Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2001/ 23 Elul 5761

Wesley Pruden

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Cheer, cheer before the lights go out -- MEMPHIS -- Slavery lives in the Old South, sort of. The reparations can be enormous if you don't get caught.

Two high-school football coaches who prosecutors say schemed to sell a high-school athlete to the University of Alabama have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Memphis for extortion, promotion of bribery and conspiracy. One of the coaches testified that he collected $200,000 from a 'Bama booster to deliver the player to Tuscaloosa.

No one can say that Milton Kirk and Lynn Lang didn't work for the money. Before delivering the boy to the Crimson Tide, they shopped him to boosters or coaches (or both) at Arkansas, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Florida State and Michigan State. The player, who was apparently unaware that his coaches were getting paid to "guide" him, finally wound up at the University of Memphis as a kind of consolation prize.

The lawyers say the coaches won't plead guilty, and the prospect of a trial, probably early next year, is already making a lot of people nervous. Several big-name coaches have testified to the grand jury and are likely to be called as trial witnesses. The NCAA says it is conducting its own investigation, and the Memphis trial threatens to expose the sordid underbelly of a very smelly business.

"The system is getting less and less tenable," says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, who wrote a book ("Unpaid Professionals") about it. "There's no way around it."

The sports pages sometime resemble a police blotter. The University of Michigan played two convicted felons. A wide receiver at Auburn pleaded guilty to sexual relations with an underage girl. A Florida player, recruited for his speed, was convicted of driving the getaway car in a jewel heist. A player at Cincinnati was convicted of rape. The co-captain at Washington State was sentenced to a year in prison for punching out a girl. A Wisconsin player was convicted of assault on a young woman in a dormitory. A Notre Dame booster went to prison for embezzling $35,000, which he paid as "bonuses" to 12 players.

Fans, who often count on football teams to give meaning to impoverished lives, are sometimes accessories before and after the fact. Earlier this year, when a highly recruited defensive back at Arkansas was convicted of stealing $600 worth of clothing from a department store, a convenient and obliging judge sentenced him to a brief work-release program timed to end on the day before fall practice started. His coach allowed him to practice until he decided what the team punishment should be. One the eve of the opening game, Coach Houston Nutt decided that any punishment at all would be excessive.

In fairness to Mr. Nutt, he's got dues to pay. Arkansas dedicated a newly enlarged stadium (at a cost of $110 million) last week in Fayetteville, and if he can't field a football team good enough to pay for it, he'll soon be back at Boise State, taping ankles and laundering jockstraps.

Collegiate athletics has become enormous business. CBS is paying $6 billion to televise the NCAA college basketball tournament over the next few years. Coaches are routinely paid $1 million a year. John Thompson, who built a basketball powerhouse at Georgetown, earned $400,000 a year just for outfitting his players in a certain brand of tennis shoes, and when he was named to the company's board, he acquired stock options worth $3.1 million.

Some coaches, usually the basketball coaches who recruit players who are barely literate, want to eliminate subterfuge and put their players on a payroll. Paying athletes offends the academic pieties, but a growing number of college administrators are ready to throw up their hands and rid themselves of young men who, though no one will say it, have no place on a college campus. Fewer than half of the scholarship athletes at major schools graduate; not a single player on one recent national championship basketball team bothered to finish school.

Even schools with intellectual pretensions cut corners. According to Prof. Zimbalist's account, Duke awarded $4 million in scholarships to 550 student athletes in a recent year when 5,900 other undergraduates received scholarships worth only $400,000.

"This nation fought a ruinous civil war nearly a century and a half ago over the proposition that human beings were not property to be bought and sold," the Memphis Commercial Appeal remarked in the wake of the Memphis indictments. "We dare not allow that proposition to be compromised today in the name of athletic entertainment."

A romantic and simplistic reading of history, but the point is right on. Unfortunately, there's no scarcity of folks eager to take the dare.

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

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