It was sometime early last season that I started to lose it—I don't remember when exactly, but it was before Jerry Parks shot football teammate Zarak Peters in Bud Hall, the jock dorm at Oklahoma; before my Sooner buddy, Charles Thompson, sold blow to an FBI agent; before Notre Dame's players so blatantly taunted West Virginia's players in the Fiesta Bowl and Irish linebacker Mike Stonebreaker got drunk and drove off the road, almost killing himself and his girlfriend; before Hart Lee Dykes got four schools put on probation and all the crime at Colorado and South Carolina made the news; before the Proposition 42 controversy; before I asked Florida State's "Neon" Deion Sanders what it was all about, and he said, ' "Money"; even before the NCAA's $1.75 million report on students and athletes showed us that academics were hardly a top priority among football players, and Martin Massengale, the chairman of the NCAA Presidents Commission, said that all big-time college sport needs is a little "fine-tuning."
My brain was like a computer screen that had gone haywire, words and gibberish streaming across it, out of control. A phrase kept whirring past: "Child abuse." But who were the children? Football players? Us? How did this fit? My mind was reeling. I couldn't get this notion of child abuse out of my mind, about how football athletes are merely kids going off to college to play ball, and how they're like my little kids, who seem so vulnerable, whom I want to protect from the ugliness of the world more than anything else, but who always seem to end up in the hands of other people, being taught lessons I don't believe in, receiving pain that does not need to be received.
What was happening to our college football players? Bad things were happening to them, I was sure. To all of us. To fans, to students, to the fabric of the country. Myths were being perpetuated in college football. People were lying in college football; malicious people were protecting their butts at a tremendous societal cost. Something was so wrong that—feeling what I felt, knowing what I knew—I could not go on writing about the games and scores and strategies.
The sheer volume of all the bad things going on in the sport has overwhelmed me. The criminal behavior of the players, the rampant pursuit of money, the tunnel vision of the coaches, the complacency of the fans, the sliminess of the boosters, the sanctimonious platitudes of the NCAA pooh-bahs, the exploitation of the players, the desire to expand the season and to televise everything, the brutality on the field, the absurdity of the "student-athlete" notion, the lack of anything remotely resembling an ethical anchor holding big-time football programs and their patrons to the ground—all that filled me with disgust. And the ugliest part was that these sins were being committed in a world—our universities—that Americans have always assumed to be a realm of virtue and idealism.
Whenever I'm asked how my disgust with big-time college football took shape, a passage from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises comes to mind. In it Bill asks Mike, the dissolute party animal, how he went bankrupt. "Two ways," Mike replies. "Gradually and then suddenly."
Me, too, I guess. My indignation built for some time. Then it exploded.
When Chicago Bears safety Maurice Douglass missed one of the afternoon pickup basketball games that we often play in together at the Multiplex gym in suburban Chicago, it suddenly dawned on me where he was. He was testifying at the U.S. District Court on South Dearborn Street at the trial of Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom, two sports agents charged with mail fraud and racketeering for signing numerous college athletes to professional contracts before their amateur eligibility had expired and then using strong-arm tactics to retain the players as clients. To Walters, the players were entertainers, pure and simple. "No difference," he has said. "A sports star is a rock star. They're all the same."
With his brazen cockiness and rock 'n' roll chutzpah, Walters brought to light the ethical problem that forms the rottenest block in the foundation of big-time college football: amateurism. That is the crevice through which he and his buddy Bloom crawled ratlike into the edifice of the sport.
Not that there is anything new about the unfairness and phoniness of amateurism in college sports. As far back as 1915, essayist William Foster wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, "Only childlike innocence or willful blindness need prevent American colleges from seeing that the rules which aim to maintain athletics on what is called an 'amateur' basis, by forbidding players to receive pay in money, are worse than useless because, while failing to prevent men from playing for pay, they breed deceit and hypocrisy."
By denying big-time football players certain basic rights, we have turned them into grasping mercenaries with the most twisted of ethical backbones. Forcing players to maintain the facade of amateurism is especially vile considering the amount of money the NCAA and the CFA (the College Football Association, the bargaining arm for 64 major programs) generate at the players' expense. In 1988 alone, the 104 Division I-A football teams made more than $500 million through gate, TV and licensing receipts and competed for $52 million in bowl revenues. They also supported thousands of coaches, athletic-department administrators, trainers, maintenance people, ticket sellers, assorted leeches (most every athletic department has a few old-time guys hanging around under the ruse of being vice-associate athletic director for community locker room affairs and the like) and most of the other men's and women's teams at their schools.