Last week a U.S. district court jury in Chicago convicted sports agents Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom of one count each of conspiracy, one count each of racketeering conspiracy, one count each of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud and extortion, and two counts each of mail fraud. The charges came in connection with the agents' signing, in violation of NCAA rules, 43 college football and basketball players to contracts when the athletes still had college eligibility remaining; the signings occurred between 1984 and '87. (The government argued that signing the players constituted fraud against their schools.) As part of his racketeering conviction, Bloom was also found guilty of extortion for having threatened players who wanted out of their contracts. Walters and Bloom, who are scheduled to be sentenced in late May, face as many as 55 years in prison and fines of as much as $1.5 million each. Their lawyers plan to appeal.
During five weeks of testimony, jurors heard distressing accounts from college administrators and former players about the state of intercollegiate athletics. They learned about the sham educations athletes receive and about greedy players willing to risk their eligibility for a fast buck. As jury forewoman Marjorie Benson put it, "There were no saints here."
In trying to show that the college system was corrupt before Walters and Bloom came on the scene, the defense put into evidence the transcripts of players like Paul Palmer, the 1986 Heisman Trophy runner-up from Temple and one of the agents' former clients. Palmer took such courses as bowling and racquetball, and he failed remedial writing three times. That prompted the director of the remedial English program, Ralph Jenkins, to write to the athletic department complaining that Palmer's record, if it were made public, would be an embarrassment to the university. Palmer never missed a game because of his academic shortcomings, although last July, Temple president Peter Liacouras, citing Palmer's improper contract with the agents, stripped Palmer of his senior-year records and awards.
April 23, 1989
Perhaps the most damaging testimony against Walters came from Michael Franzese, a captain in the Colombo crime family, who testified that he invested $50,000 in the agents' business and that he gave Walters permission to use his name to enforce contracts with players. Of the specter of organized crime gaining a foothold in professional sports, Mike Duberstein, director of research for the NFL Players Association, said while the jury deliberated, "It's a frightening prospect, one which would have had tremendous repercussions for the integrity of the game."
NCAA executive director Dick Schultz said he felt "comforted" by the verdict, and Bo Schembechler, athletic director at Michigan (one of the schools the agents were convicted of defrauding), said, "This sends a clear message to agents as well as athletes that this type of action is unacceptable." But one agent, David Ware of Atlanta, said, "I know for a fact that there are many players who signed early this year. I don't think the athletes are hesitating [to take money early] because of this trial.... I don't notice one iota of difference from the pre-Norby days to the post-Norby days."
There was also a message for the colleges, whose sometimes laughable academic standards for athletes were revealed to be almost as cynical as the predatory activities of Walters and Bloom. SI's Rick Telander, who has covered college sports extensively, likens Bloom and Walters to "rats in a basement full of garbage. It's fine that we're getting rid of the rats, but it's even more important to get rid of the garbage that attracts them."
Two of the academic transcripts scrutinized at the Walters-Bloom trial were those of former Iowa football players Ronnie Harmon and Devon Mitchell (SCORECARD, March 27). In his three years in college, Harmon took only one course toward his major, computer science, while enrolling in watercolor painting and billiards. Mitchell's curriculum included ancient athletics, recreational leisure, advanced slo-pitch softball and the ever-popular billiards. Obviously embarrassed by these revelations, Iowa president Hunter Rawlings ordered a crackdown on academic requirements for athletes. Hawkeye players will have to make steady progress toward a degree (as NCAA rules require); they will no longer receive credit for athletic participation; and they will have to take at least 14 credit hours per semester.
Rawlings also called for the NCAA to ban freshmen from participating in athletics, and said that he would push for such a ban on Iowa freshmen if the NCAA didn't enact one within three years. His suggestion touched off a firestorm of controversy in Iowa. While the faculty senate and a majority on the state board of regents backed Rawlings, Governor Terry Branstad said a unilateral ban on freshman eligibility would put the Hawkeyes at a "competitive disadvantage." Football coach Hayden Fry, while acknowledging that he usually plays only a handful of freshmen, said that a ban would hinder Iowa's recruiting. "I'm hurt," said Fry. "I feel like this has been a slap in the face not just at football but to athletics in general." He suggested he might resign "if the environment is not conducive toward winning."
Fry also said, "Let me coach football. Let the academicians run the school." We suggest that if Fry thinks a college coach's only job is to coach, then he should go someplace where he wouldn't have to worry that his players get an education. Say, the NFL.
The Miami Heat, flush from an unprecedented three-game winning streak, was celebrating a little too loudly on a flight from Miami to Indianapolis, where Miami was to play next. The pilot quieted the revelers with this message: "To the Heat players. Settle down or we're going to take this plane to Boston or Chicago, so you can play a real team for a change."
THE ANT GALLOPS TOWARD JOE D
As of sunday, Jockey Chris Antley had ridden at least one winner in each of the last 53 days he raced at Aqueduct in New York City. The previous track record was 29 days, set by Steve Cauthen in 1977, when he was an apprentice. Although such racing records are sketchy, no other track has come forth with a claim to top Antley's. His feat, which dates back to Feb. 8, when Antley won aboard Lady Seul, has become so extraordinary that the milepost he is chasing belongs not to another jockey, but rather to a baseball player, namely Joe DiMaggio, whose 56-game hitting streak has long been considered the most unbreakable record in his game.
Antley has shrugged off the streak by crediting his agent, Drew Mollica, with picking good horses for him to ride. "Drew gets me the mounts, and I can only make 'em run," says Antley, who is already in the Guinness Book of World Records for winning nine races in one day, Oct. 31, 1987, when he rode four top finishers at Aqueduct in the afternoon and five at the Meadowlands in the evening. What makes Antley's present accomplishment even more remarkable is that on 23 of the 53 programs during his streak, he rode three or more winners. His pursuit of DiMaggio's record may have to be put on hold this week, depending on the outcome of a hearing before track stewards, who gave him a 10-day suspension for interference in a race last Thursday.
Antley's streak began shortly after he came off a suspension for cocaine use; he spent four weeks in the same drug rehabilitation center that treated New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. Track observers noticed a change in the Ant almost immediately. "Since putting his troubles behind him, Chris has graduated from a first-rate rider to the status of a superstar," says former New York Racing Association executive Pat Lynch. As for that superstar from another sport, Joe D, Antley says, "All I knew before was that he was a ballplayer. Now that I know about his streak, though, it would be nice to break it."
THEY SAID IT
•Tommy Lasorda, Dodger manager: "Nobody had to tell Richard Burton he was a great actor. Nobody has to tell Frank Sinatra he is a great singer. Nobody has to tell Robert Wagner he's handsome. Nobody has to tell me I'm a good manager."
•Joe Kleine, Celtics reserve center, on what it will take to get NBA stars to try out for the Olympics now that they're eligible: "You'd have to hold the tryouts in San Diego, put 'em in a condo by the water and let them bring their families down."