Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2004/13 Teves, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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Learning to sweat the important stuff | We've finally got Saddam Hussein in a cage and the war is going a little better; the economy is swiftly gaining altitude and Britney Spears caught a man (and threw him back).

Now the nation can get down to serious business: We still don't have an undisputed champion of what used to be called, accurately, college football. If George W. can't do something about it soon we'll have to call in Karl Rove, or at least Kofi Annan.

The manly professionals employed by Louisiana State whipped the employees of Oklahoma University in the Sugar Bowl on Sunday night, three days after the doughty workmen of Southern California defeated the hired hands of Michigan in the Rose Bowl. This threw the complicated formula for determining a national collegiate football champion into chaos and confusion. Woe is us. All is woe.

You might wonder what difference all this makes, on a weekend when a considerable segment of the international air-travel industry was thrown into chaos and confusion by Islamist terrorists, the Iranians were trying to determine whether 20,000 or 30,000 of their countrymen were buried under the rubble of a mighty earthquake, the nation's ranchers were trying to figure out whether any more of their cows were mad, irritable, irascible or just pouting, and the Democrats are still trying to figure out what, if anything, they can do about Howard Dean.

But if you wonder about whether any of that stuff is important you aren't paying attention to the news. Some of the talking heads of television have been talking about little else, trying to guess which one of the articles in the Bill of Rights guarantees football fans, many of whom have never set foot on a campus and imagine that the student union is a junior affiliate of the AFL-CIO, the right to a certified champion.

Nothing better illustrates out-of-control sports lunacy than the spectacle over whether there were enough millions in Nebraska to lure a moderately successful coach to abandon the Arkansas Razorbacks for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The bidding stopped at $2.5 million a year, which is approximately 10 times what the University of Nebraska pays the university president. That's when Houston Nutt, the hotly pursued coach of the Razorbacks, called a halt and decided he couldn't leave Arkansas at any price and settled for a raise to $1.5 million. (This did not surprise his friends. A lot of people try to leave Arkansas, as novelist Charles Portis, author of "True Grit," observed, but few succeed: "They can't achieve escape velocity.")

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This humiliated the folks gamely husking corn out on the prairie, since Nebraska is one of the powerhouses of college football, spends $52 million annually on fun and games and regularly plays for the national championship in Sugar Bowls and Orange Bowls, and Mr. Nutt is a nice man who is a terrific recruiter and regularly takes his teams to Music City Bowls and Independence Bowls. His athletes have distinguished themselves more in the courts than on the courts. But he's popular with his players, who have to get caught dealing drugs and guns from a dorm room, as one of them did, to get dismissed from the team. Fighting, drunk driving and cutting class barely rate demerits.

And it's not just at Nebraska and Arkansas. The colleges and universities have transformed themselves into minor leagues for the professionals, and the colleges no longer try very hard to keep up a pretense of "student athlete." Many players don't stay around long enough to learn the words of the alma mater and jump toward the NFL as soon as they learn to write their names and count money.

LSU and Oklahoma, which played for the "official" version of the national championship, expect to graduate barely 40 percent and 33 percent of their athletes. A national commission has recommended that schools be barred from bowl games unless they regularly graduate at least half their players; under such a rule 26 of the 28 bowl games would have been canceled this year because none of the invited teams would have qualified.

The best teams, Marcos Breton of the Sacramento Bee observed the other day, generally have the dumbest players, and the worst teams have the smartest. West Point, whose cadets are cut no slack from serious academics, regularly contended for the national championship a generation ago, and won it twice. Army went 0-13 this year. But let's sweat, if sweat we must, the important stuff, like whether LSU or Southern Cal is the best in the land.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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