This is going to be about the University of Maryland's basketball team and its struggle with the books. Four players are on probation and may be dismissed from school. One newspaper in Washington reported the problem in 700 words on the bottom half of its first sports page. Another newspaper put the players' pictures on Page 1 of the paper - later removing them in favor of a peanut farmer named Carter - and must have used 5,000 words in five major stories overwhelming its first sports page for two days. You'd have thought it was something important.
I know a kid who once played varsity baseball at a college in Illinois.
He was good student.
But one year he found out he was in love with newspapers. He worked 40 to 50 hours a week at the local paper. He was married, too, and he played baseball, and he tried to study when he had time.
But there weren't enough hours and something had to suffer. When a guy's in love with a girl and a newspaper and baseball, that leaves the books in fourth place.
So the school put him on probation and said he couldn't play baseball unless he straightened up and started going to class.
That was enough to get the kid back to studying so they took him off probation the next semester and he played baseball.
Don't ask me how I know that.
But I can tell you I hit .316 that spring. You could look it up.
So when a newspaper put the pictures of those players on Page 1, out there where the President and important people belong, it didn't seem right. Mugshots, the pictures were. Lined up. As if these four college kids had hijacked an airplane or kidnapped Farrah Fawcett-Majors. Something big.
You could read all the stories, searching the 5,000 words for the cosmic significance that demanded the players be identified by mugshots on Page 1, and find nothing but rhetoric about the exploitive nature of college basketball. You read how Maryland brought in these dummies who couldn't study. They brought them in, the stories said, just to play basketball and they didn't care about them as students.
That's a crock.
While it is true that big-time college coaches recruit players for their athletic ability, it is utterly false that coaches ignore the players academic work.
For one thing, that's a quick way to get fired. When players are kicked out of shool, it hurts the team. That often produces a melancholy won-lost record, which in turn produces an umemployed coach. So a coach's self-interest often moves him to supply players with tutors and counseling. Maryland does that.
For another hting, you won't find a buyer here if you're selling the idea that college athletes is nothing but a jungle of hypocrisy. Any system that can produce a Joe Paterno, a Digger Phelps, a Lee Corso, a Dean SMith - men who care about their players - is a system with value. Abuses are inevitable in the pressure to win, but the vast majority of college coaches are honest men who believe big-time basketball and football are compatible with education.
This is not to suggest these men, and Lefty Driesell, sit up nights worrying that their players have not grasped the true meaning of Sartre. They must worry more about winning, because college sports is big business, bringing in millions of dollars, both at the box office and through contributions from alumni softened up by bowl games and basketball championships. A coach whose teams don't win is a coach soon out of a job.
That isn't right.
But it is the way things work.
That's why Charlie Pell, the football coach at Clemson, has stolen a player off his school's soccer team, currently ranked No. 1 in the country.
Soccer and football were sharing the player for a while. He kicked field goals for Clemson's football team while being allowed to practice soccer.
A nice arrangement. The soccer coach, while unhappy that he didn't have the player all the time, was pleased to have him available as a reserve.
But then Clemson's other placekicker was injured.
So Pell changed the arrangement. He said the player, who originally came to Clemson to play soccer, could not practice with the nation's best soccer team. Pell ordered him to play football only.
It's a high-wire act. On the one hand, college athletics is big business. It also is a small parrt of a university's reason for being. So a coach has to win, but he has to do it with players who go to class. Even the best and most secure coaches teeter on the high wire, and that's what Lefty Driesell is doing now.
So the Washington Star puts the palyer's pictures on Page 1 and writes 5,000 words about four kids on probation - four kids out of 2,688 on probation in a school of 27,212 students. If the media are responsible in part for the big-business flavor of college sports - don't you think, for instance, the media would give Driesell holy hell if he went 7-19 - where then does the media get off with its pious act when its clamor for victory puts a coach on that high wire?
Every big-time coach recruits somebody who loves basketball more than books. If the coach needs to win, that's understandable. Every coach then will do whatever he can to keep that player eligible. If the player resists help, the coach can do nothing but hope for better next time.
But to write 5,000 words about it, to put the players' pictures on Page 1 - with no guarantee they'll ever flunk out: indeed, the academic advisor says he isn't worried - is to subject both the school and the players to public embarrassment far out of proportion to their failings.