In intercollegiate sports, it is a sin for players who generate millions for their schools to make a 23-cent phone call home at the school's expense. It is perfectly fine for a basketball coach to be reimbursed twice for each of 21 trips if he does it in the jurisdiction of New Mexico Judge Phillip D. Baiamonte.
What connects this latest bit of judicial absurdity is a number, $6,000. For allowing six of its football hessians to make long-distance calls that totaled about that amount on its credit card over a period of several months, Maryland is being publicly flogged. And properly so.
After being found guilty of billing the University of New Mexico for more than that sum, former coach Norm Ellenberger walked out of Baiamonte's court almost totally free. Thoughtful people still are livid that anyone in such a position could be so irresponsibly damning at times to all of semiamateur sport and then let a just-convicted coach off with a year of unsupervised probation.
Listen to some of what Baiamonte said as he was flailing Ellenberger with a tissue-paper whip: "How fair is it to incarcerate a coach who is basically doing what almost everybody in this community wanted him to do? Namely, win basketball games at any cost and by whatever means necessary to do that. Naturally, the rules and laws were bent. Is anyone really surprised? . . .
"If colleges and universities are going to conduct, in effect, minor league but professional basketball and football games and maintain those clubs, they cannot be heard to complain when things go wrong. . .
"I'm being asked to sentence a man because he got caught, not because his conduct was unacceptable . . . a man who was only one cog in the entire machine called college ball . . . This is a problem that probably exists at every major college and university in the country. . . The state is asking that the defendant be treated like a common criminal, even though that same state benefited from his conduct to the extend to several hundred thousand dollars a year."
Most of that is splendid sass, well-conceived and exactly right. Few religions are more hypocrisy-riddled than big-time college football and basketball. Yes, usually law-abiding citizens often are athletic zealots, willing to condone cheating, to fire an honest loser and hire a tainted winner. w
But Baiamonte made the one mistake inexcusable for a judge: he presumed everybody in big-bucks sport guilty of Ellenberger-like crimes. Given the transcript-tampering revelations of late, that is an easy assumption to make. It is wrong. Not everyone cheats. Perhaps one program in eight does, and for a judge to declare that the New Mexico mess "probably exists at every major college and university in the country" is as outrageous as believing Janet Cooke's are the standards for all newspaper reporters and Spiro Agnew's the ethical guidelines for all politicians.
Baiamonte threw the book at Ellenberger, all right -- the comic book. He set a wonderful precedent: cheating is tolerable as long as everybody else does it. Here is the judge before whom you'd like to take a speeding ticket. Hell, yes, I was doing 30 miles an hour over the limit. But who stays at 55? Nobody but preachers in clunker cars. . . Thanks, your honor. Better send somebody over there to revive the cop?
Ironically, NCAA justice was more severe. For more than three dozen counts of transcript altering, unethical conduct and illegal transportation and financial aid, the NCAA in December sentenced New Mexico to three years probation. The basketball team may not participate in the NCAA tournament the first two years.
Because the New Mexico scandal broke through a nonathletic wiretap, some of us believed a court other than the NCAA's more likely to give Ellenberger and the school proper punishment. We were wrong. Coaches are especially bitter about what Baiamonte did not do, because Ellenberger had been so blatant about cheating, to the point of bragging about it.
Double dipping apparently is the latest athletic innovation, the way to stretch the budget and escape relatively unharmed. Football coach Tony Mason admitted filing alternate receipts for $18,400 over three years but insisted it was repayment for expenses denied him by the University of Arizona. A jury believed him.
With all that coming so close, Maryland athletic officials and turtle watchers might wonder about all the fuss over some players making harmless long-distance calls. So the total might be $6,000. We should be grateful that somebody actually wanted to talk with them that long. And Charlie Wysocki, one of the players who missed the card, surely has brought the school 100 times that amount of money by himself.
If Ellenberger can get away with athletic felong, why should anyone care about Jerry Claiborne jaywalking? Because, as Claiborne has been the first to admit, it is a rule; and without everyone playing under nearly the same set of conditions, the sport could not survive. And this presumably being its first offense and Claiborne such a puritan, Maryland is not likely to get more than the public embarrassment already suffered.
Many NCAA rules do seem ludicrous. A school cannot but a recruit as much as a hamburger off campus. Or send his ailing mother flowers in the hospital. Being too thoughtful can get you one-to-three from the NCAA. t
Still, dumb as they may seem at first glance, these are advantages. And who is to say what determines where some hotshot halfback goes to college? A spray of flowers, in fact, might be the deciding factor, mothers being so important in the recruiting game.
The chief NCAA cop, Bill Hunt, has an appropriate parable: He was stopped once for going 34 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone, and argued heatedly about being punished for such a seemingly insignificant offense. A short time later, Hunt's son, Bradley, was struck by a car on the street near his home and suffered a concussion. Had the driver not been obeying the speed limit, had she been exceeding 25 miles per hour, his son might have died.