What's the charge, Mulvaney?"
"University kid," replied Mulvaney. "Some frat men say he stole their loving cup."
Those were innocent days, the late 1940s, a time when humorist Max Shulman could lightly write about Dobie Gillis getting busted for allegedly swiping Chi Psi's beloved hardware. As the stories about Oklahoma and Colorado on the following pages suggest, today's university kids—the athletes among them, anyway—are more likely to stand accused of rape, assault, break-ins and drug trafficking than they are of Joe College pranks. Coming on top of the widespread under-the-table payments and the academic abuses also associated with big-time intercollegiate sports, the offenses committed by athletes against people and property cast a shadow across American campuses. Loving cups aren't being stolen these days; universities are being robbed of their integrity.
You've heard this integrity stuff before, of course. We've got to clean up college sports, the reformers keep proclaiming. Teddy Roosevelt said something along those lines when he was in the White House, and that was even before Dobie Gillis. It was surely before athletes succumbed to steroid-stoked craziness and before they got to shooting guns in the jock dorms. Alas, for all the jeremiads against corruption in varsity sports, colleges haven't done much to improve things. So turn off the broken record, and let's get out to the stadium early for some serious tailgating, right? But wait....
February 27, 1989
Let's look at what intercollegiate athletics is about. College presidents and athletic directors will tell you that their sports programs develop school spirit, raise money for other purposes and enhance their institutions' image. What they mean is that winning does all that. And because not everyone can win, the scramble to do so leads many schools to commit deeds that have exactly the opposite effect.
School spirit? Students resentful at seeing fat cats getting the best seats and parking spots may not feel so rah-rah. Raise money? In fact, schools plow much of their sports-generated money right back into their major-sports teams, football especially, the better to provide gleaming weight rooms and to finance all those scholarships. Enhance a school's image? Is Oklahoma's image helped by the fact that its football team is on NCAA probation and that five of its athletes have been accused of felonies in recent weeks?
Win-at-all-cost pressures have drawn many schools down a dark path. Twenty-two schools are on NCAA probation, including not only Oklahoma but also, to name only the most prominent cases, Houston, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and TCU in football and NCAA champion Kansas in basketball. In addition, Kentucky's basketball program is under NCAA investigation for alleged recruiting violations and academic fraud. And remember, the NCAA doesn't impose sanctions for criminal misconduct, like cocaine trafficking or stealing a dorm neighbor's stereo, but only for violations of its rule book.
There's no telling which schools will next face disgrace. A few years ago the University of San Francisco dropped basketball after an in-house investigation uncovered recruiting violations and payments to players, including guard Quintin Dailey, who had also pleaded guilty to aggravated assault against a woman student. Later, Tulane eliminated its hoops program because of a point-shaving scandal. Then SMU got caught so many times for recruiting and other violations that the Mustangs had to suspend their football program for a season.
At North Carolina State, where the entire campus is holding its breath while waiting for the release of a book detailing alleged wrongdoing in the Wolfpack basketball program, the administration announced the results of an internal investigation on Feb. 7. It revealed that 10 of the 12 members of the N.C. State basketball team are under academic warning and that 29 of 43 athletes who have played for Jim Valvano since he became coach in 1980 have been on such warning. Faculty senate chairman Elizabeth Suval strained mightily to find some good in these numbers. Alluding to the recent allegations that a professor had altered the grades of Wolfpack basketball players, she asked, "If we're supposedly changing grades, how come we have so many people in academic difficulty?"
The many violent acts involving college athletes are further evidence that something is terribly amiss in intercollegiate sports. As if the thuggery at Oklahoma and Colorado weren't enough to turn the stomach, here's a selection of items that have appeared on the sports pages in recent days:
•Syracuse basketball forward Derrick Coleman was sentenced to 50 hours of community service and ordered to make restitution for damage after pleading guilty to charges of harassment and disorderly conduct. This followed a fracas in which Coleman, who was with a group of athletes unhappy about having to pay a $2.50 admission charge at a campus dance, punched a man and kicked in two doors.
•Keith Horne, a freshman guard on the Texas-San Antonio basketball team, was charged with attempted murder last week after allegedly beating and trying to strangle a female employee at a hotel in De Land, Fla., where the Roadrunners had defeated Stetson 95-88 in double overtime.
•Clemson linebacker Chuck O'Brien and center Curtis Whitley were charged with assault and battery following a punch-out at a local night spot in which another student suffered a fractured jaw.
•Florida State's two-time All-America cornerback, Deion Sanders, was placed on six months' probation and fined $800 after pleading no contest to charges of grabbing a salesclerk's blouse and striking a security guard during a scuffle at a shopping mall in Fort Myers, Fla.
