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HOW TOP-RANKED CLEMSON MADE SOME BAD NEWS WORSE
Clemson was voted the top team in college football for the first time in its history last week, but what should have been a proud moment was tainted by the reaction of the university's president, Dr. Bill Lee Atchley, to a nine-minute report on ABC-TV concerning allegations of abuses by Tiger recruiters. Atchley maintained that ABC, which aired the report at halftime of the Nov. 28 Penn State-Pitt game, had no business doing so because an NCAA investigation into the charges was in progress, an argument vaguely reminiscent of pleas by the Nixon White House that the press leave the Watergate investigation to the proper authorities. It was an especially curious contention coming from a college president presumably committed to freedom of inquiry. In a similar spirit NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers had earlier sent a wire to ABC asking that the half-time telecast be canceled.
The ABC report was an updated version of one the network decided not to air during its telecast of the Nov. 7 Clem-son-North Carolina game (SCORECARD, Nov. 30). That decision fueled suspicions that the network was bowing to pressure from Clemson officials, who had threatened to refuse to let the Tigers take the field unless the report was scrapped. But ABC Producer Jeff Ruhe said the network held off because it wanted to talk to other sources and "to evaluate the credibility of the charges."
The charges were made by two former Knoxville, Tenn. high school football stars, James Cofer and Terry Minor, who in December 1980 signed letters of intent to play for Clemson. Last February, they changed their minds and asked Clemson for releases from those letters, only to be turned down. They then reported to the NCAA that they had been offered money to sign with the school. They went public with their story in The Knoxville News-Sentinel in June. Atchley then granted them their desired releases; however, they are not now attending any school.
Cofer and Minor repeated their allegations on camera for ABC. They said they'd been given $1,000 and $500 in cash, respectively, as "Christmas presents" from Tom C. Breazeale, a Knoxville insurance man and Clemson alumnus, for agreeing to attend the school. Cofer said he'd been offered the money earlier by Clemson Coach Danny Ford and a former Ford assistant, Bill Ware. Breazeale, Ford and Ware wouldn't talk on camera to ABC, although Ware denied to SI that he offered money to Cofer. Bending over backward to suggest that Cofer and Minor may have had axes to grind, commentator Jim Lampley told the TV audience that evaluation of their charges "must take into account the fact they were associated with Cofer and Minor's efforts to secure a release from their commitment to Clemson."
It was perhaps inevitable that ABC's motives in running the interviews would be called into question. ABC pays handsomely for the right to cover college football, and like the other two major networks, it has often been less than hard-hitting in covering sports it pays to telecast. So why the departure from established practice with regard to Clemson? Ruhe cited an ABC effort to be more "topical," but Clemson partisans claimed that the network, which is telecasting the Pitt-Georgia Sugar Bowl showdown on New Year's Day, was trying to denigrate Clemson because the Tigers are scheduled to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on NBC at the same hour. "They [ ABC] were trying to do that [the Cofer-Minor report] to help the Sugar Bowl, and I just can't get over it," said Stan Marks, chairman of the Orange Bowl's selection committee. Clemson Athletic Director Bill McLellan agreed: "I think they were trying to promote the Sugar Bowl." Ascribing such Machiavellian intent to ABC is far-fetched. The network began preparing its report on Clemson even before bowl bids went out.
The protect-the-Sugar-Bowl thesis was also advanced by Atchley, who further said, " ABC and the media are taking it upon themselves to find out what's going on, but they should leave it to the NCAA." Atchley told SI's Bob Sullivan that Cofer and Minor came across on TV like "two young people walking through the clover, like they were coming out of heaven," and said of the ABC telecast, "It harmed the university. And it could have an effect on an outstanding coach, a good Christian, Danny Ford." Asked whether he felt the press had the right to investigate suspected wrongdoers, Atchley said, "If they break the law, they should be [investigated]. All NCAA rules [violations] aren't breaking the law."
Atchley thus appeared to be denying the press the right to examine possible ethical, as distinct from criminal, transgressions or, indeed, to look into any matter that hasn't already resulted in a conviction in court. For its part, the NCAA had already taken a somewhat different position, holding that its less-than-arm's-length relationship with ABC obliges the latter to restrain its coverage; in his telegram to ABC, Byers had suggested that if the Cofer-Minor interviews had to run, they should be aired on a newscast rather than on a halftime show.
ABC's willingness to take on Clemson and the NCAA—and the resulting implication that its game coverage is a newscast—came as welcome proof that the networks don't always have to play quite so cozy with the sports they cover. In refusing to concede this point, Clemson and the NCAA were, in effect, asserting a right to dictate the news. Given the posture of Clemson's administration, it wasn't surprising that handbills denouncing ABC were widely circulated on that school's campus, or even that the Tigers' sports information director, Bob Bradley, helpfully alerted a local sportswriter to a brush with the law that ABC's Lampley once had; in 1976 Lampley was arrested on a seven-year-old marijuana-possession charge, which was subsequently dropped. What this had to do with the allegations of under-the-table payments that the two former football recruits had leveled against Clemson wasn't exactly clear.
TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS