Good coaches are special. Their influence on young athletes is considerable—"more so than teachers, more so than Dad, more so than anybody." says former Notre Dame Football Coach Ara Parseghian—and they're not blind to that fact. Most of them handle this trust tenderly. When a coach winds up on the seedy side of recruiting, promising money, promising grades, or is caught teaching playing techniques that might get somebody hurt, it's usually his fellows who come down hardest on him. But coaches are also fully aware of the essential flaw in the system: They're asked to be noble teachers, but because schools need to generate wins and cash, coaches in revenue-producing sports are given all the job security of migrant workers.
John Robinson, the football coach at USC, has won conference titles and a national co-championship. He has also seen his program racked by the recent academic scandals. "Since I've been at USC, I've had death threats every year," he says. "I have to have a police escort out of the stadium. You say, 'Hey, wait a minute, it's only a game.' Only a game? You've got to be kidding. But at the same time I'm responsible and I'm criticized if my players don't go to class. Well, I could live with that. But changes must be made.
"If coaches are teachers, they should be given faculty status. I should be paid what a faculty member is paid. No more, no less. I should be given tenure. I'm invited to give 100 speeches a year, and I accept most of those invitations to make extra money. If I'm going to function as a teacher, I can't give 100 speeches a year. I've got to say no. I'm not going to spend 35 days a year on the road recruiting. I'm going to stay home and behave like a schoolteacher."
By making insecure, even desperate men out of our coaches, we've diminished sports for the athlete. After what philosopher Paul Weiss calls the "normal pursuit of pleasure and competence, even excellence" early in a player's development, the demands of high-pressure coaching crowd out the "joy of sport" for the athlete. The exceptional performer seeks and finds other rewards for his efforts: athletic scholarships, acclaim, money. He discovers he gets special handling and unusual advantages for giving his all. Or, if he's talented enough, only some of his all. Then, says Weiss, comes the corruption, because the athlete soon sees what's really going on. The coach's desperation becomes the athlete's desperation: win and receive the fruits of victory now! So the coach and the player get about their business, not of competing but of winning. Their tactics may involve acts of violence that sometimes border on the criminal. Much more often they resort to off-the-field cheating.
Cheating defiles competition. If State pays its quarterback under the table and Tech doesn't, then State has created an unfair advantage for itself. The same is true if State bends its entrance requirements to get a player into school, or doesn't make him go to class, or allows him to take meaningless courses, or engages in any of the other corrupt practices that have been brought to light in recent months.
The NCAA now has more investigators than ever. This is called progress by some observers. It's not. It's an indictment of the system. When more and more cops are needed to keep competition clean, something is terribly wrong. Institutions that deal with youth should be so sensitive to rule bending, so repulsed by cheaters, so on guard against the athlete who "hears the cries of the crowd but never the rustling of a page," that cheating at such places would be rare.
But it's not. And the institutions don't always merely acquiesce in the corruption, don't always restrict themselves to saying to the coach, "Win, but don't tell us how you do it." Increasingly, academics and administrators appear to be taking a hand in tampering with grades and curricula, and alumni and other boosters have become bagmen for some athletic departments, delivering the goods to prized recruits. An Eldorado for signing a grant-in-aid. Twenty bucks a rebound. A hundred for a win over Tech.
This must stop. The time has come to realize that a stand for sportsmanship won't knock the planet off its axis. And such a stand won't just put the colleges and their coaches and athletes right. More important, it will also benefit the kid who wants to play for the joy of it, who will never become a varsity-level athlete but could carry the lessons of sports with him into other areas of life, who is most cheated by the emphasis on winning over competing.
Certainly the current system cheats good athletes, too, by beginning to pamper them when they're still in junior high and by offering 16-year-olds the preposterous long shot of being a pro draft choice as a reasonable goal. In Georgia this fall the state education department investigated the reportedly "common practice" among parents of allowing their sons to repeat eighth grade in order to be in a better position to win football scholarships five years later. The investigators found a total of 49 such cases in 14 Georgia school systems this academic year. Dr. Cal Adamson, associate state school superintendent, described the practice as "psychologically damaging." The damage isn't limited to Georgia; similar repeaters were also reported in Texas.
Bill Russell, the Hall of Fame basketball player, believes that the high financial stakes in sports, which have spawned an army of lawyers and accountants, have hurt the most proficient players. We've undermined team play, Russell believes. Forget fundamentals. Win now. "The only kids being taught fundamentals are the less talented ones," he says. "The talented ones are just being exploited. So from the beginning it's a bad relationship between coach and player—a dishonest one. We have evolved into an era of style over substance. The same as what happened to the automobile industry. Everything's style. No substance."