Attempting to put such incidents in perspective, ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan says, "Kids have been getting in fights forever." Other educators are quicker to concede that violence among athletes is more widespread than in the past, but some agree with Florida State's athletic director, C.W. (Hootie) Ingram, who says, "This is a society problem. Crime rates are up all over the world. There are probably a lot of things going on in Norman, Oklahoma, other than just what's going on at the University of Oklahoma."
Even if Ingram is right, surely it's not unreasonable to expect a higher standard of civility at institutions of higher learning than in society as a whole. At any rate, the evidence indicates that athletes are more inclined to get into trouble with the law than other students are. In a 1986 survey of 350 colleges, the Philadelphia Daily News found that athletes had been implicated in at least 61 sexual assaults between '83 and '85. The paper calculated that football and basketball players were 38% more likely to be implicated in such crimes than the average male college student. The News raised the possibility that athletes were more likely to be reported in such cases because they were well-known, but Auburn psychology professor Barry Burkhart said, "My guess is that an athlete would be less likely to be reported. It's all a guess, but they do have a lot of protections around them."
The ones doing the protecting are usually the coaches who bring lawbreaking athletes on campus to begin with, often in disregard of warning signals about those players' characters. Whatever the merits of Propositions 48 and 42, the controversy over them has brought into focus the willingness of colleges to bend academic standards to admit outstanding athletes. And it's now clear that schools are just as quick to wink at serious character flaws. With all this bending and winking going on, no wonder Iowa State football coach Jim Walden says, "Not more than 20 percent of the football players go to college for an education. And that may be a high figure. That leaves at least 80 percent who I believe are there because 'they said I could play football.' "
Some coaches seem willing to recruit absolutely anybody who can help them win games, good citizenship be damned. Take the case of Roosevelt Potts, a standout schoolboy running back from Rayville, La., who signed Feb. 8 with Northeast Louisiana. Mississippi also wanted Potts, so much so that Rebel coach Billy Brewer suggested there were improprieties in Northeast's recruitment of the youngster, who pleaded guilty last December to aggravated battery for firing a shotgun toward a crowd outside a barroom in Rayville. Brewer later withdrew his criticism of Northeast, but the question remains: What were two institutions of higher learning doing fighting over a felon who got a 9 on the ACT test, far below the minimum of 15 mandated by Prop 48 for freshman eligibility?
Many of the athletes who run afoul of the law are black—though by no means all. Witness the 15-day jail term served in 1986 by former Michigan State basketball star Scott Skiles, who violated probation by driving while intoxicated after being convicted of marijuana possession, and Florida basketball center Dwayne Schintzius's four-game suspension earlier this season for hitting a student with a tennis racket. Then there was the case involving Pitt defensive linemen Burt Grossman and Tony Siragusa. Last August they were convicted of assault following a barroom brawl near the Pitt campus and ordered to pay $1,379 each to another student, whose jaw was broken in the fight.
Colleges justify their recruitment of blacks with poor scholarship records and histories of misconduct on affirmative-action grounds. But a lot of these athletes hail from backgrounds in which drugs, violence and fatherless homes are a way of life. Says Penn State assistant football coach Ron Dickerson, who is black, "If a black player is from a broken home in the inner city with a single mom and five brothers and sisters, he will have a tough time on a campus where other students' parents are making $50,000." Obviously, colleges that recruit such youngsters and expose them to severe culture shock bear a special responsibility to provide discipline and educational opportunity.
Sadly, coaches often discharge that responsibility by cheating and other dubious behavior. Called upon to calm an unruly home crowd at the Missouri game two weeks ago, Billy Tubbs, the coach of Oklahoma's top-ranked basketball team, proved that the school's athletes aren't the only ones capable of stepping out of line when he took the microphone and said, "The referees have asked that, regardless of how terrible the officiating is, please do not throw stuff on the floor." It was almost incitement to riot.
If coaches can't live by their own rules, why should athletes? "Character comes from above," says Joyce Alexander, a staff psychologist at Cleveland State who works with that school's athletes and is a consultant for UNLV athletes. "How can you expect players to show it when there isn't any demonstrated to them?"
In dealing with athletes who misbehave, many coaches see no evil or, worse, compound the misdeeds, as Lefty Driesell did when he was the basketball coach at Maryland. In 1983, Driesell called a woman student three times to try to persuade her not to press charges, within the university judicial system, of sexual misconduct against Terrapin forward Herman Veal. The woman instead brought a harassment complaint against Driesell, who was reprimanded by the university.
Linking the coddling of athletes and the constant excusing of their transgressions to the wave of police-blotter incidents, Melvin C. Ray, an assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State, says, "Big-time athletics is creating an atmosphere conducive to those types of things. These athletes are put on a pedestal. They are given almost free rein to do what they want as long as their teams are in the Top 20."
