Award Banner

Fourth and Long: In the shadows of our goalposts.

“Majorettes” (2010) by Zoe Hawk.

From the archive, in light of Alabama's second consecutive BCS title. 

In Chapel Hill, where the University of North Carolina is as much a religion as an institution, it was a winter of discontent followed by a spring of sorrow, and a summer of dread. As the NCAA wound up its year-long investigation of the Tar Heel football program, the noose tightened around the well-muscled neck of Coach Butch Davis. UNC fired Davis on July 27, a calamity compounded a day later by the resignation of the athletic director, Dick Baddour. A head coach of football or basketball is such a towering figure at most Southern universities that to sacrifice one, in the life-and-death chess game of intercollegiate athletics, is like losing your queen and seeing your king one move from checkmate. Considering their outrageous salaries and benefits—usually the highest on any Division I campus—you might think these coaches would be held strictly responsible for the chicanery and careless mischief that attracts the attention of the NCAA. Instead, to extend the chess metaphor, they're protected by layers of expendable pawns that can be sacrificed one by one as the head coach denies any knowledge of the infractions in question. Carolina had already given up an assistant head coach, a tutor, and several ex officio members of its football family, along with a dozen players whose college careers have been terminated or truncated, all the while reiterating its full confidence in Butch Davis.

This is the same cynical goal-line defense that failed Ohio State a few weeks earlier, when Jim Tressel was finally obliged to resign. But at least Coach Tressel took Ohio State to the top of the polls and won a national championship before scandal devoured his football powerhouse. Carolina loyalists will protest that Butch Davis (28-23) wasn't even a conspicuous winner. Why pick on us now? Wasn't UNC's latest humiliation—four hundred-odd campus parking tickets traced to a dozen players—fairly innocuous compared with the sins of Auburn, the current national champion, which survived an obvious pay-to-play situation with Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton, followed by the post-season indictment of four Auburn football players for felony robbery and burglary? These sterling student athletes, including a safety who starred in the national title game against Oregon, are accused of invading a mobile home and robbing its occupants at gunpoint. While the felonious four were awaiting trial and the NCAA was closing in on Butch Davis, Auburn awarded head coach Gene Chizik a new contract that doubled his salary, now estimated at $4.5 million with incentives.

Stanley McClover, a defensive lineman at Auburn from 2003-2005, claims several football schools offered him money up front and that Auburn, closing the deal, gave him a knapsack stuffed with cash. According to McClover, Ohio State openly pimped compliant women as part of its incentive package. Such is the perennially astonishing world of "college" athletics. You could make a lot of easy money betting on the next round of NCAA investigations. Just note the schools at the top of the football and basketball polls, the teams in the Final Four and the Bowl Championship Series—and wait six months. Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Connecticut, Tennessee, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky, and, of course, Southern Cal, which recently suspended tailback Marc Tyler for joking to a TMZ reporter that USC pays just as well as the NFL. The stunning success last fall of the unheralded football team from mid-major Boise State—the Broncos peaked at No. 5 in the polls—was followed right on schedule by the announcement in May of major NCAA violations and sanctions to come.

But cheating and lying are by no means limited to the most successful programs. On the same day that the NCAA announced the last stage of its football probe at UNC, it also placed Eastern Carolina University on probation for academic fraud, and NBC News accused Wake Forest University of protecting two key basketball players arrested for a sexual assault on a woman in the school's pep band. There seems to be no end, no limit to these atrocities and deceptions.

Of course, the NCAA, with its feigned indignation and indecipherable, unenforceable rule book, is a sham as well. The NCAA provides its mendacious members with the useful illusion of self-regulation, while both the malefactors and their prosecutors cling tenaciously to the Mother of All Lies—the fiction that "revenue sport" athletes who play football and basketball are actually part of the student body. What charade, what conspiracy of hypocrites has ever sustained itself so stubbornly in the face of all evidence and common sense? The "student athlete," at least the one wearing a helmet or knee-length shorts, is a tragic fantasy on which these venerable universities have staked, and lost, most of their stature and their self-respect. It's a fantasy that cleanly separates the sheep from the goats. Alumnus, sportswriter, legislator, or college president, anyone who even mentions these teams' "graduation rates" with a straight face is a phony or a fool.

College presidents are among the ones who trouble me the most. What do they see in the bathroom mirror on the morning of the big game? I've met a couple who find themselves entangled in the latest scandals. Chancellor Holden Thorp of UNC is a youngish scientist with an open, earnest manner and no apparent guile. I've met him several times; my wife and his mother are friends. Thorp typifies the first-time president, scarred only by faculty intrigues, who suddenly finds himself without a compass in the trackless jungle of deception that is big-time college sports. I saw a picture of Dr. Thorp in the paper the other day, flanked by his doomed coach and doomed athletic director. He looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights, and several years older than the last time we talked.

