During the ruckus at Oregon State last February, which centered on whether Coach Dee Andros had the right to make a black linebacker shave off his beard and mustache, an extraordinary statement was made. The speaker was John Didion, Andros' All-America center, and what he said is crucial to the problems many coaches are facing today. In effect, Didion was addressing those coaches—and they are in the majority—who cling to the myth that college athletes are collegians in the accepted sense of the word, that they are "students first and athletes second."
Nothing, of course, is further from the truth. Nevertheless, it is accepted by pusillanimous administrators and forces the coaches who pretend to believe in it into corners. "It is," says John McKay of USC, "the first lie." And today the young resent being lied to.
What John Didion said was this:
"When a man signs a contract to play a sport at Oregon State he obligates himself to comply with the rules that govern that sport as set down by his coach. This is understood by anyone who has played athletics at any level. There are few jobs at which a man receives nine months' pay for four or five months' work. Is it too much to ask that he sacrifice certain individual privileges in order to have his college education paid for, plus being entrusted with the honor of representing his school and his state through athletics?"
If coaches would own up to what John Didion said, they would have a lot less trouble with their athletes and other tormentors, but it sticks in their throats almost every time. They go to great lengths to skirt it, telling lies as they recruit.
"We make a boy a hypocrite," says Ray Graves of Florida. "We say, 'You're a good athlete, so here's an academic scholarship.' We don't tell it like we ought to."
Coaches believe, but are afraid to say, that the scholarship athlete is an employee of the university. With a contract. Paid to produce, to represent the school as an entertainer and emissary, paid in the currency of the "free ride," an all-expenses education—tuition, books, board, laundry, walking around money, etc. The package comes to roughly $13,000, but if the athlete also gets his degree, its value is unlimited.
When John McKay recruits a boy for USC, he offers him 1) the chance to play on a winning football team and 2) a good education—in that order. He doesn't press the latter because, as he says, "a boy can get a good education at almost every accredited school today. But playing football for USC, that isn't something you can do anywhere." Bear Bryant takes about the same approach. A winning tradition is the big plus at Alabama. Bryant says he used to push the scholar first, athlete second routine, and he meant it, too, but he has come to realize that this might not be the most realistic approach today.
The basic terms of the contract (or scholarship or "grant-in-aid"), as well as various recruiting restrictions, have been arrived at painstakingly over the years by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Ostensibly, schools submit to these restrictions in order to keep their athletes in a state of purity, holy and acceptable unto the NCAA. But the real motive is economic: colleges can't afford to have price wars for athletes. They can, as individual institutions competing on equal terms, offer scholarships and fringe benefits, but more than that risks financial disaster. Hence the "student-first" myth.
By a slip of the tongue, Jack Mitchell let the truth out. Kansas University students had staged a sit-in at the chancellor's office, protesting alleged discriminatory practices in housing and fraternity selection. Mitchell, the football coach at the time, rebuked those protesters who were on his football team. "You're not here to demonstrate," he said. "You're here to play football."