Some educators believe that schools ought to deal with athletic miscreants more harshly, not more leniently, than other students who misbehave. Thus, at Minnesota, the fictional Gillis's (and Shulman's) alma mater, then president Kenneth Keller threw three basketball players off the team in 1986 after they were charged with rape—they were later acquitted—saying that he was holding them to a higher standard of accountability than that applied to ordinary citizens. "Issues of legal guilt or innocence are quite separate from whether a person can properly represent the University of Minnesota," said Keller.
Perhaps those two supercops of the basketball-coaching fraternity, Indiana's Bob Knight and Georgetown's John Thompson, have the right idea. Knight demands discipline from everyone but himself, and Thompson is suffocatingly protective of his players, but say this for both of them: They set limits that players respect, or else. Knight's fierce desire to win didn't prevent him from bouncing Mike Giomi, his leading rebounder, from the Hoosiers a few seasons back for skipping classes, even though Giomi was in good standing academically under NCAA, Big Ten and university rules. Nor did Thompson hesitate to drop Michael Graham, one of the mainstays of his 1984 national championship team, for much the same reason. Knight and Thompson have not always recruited angels, but their players seldom have serious scrapes with the law.
Misbehavior by athletes frequently occurs in an athletic dorm. Officials of schools that have such dorms argue that for-jocks-only lodging facilitates control of athletes, but what the dorms—which go by names, like the Bryant Hilton (Alabama's), that only hint at their luxury—mostly do is create a sense of isolation. "A lot of the incidents we read about are happening in those dorms," says Arizona State athletic director Charles Harris, whose school doesn't have one. "It's important to incorporate the athletes as much as possible into the standard university life-style."
The goal should be to get athletes more involved in all aspects of college life, including, yes, the classroom. Yet it's an open secret that many athletes merely go through the motions of attending classes. Often they are spoon-fed tests in advance and take never-to-be-made-up incompletes, and they seldom see the inside of a classroom while their sport is in season. Walden estimates that 75% of college football players who are drafted by the NFL virtually quit school for their entire final year, sticking around only to play their sport, get free meals and use the weight room. In essence, there are no eligibility requirements for a player's final season other than the stipulation that the athlete be enrolled at the school for which he plays.
That last loophole comes courtesy of the NCAA, which tries to enforce niggling rules, like the one prohibiting a recruit from accepting even a free T-shirt from a school interested in signing him, while ignoring real issues affecting college sports. At the NCAA convention in San Francisco last month, Dick Schultz, the organization's executive director, said, "There is a firm feeling that we have turned the corner when it comes to major violations. We are getting on top of this integrity issue.... Ninety-nine percent of everything that is going on in intercollegiate athletics today is exceptionally positive. We have to be sure that we don't get caught and mired down in that one percent that is negligent." For those statements, Schultz was not even laughed out of the room. But then, as everybody knows, the member schools get exactly the NCAA they want and deserve.
Here are some measures that would help put college sports on the right track. They contain no surprises—you've heard some of them a hundred times—but the foot-dragging has gone on long enough. They should be enacted immediately.
•Shorten the basketball season and eliminate football spring practice. Also reduce the hours devoted to practices and film sessions in football.
•To give athletes a chance to get off to a good academic start, make freshmen ineligible in both sports.
•Reduce the number of football scholarships—currently an absurdly high 95—and link the new number to a school's athlete-graduation rate: The more players who graduate, the more scholarships a school may grant.
•To reduce the pressures to win, distribute the money derived from televised regular-season games and postseason appearances so that all schools wind up with more equitable shares.
•Abolish athletic dorms.
•Crack down on steroid use.
•Make the matriculation of athletes subject to approval by admissions offices, which would certify that the recruits are solid students and citizens or have the potential to become same. Require coaches to do everything possible to help athletes flourish in school.
•For athletes who don't belong in college or don't want to be there, let the NFL and the NBA start their own farm systems.
One reason none of these steps has been taken, even as the outrages have piled up, is that college sport has strong entertainment value, even among those whom one might expect to be most offended by the current state of affairs. Says Walden, "Very often, the people who went to school for the reasons the buildings were put up in the first place—the chemical engineer, the botanist—are the same ones who on Saturday dress up in funny clothes and blow their stupid horns at the games. They don't want to just see the team play, they want to see the team win. Odd. The people to whom academics mean the most end up being the ones who perpetuate nonacademic attitudes."
But college sports would still be fun if they were made to fit more securely within the framework of university life. It is up to the college presidents to make that happen. The buck stops with them. Because even the best-intentioned presidents won't dare risk the competitive disadvantages that would come with unilaterally scaling down and tightening up their athletic operations, they can do so only collectively, in an atmosphere charged with the urgency the task deserves. The historic event would be a lot like a disarmament conference.
In more ways than one.