"A good blue-chip running back would bring $10,000 to $25,000 in cash, plus a car and $1,000 a month spending money."

-- Dick Lowe, Texas Christian University alumni football booster

What with disasters dominating the news, from those spawned by nature (massive earthquakes and hurricanes) to those fashioned by man (historically high budget deficits and soaring trade imbalances adding up to record levels of debt), you might have missed the story of Dick Lowe playing on the sports pages. His deserves wider coinage -- and public contemplation.

I would argue that Lowe's is one of the more significant and revealing tales of our times. Not because it's so unusual, though his candor certainly rates as remarkable, but because it is so commonplace and touches so many chords of present-day American life.

He's the guy who blew the whistle -- on himself and on the system that he's convinced prevails throughout big-time collegiate football in America. You buy players so your team can win. He also broke the code of silence that surrounds that all-but-certain common practice on our campuses. As such, he adds an illuminating and depressing chapter to the contemporary state of American attitudes and American ethics, and the apparent driving American value: to win, to be No. 1 at any cost, at any device necessary, however illegal.

"I should have remembered," he says, looking back critically on his behavior and involvement in the latest collegiate sports scandal, "what Coach Martin told me one time. He said: 'Victory without honor is not victory at all.' "

Lowe's life has in it elements of the old rags-to-riches mythology that fired the ambitions of countless Americans. He grew up poor in Wichita Falls, Tex., he said amiably from his oil company office in Fort Worth during a long phone conversation we had, and won a football scholarship to Texas Christian University. He played on the line against such as the great Doak Walker of Southern Methodist University, the star of the late 1940s. Lowe graduated with a degree in geology and went into the oil business. He drilled some dry wells, and he found some oil. And he had, as he says, his ups and downs. At the moment, he adds drily, it's down. But he also fulfilled Horatio Alger dreams. He became a success. Today, at age 57, he's president and chief executive officer of American Quasar Petroleum Co., based in Fort Worth.

He's also typical in another respect. "I'm a competitive guy," he explains, and his competitiveness took a familiar form. He wanted to see his alma mater, TCU, where he was on the board of trustees and an active booster for the university's athletic program, win on the gridiron. "I got tired of seeing our team get their butts kicked," he says.

Out of that impulse came the revelation that made news on the sports pages last week: that five years ago Lowe and about 60 other TCU alumni began raising money to recruit (buy is more like it) and then subsidize football players there with monthly under-the-table cash payments. Thus, his quote about being able to obtain "a good blue-chip running back" for from $10,000 to $25,000 in cash, plus the new car and $1,000 monthly expenses.

And that's just what he calls the going price for a "normal" blue-chip college player at TCU, not what might be paid at "the really big franchise" schools, as Lowe puts it. He doesn't know how high the payoffs would be for that sort of collegiate superstar because they've never been in that position at TCU.

The airing of this situation, with details of the hand's-out attitude of the players ("these guys are deft negotiators"), the intimations of blackmail by an assistant coach aware of the scheme and the subsequent suspension of players and accompanying embarrassing headlines, prompted Lowe to go public with his involvement. And he has done so with commendable candor and, in our conversation at least, with refreshing lack of moral posturing, defensiveness, self-justification or rationalization. He sounds like a bluff, open person, not some Jarring Jack Jackson professional blowhard alum type, but the sort of guy you'd enjoy spending time with.

It hasn't been easy, of course. For him personally, the hardest thing has been telling his daughter and sons of his role and involvement. "It's been pretty damn painful," he says, "one of these deals where you cry a little and explain a little and cry a little."

But he says that without the slightest hint of seeking sympathy. "I made a mistake. I've admitted the mistake. And I'm going to stand up and say I was part of it, I was wrong and here's how the system works. And say that without implicating anyone else."

I believe him when he expresses a greater concern and motivation:

"The system that prevails, in my opinion, at college athletic programs is the system of win at all costs. I was guilty of that. But everybody can't win. What you ought to do is do your best and not worry about it. I hope the public reaction is: Doggone it, clean it up. Get rid of this sort of thing. I love sports, and I love football. But what's been happening is not the way it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be a wholesome game played by young men for the enjoyment of other fans. If we don't get this thing back, people are going to get so cynical about sports they're going to kill it. The sports programs of universities should be put back in perspective. They shouldn't be like a crusade. They shouldn't be like it's a life-or-death matter. This idea that you've got to win, in my opinion that's a juvenile idea."

Were this only an isolated event, a little scandal at a distant southwestern university, an aberration in normal collegiate athletic behavior, it would be of no consequence. There is every reason to think that the opposite is so.

In all probability the TCU case is the norm; overwhelming evidence exists of the commercialization of "amateur" college football programs. From lucrative TV revenues to cash recruitment and payoffs for stars who promise success and thus more TV revenues, from alumni who raise and dispense the money clandestinely and illegally to college administrators who wink and look the other way and authorize construction of lavish new football dorms for the recruited players, hypocrisy and corruption pervade the entire process.

And when, on occasion, as in the TCU case, the system is exposed for all to see, few profess to see it even then. Witness the singular lack of commentary or expressions of condemnation or concern from university presidents or athletic directors -- or any range of self-professed moral American leaders.

This is not a new story, of course. It's very commonality makes it all the more a central piece of the prevailing moral and attitudinal fabric of the times. Perhaps a new American credo is in order. Instead of the motto, "In God We Trust," let our national coinage and symbols be engraved to read, "By God, We Must Win." After all, winning is everything, isn't it? It's the all-American way.