ON THE FUTURE OF FOOTBALL
It has been a little as if a deep fissure were slowly splitting a handsome wall—at first an almost imperceptible crack but gradually building into an ugly and dangerous scar.
The original incidents were somewhat isolated and infrequent enough to form no definite pattern. A year ago it was Texas A&M: a two-year probation for tampering with high school athletes in violation of the Southwest Conference rules on recruiting. Last fall it was Alabama: a $1,000 fine after some overeager alumni had showered gifts on a prospective back. Early this year it was Auburn: an indefinite suspension in the Southeast Conference for paying $500 each to a pair of twins who looked like fine football prospects.
By February, a player revolt at the University of Washington had led to an absurd situation in which half the friends of Washington's unsuccessful football team were name-calling the other half—and revealing the existence of an illegal if well-intentioned slush fund to support college athletes (SI, Feb. 20). On the heels of this came the testimony of a onetime UCLA player that he and his teammates had drawn illegal salaries. Last month Alabama reappeared with a player revolt of its own (SI, April 30) which, although it involved no conference irregularities, underscored the growing problem of maintaining subsidized athletes.
Intercollegiate football started as part of the recreational sports program at most good-sized universities, developed into their most popular spectator attraction and soon became the financial backbone of the collegiate athletic system. Everyone enjoys the football season immensely, but the question keeps intruding: Is the great bear hug of national enthusiasm stifling the most engrossing of all college games?
And now comes the news about Ohio State. Of course, most people know that masses of fleet halfbacks and beefy guards do not arrive on a given campus through sheer luck. Most everyone also knows that Ohio State is favored to win its third straight Big Ten title this year along with an invitation to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. And those who read SI's Oct. 24 issue learned, among more striking matters, that Coach Woody Hayes sometimes lends money from his own pocket to players who are financially strapped. But it was generally assumed that this great football power of the Middle West remained within the rather liberal bounds of Big Ten regulations.
Not so, apparently. After a three-month investigation, Kenneth L. (Tug) Wilson, Commissioner of the Western Conference, announced from Chicago that he was putting OSU "in a state of probationary membership in the intercollegiate conference for a period of no less than one year"; that the university "shall under no circumstances be considered...eligible to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl football game"; and that "none of the athletes who were beneficiaries of the irregularities...shall be presented for eligibility until I have approved satisfactory evidence."
Tug Wilson had traveled to Columbus to find out about Hayes's personal loans to his athletes. Hayes would give him no accounting and simply admitted that during the past five years he had lent about $400 a year to various players in need of help. Wilson looked further and discovered "a serious irregularity" in the off-campus work program which provides OSU athletes, particularly football players, with salaries up to $100 a month and occasionally higher. Most of these jobs are with the state—things like paging for the legislature or clerking for the highway department; but some of the more rabid fans, including prominent Columbus businessmen, also hire athletes. The trouble was that in numerous instances the athletes seemed to have collected their wages in advance, without anybody notably concerned if they ever performed the work for which they had been paid. Naming no names, Wilson declared such players ineligible until they catch up with their back work.
Most of the Ohio State campus and downtown Columbus was in a rage over Wilson's edict. Not that they pleaded innocent. One player summed up the feeling when he said: "If they think we're bad, they should look around at a few other schools." Coach Hayes thought about the punishment and then roared: "No, I don't think it is a bit fair." As an analogy he explained that they pinch a motorist for speeding, "but they don't send him to the gallows, do they?"
In this case, the gallows consists of depriving Ohio State
of a postseason excursion to Pasadena (assuming they earn it on the gridiron). But is there anything in the punishment to prevent Hayes and his players from having a whopping good time playing out their 1956 schedule with other colleges, just as the basic idea of a college sports program intends? If the fissure that is working its way through college football is to be repaired, not just patched over, Ohio's penalty will be a small price to pay for the boon to sport.