I've also met Gordon Gee, current president of Ohio State University. Dr. Gee, president of Vanderbilt when we met at a wedding in Nashville, typifies the wily fox who has weathered these storms at the helms of several universities. Engaging, facile, unmatched at the college president's core skill of seeming all things to all people, Gee can talk expertly about basketball or Victorian poets. If any president can survive campus recruiters who pimp coeds to high-school kids, it's Gordon Gee. When asked if he planned to fire Jim Tressel, he joked that he thought it was Tressel's prerogative to fire him. Yet even Gee, the nimble optimist who once won praise for eliminating the athletic director's office at Vanderbilt, must have dark moments when he wonders how the coaches and The Big Lie that supports them could have dragged great universities into the kind of moral quicksand that's swallowing Ohio State and Auburn.

Innocent or cynical, none of these scholars-turned-administrators ever imagined the professional and personal embarrassments that lay ahead. But just taking the office, in this culture, seems to mean swallowing The Lie and making it your own. William Friday, former president of North Carolina's university system, is the individual who deserves the most personal credit for desegregating and revitalizing higher education in our state. Friday, ever modest about his own accomplishments, told me once that his most frustrating failure was his inability, as a member of the Knight Commission, to initiate substantive reform of intercollegiate athletics. Far from considering solutions to their jock problem, most of the presidents Friday consulted were reluctant to agree that they had one. They were approximately as responsive and flexible as cigar-store Indians.

The box in which these administrators find themselves was carpentered by trustees who may not support them in disputes with the athletic department, and by fanatical armies of alumni and other boosters who—yearning to see themselves as members of the extended team—often serve voluntarily as the pimps, bagmen, and go-betweens in the most disgusting violations that come to light. The myth of the student athlete endures because it's as seamlessly self-serving as it is corrupt.

To concede that professional athletes are a lucrative sideshow with no organic connection to the institution is to lose face, luster, perhaps even revenue. Winning football and basketball games accelerates fundraising, the principal activity of the modern university, and stimulates admissions as well. Revenue is key. Legislatures may pass austerity budgets that force faculty downsizing and eliminate whole academic departments, yet they rarely raise objections to the multi-million-dollar salaries of successful head coaches or their huge staffs of assistants, each one paid more than most full professors.

Those complimentary automobiles and knapsacks full of cash don't come out of the athletic department's budget, but from the wallets of businessmen eager to please and to get the best seats in the stadium. This is the level where the real bottom feeders begin to feast. Though the story received minimal media attention, Ben Kirtland, former associate athletic director at the University of Kansas, was recently sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a $2 million ticket-scalping scheme. Kirtland, who was in charge of fundraising for Kansas Athletics Inc., the Jayhawk's nonprofit booster group, worked and thrived—stole—at the very nexus of corruption.

Dishonesty breeds dishonesty. My guess is that there's no such thing as a "clean" program among the Top 25 schools in the football and basketball polls, or the schools that aspire to the Top 25. There are only careful programs, and lucky ones—lucky so far.

How much would Kansas pay Ben Kirtland not to write his memoirs while he's in prison? But sordid revelations, wave after wave of them, have little effect on the way athletic departments do their ugly business. The network of coaches, scouts, camps, agents, and recruiting services continues to isolate large, strong male children from the age of puberty and to feed them into a system that effectively denies them the education it pretends to offer. Coaches own these kids until the big leagues beckon or their bodies are destroyed. Disingenuous universities go on with the farce of tutors, academic eligibility, and graduation rates for a population of exploited itinerants seeking only playing time and a shot at the pros—"the next level," as the kids always say in parting. The best players, the ones ready for the NFL or NBA, are rarely on campus long enough to find the college chapel. (Kyrie Irving, the NBA's No. 1 draft pick, spent about twenty minutes at Duke last winter.) Second-tier athletes often find that their scholarships contain loopholes that allow the team to dump them if they don't measure up. Coddled but regimented, arrested in most areas of development, acquainted with little but dishonesty and hypocrisy from the age of reason, these hulking adolescents serve their masters until they become used and damaged goods (those concussions you read about don't constitute a fraction of the permanent damage suffered by a football player's body) or infantile instant-millionaires draped in gold chains.

How did such a degrading travesty entrench itself at flagship universities founded a century or even two centuries ago by idealists with the highest sense of social purpose? That's one of those questions that will never be answered adequately, like "Why is marijuana still illegal?" or "What planet is native to Nancy Grace?"

