Wednesday August 27th, 2003

Yes, it's that time of year again when our student-athletes head back to the classroom ... or, at least meet their tutors, who will, uh, help them with their studies. And since the courts have told FOX News that satire is still legal in the United States, let us all sing along:

School days, school days Dear old bend-the-rules days. Cheatin' and cribbin'; we jocks got pull Tryin' to keep us el-I-gi-ble! I am the star of big-game capers, You are the one who writes my papers. So I wrote on your check "I love you so," When we were a couple of cheats.

In just the past few weeks, Ohio State, a huge state university, and Fairfield, a small Catholic college, have been accused of helping athletes in the classroom. Raise your hands if you are shocked that "student-athletes" at all types of schools are not actually attending classes, writing their own papers and getting real passing grades. In fact, most of us think that Ohio State and Fairfield are just unlucky for getting tattled on, don't we? It's simply understood that our big-time American college sports system is rife with academic fraud.

Call me a cynic, I plead guilty. But I'll call you a Pollyanna. The cheating and the altering of records to keep athletes available for games goes back to the 19th century. It's uncorrectable. It's systemic. The problem begins when players who lack academic qualifications are accepted to schools, and then everyone involved twists themselves in knots trying to deny the original sin.

If there's anything I learned about during the 20th century, it's that there are two institutions that sound idealistic but simply don't work in a free-market world: communism and amateurism. North Korea survives only because it has a monstrous dictator who brutalizes and kills. College athletics survive only because they have the NCAA, which rationalizes and convolutes.

And, of course, the NCAA also has the rest of us -- college presidents, professors, alumni, fans-- as unindicted co-conspirators.

It's all so silly. We in the United States of America want our colleges to play big-time football and basketball, so why do we go through this academic charade? What earthly difference does it make whether Maurice Clarett of Ohio State or any other college star ever sets foot in a classroom? Let athletic kids come to college for four years and play ball for the honor of old State U -- and for the box office and TV money -- and let the players choose whether they also want to bother with education. Think how much better we would all feel once we were freed of hypocrisy, pretense, deceit and sanctimony.

Meanwhile, your NCAA, always vigilant at the fringes, has been at work for us, enforcing its silly anachronistic rules. Jeremy Bloom, a football player at the University of Colorado, was effectively required to give up his career as a world-class freestyle moguls skier, because as a skier he received corporate sponsorship and endorsements. Heaven forfend that a student-athlete should make money.

One state legislature is seeking to pass what it calls the Student Athletes' Bill Of Rights, which would threaten the NCAA autocracy. But, wouldn't you know it, the state trying to fight the NCAA is California -- the one establishment that's in more disarray than college athletics.

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