletes are made by NCAA committees that have only recently added nonvoting student representatives. But while the NCAA effectively tells the people who play college sports to shut up, the airwaves are clogged with coaches' shows and with former coaches working as commentators. Woe unto us if we were to be deprived of their wisdom. "We put his balls in a vise, I twisted it, we stuck a red-hot poker up his ass and poured water down his mouth, and I told him if he promised to play well, we'd quit all that," Indiana coach Bob Knight said on Feb. 14, when asked why Hoosier center Todd Lindeman had played so well that night against Penn State. Knight can spew blather like that, and every repulsive syllable will be disseminated. Yet if Kreft sent us a sonnet and we published it, he'd be drummed off his team.
Meanwhile, corporations collaborate with coaches to turn the abuses endemic to college basketball into merry little jokes with which to sell their products. Knight has parlayed his bullying reputation into an endorsement deal with NutraSweet and, in a Taco Bell commercial, he and Kentucky's Rick Pitino and Georgetown's John Thompson joke about plying a recruit with all the tacos he might desire—a sly wink at a recruiting violation. If the NCAA is going to let coaches profit from abusive behavior (even if they give some of that money to their universities), if it is going to permit coaches to use players as billboards for sneaker companies, if it is going to allow $59.99 UConn jerseys bearing Ray Allen's number to hang in sporting goods stores, it shouldn't be invoking the evils of commercialism to deny athletes the right of free speech enshrined in the Constitution.
The college presidents are supposed to be taking back control of the NCAA. But until they remove the muzzle from the mouths of players, we can only encourage you to log on to Kreft's Web site (http://www.eecs.nwu.edu/~bigdan/) to follow his fortunes. And while you're booted up, send an E-mail to Sam Smith, the president of Washington State and chair of the NCAA Presidents Commission (he can be reached at email@example.com/). You might pose to this sage educator the great unanswered question of our time, a conundrum even more vexing than why abbreviated is such a long word: Why is a consortium of universities pledged to uphold reason and free speech so irrationally oppressive?