Southerners now claim a lion's share—a liar's share?—of the glory and shame that accompany the cult of coaches and the myth of the student athlete. Yet we surely didn't invent them. Once upon a time, helmetless, bare-knuckle football was good macho fun for college students—back when macho meant encounters with hostile Indians and cougars, not hacking into websites or publishing photographs of your "package" online. But in 1905, Harvard alumni pressured President Charles W. Eliot to hire professional coach Bill Reid, hero of one of Harvard's few victories over Yale in the 1890s. Reid's salary, $7,000, was one-third higher than the salary of any member of Harvard's celebrated faculty and only slightly less than the university paid President Eliot after thirty-five years of service. It's been all downhill from there. Reid established a national scouting network, hired assistant coaches, and secured tutors for burly ringers who were assured that academics would be no problem. Reid's diaries reveal that he tried to hire game officials who would favor Harvard. He lasted only two seasons before the pressure to beat Yale drove him to booze and nervous paralysis. Eliot, the first of many college presidents victimized by athletic boosters, once lectured his faculty on "The Evils of Football," asserting that "worse preparation for the real struggles and contests of life can hardly be imagined."

A struggle for the soul of American education had commenced. Yes, a hundred years ago there were large men (Reid referred to them as "the beef") on Ivy League campuses who never belonged in any classroom and would have been hard-pressed to identify the liberal arts. "The malady, my brethren, has its seat in the disease of athletics which is ravaging the educational system of our English people," warned geologist Nathaniel Shaler at Harvard's commencement in 1903. But a very significant change is that "the beef," in those pre-drug, pre-steroid days, tended to leave its violence on the field.

Athletes have been the losers in this reprehensible game. I don't blame them for selling their free tickets and shoes and memorabilia—often the focus of NCAA investigations—for extra cash when their alumni sponsors come up short. Not when the coach pockets millions from sporting-goods contracts that amount to nothing short of legal bribery. But the criminal violence of scholarship athletes is an outrage of a higher order. Researching for another article, I recorded forty-three consecutive days when at least one college football or basketball player was arrested for assault, theft, drugs, illegal weapons, or driving while intoxicated. In one month, twenty-seven of these student athletes were arrested for rape or assault on a female. In a book titled Public Heroes, Private Felons, Jeff Benedict surveyed ten perennial football and basketball powers and found that their athletes, three percent of the male student population, committed twenty percent of the domestic assaults. In 1996, Virginia Tech's potent football program fielded a team of formidable predators—eighteen players accused of felonies and misdemeanors, one accused of two rapes. (In the Orange Bowl they played Nebraska, whose teams in those championship years featured players charged with attempted murder, assault, sexual assault, and firing into an occupied vehicle.)

During one depressing stretch in the mid-'80s, North Carolina State's quarterback was sentenced to twenty-six years for rape and UNC's star tailback was accused of murder. A basketball team, with only a dozen scholarships, can be recruited more cautiously and monitored more closely—though that didn't work at Wake Forest—but assembling a competitive football team with one hundred huge, dangerous children is like inviting the Khmer Rouge to roam your campus. If my daughter were currently an undergraduate at UNC, I'd withhold her tuition until I was assured that the football cell blocks were locked down at sunset. 

"Students" who stage a home invasion with loaded pistols—does Auburn blush if that's what it takes to beat Alabama? I know the answer, I'm afraid. I'm also aware that some of you who read this will react as if I'm vandalizing your place of worship. You're sitting there with a cartoon bulldog or alligator on your sweatshirt, cursing me and my limp-wristed kind. I can't help you. But I was never, I submit, one of those frail sports-hating library rats who are still bitter because the jocks got all the girls. Even though my coaches are dead now, I don't claim I was a serious athlete. Surviving teammates know better. But I played all the team games, certain of my joints have been compromised. I was once a sportswriter, too, and a sports enthusiast whose most vivid childhood memory is watching the great Jim Brown, wearing his Syracuse uniform, score forty-three points in a season-ending 61-7 rout of Colgate. I idolized Billy Cannon, Dicky Moegle, Johnny Majors, Oscar Robertson, Tom Stith—look him up. I could name all the starters on the Texas Western basketball team that won the national championship in 1966.

How was I cured? I paid close attention and it broke my heart. I grew up a little. You can, too. "Get a life," as the much-maligned, much-envied LeBron James advised his rabid detractors. It's one thing to be a fan, quite another to be a willing stooge for hypocrisy and misrule so rank that they achieve the level of true evil, harm real people, and trivialize what we used to call higher learning.

Every millimeter this metastasizing cancer grows, your diplomas and your sons' and daughters' diplomas are worth less and less. These crooked games have modified people's brains. In the South, no institution since Jim Crow has produced such denial, such an inedible buffet of rationalization, evasion, and outright lies. Of course, the Empire of Coaches would disappear into thin air the minute you—you with the paint on your face and the tiger on your hat—agree that the outcome of these contests justifies none of this, that, in fact, it means nothing at all.

Dream on, old man, dream on. Amateurs will never take their games back. But is it too much to hope that teachers and students, who used to be called the academic community, could take back some of their schools, and some of their self-respect?






blog comments powered by Disqus
  • Find Us on Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube

Digital Editions

  • Zinio
  • Kindle
  • Nook

One year for only $19.98

Orders outside the US