Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2004/ 24 Kislev, 5765

Wesley Pruden

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Cheer, cheer for old Siwash U. | Congress is always eager to fix things, and can usually be counted on to fix the least-important wrong thing first.

A starting lineup of congresspersons warned Organized Baseball on Sunday that Congress and President Bush are standing by to fix "the steroid problem" if baseball doesn't. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican, hinted darkly that there might be a January deadline. If baseball doesn't act soon, Congress will give the owners something they don't want to take to spring training.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, a Democrat, agreed, breaking the Democratic death pact never to agree with Republicans on anything.

Steroids are a no-no because they give certain athletes an advantage over the players who don't take them. That's how Barry Bonds is believed to have become the greatest home run hitter in the history of the game, or at least the greatest since Hank Aaron and Mark McGuire. He hit 73 home runs in 2001, the current "all-time" record.

This strikes a lot of people as something akin to fretting over a movie starlet's boob job or a Hollywood hunk's $10,000 hairpiece, but John McCain and his friends are serious about doing something to dash the steroid craze. The records, of course, will stand, and probably forever if players aspiring to break the records can't bulk up with steroids.

The controversy is useful if only because it illuminates the general thugification of professional sports, which definitely includes the college game. Teddy Roosevelt, whom George W. occasionally cites as his presidential model, saved college football once before when he led the campaign to reduce lethal violence, particularly the brutal flying wedge, which had begun actually killing players.

The game is more violent now in different ways, and is spreading beyond the playing fields and hardwood courts. Professional basketball has become particularly odious, with players who are no longer content to rape their groupies and beat up their wives and girlfriends tempted to leap into the stands to beat up the paying customers. It's a reflection not only of sport, but of the cultural obsession with sport.

Big-time college football, the farm system without which the professional game could not prosper, has ceased to be mere sport and has become entertainment to rival the appeal of the chorus girls, the bright lights and casinos of Las Vegas. The payoff is the size of the Las Vegas loot, too, and there's a movement afoot — not yet big, but growing — to cut out the pretense and start paying the players above the table.

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"Stop pretending that big-time college sports are all about 'the kids' and academics and graduation rates," writes Dave Anderson in the New York Times. "It is really all about what should be known as campus pro sports — the big money from television, the football bowl games, the basketball tournaments that evolve into the Final Four, the big money from alumni contributions when a college has a hot team."

Sad, but true. The bowl games, which were once the reward of teams with exceptional records, are now the reward largely of teams so rinky-dink that the NCAA finally ruled that only teams that win more games than they lose are eligible. Bowls once were named for flora and fauna specific to their locales: Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange. Then alligators got a bowl of their own. Now the bowls have corporate sponsors who demand to put their own names on the games; we've even got bowls named for credit cards. More or less respectable schools compete for the honor of defending old Siwash U. in the Continental Tire, MasterCard Alamo, Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowls, and even something called the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Until it lost the sponsor, the Independence Bowl was the Poulon Weed-Eater Bowl, named for a garden implement.

It's only a matter of time until the players sell their own naming rights. One clever wag suggested that the college game should be turned over to the state prison systems, with teams made up of players who can't stay on the green side of the law. Coaches, chosen by wardens instead of college presidents, would have an abundance of talent and by keeping parole boards in their place wouldn't have to worry about losing their stars in midseason.

A more practical idea is for the colleges to organize a two-tier system, made up of paid players who need not be distracted by books and lectures on useless subjects like remedial reading and writing, and an authentic student team made up of players who play for the love of the game. This would enable the Notre Dames and Alabamas and Southern Cals and Ohio States to keep their programs intact, their stadiums full and their alumni happy, and return the game to its origin on a mellow October afternoon. The beer-swillers could cheer their thugs and the students would cheer their own Saturday's heroes.

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

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