Just in the last few months we've read about Michigan State's Scott Skiles being convicted of one drug charge and arrested twice more for drunken driving, Connecticut's leading scorer, Earl Kelley, being barred from university housing and dining facilities following a campus review of his part in a harassment case, three Minnesota basketball players facing charges of sexual assault, some West Virginia football players charged with felonious assault in a bar brawl, and a Michigan tailback sentenced for aggravated assault at an intramural basketball game. Last year's police blotter included North Carolina State's Chris Washburn stealing a stereo set. Now, since prosecutors rejected his plea bargain, we are awaiting the trial of Maryland defensive back Keeta Covington, charged with a misdemeanor assault of a female student on campus.
College kids all. Not pros.
Drugs are scandal enough. Recruiting violations are scandal enough. Illegal payments by coaches and boosters are scandal enough. Point-shavings are scandal enough.
But these are assaults: potential in the form of drunken driving; de facto in the form of burglary; physical and direct in cases of sex and battery. This is more frightening than the others. You cannot take the position that assault is a victimless crime, as perhaps you might with drugs or under-the-table cash deals. And who does point-shaving mainly hurt but gamblers, most of whom are illegally engaged? Assault is crime against others. We are the others.
"I think, unfortunately, that it is a trend," said Dick Dull, Maryland's athletic director. "And I think it underscores one of the grave problems with athletes in society. We've made these kids bigger than life. We've worshipped them to the point where we've relieved them of some responsibilities that they ought to have as citizens."
Athletes often behave as if they feel themselves above the laws the rest of us are bound by. They learn to do this with our approval -- implicit and explicit. We give them carte blanche, and they put everything on credit. When taken to an extreme, this permissiveness results in someone like Billy Cannon, whose notion of immunity was such that he printed his own money.
What we do for love: In school we pass athletes when they deserve to fail. On the streets we excuse all sorts of antisocial behavior when we should hold them accountable. We generally absolve them as long as they continue to get two on third and one. They go through life on a scholarship. We pay for it.
Scott Skiles was college basketball's most exciting player. A great scorer, a great passer and a great leader -- qualities that were unmistakable during the NCAA tournament. But Skiles should never have been allowed to play for Michigan State this season; it was irresponsible of the university to let him, a case of the athletic tail wagging the academic dog. Basketball is a revenue-producing sport, and Skiles, who averaged almost 30 points a game, was a revenue-producing guy. Administrators like winning as much as coaches. Does anyone believe that Michigan State would have been as compassionate to Skiles had he been the team's 12th man? It was similarly irresponsible for the review board at Connecticut to let Earl Kelley play. If you bar a player from the dorms and the cafeterias of your campus, how do you justify his presence on the basketball team?
The Constitution does not guarantee the inalienable right to play Division I. Students found guilty of assault, burglary or DWI should face suspension from athletics for at least one season. Athletes should have to be good citizens to play college sports. In fact, scholarship athletes who are, in effect, being paid by the school and are therefore, in effect, employees of the school, should hold to a higher standard of behavior than the student body at large. If we say that our college athletes are students first and athletes second, then don't give them reason to believe that the reverse is true. If convicted, let them study, not play.
Coaches regularly specify their preference for recruiting particularly aggressive people, whom they then condition to become even more aggressive. It is not uncommon for a football coach to praise his players for the ferocity of their contact. As soldiers must learn different behavioral responses in and out of battle, so must athletes learn to confine their aggression to the fields of play. Scholarship athletes are wooed to a school by coaches and administrators, and all are responsible for maintaining civilized behavior. We are up to our eyeballs in marauders; no more need apply. "We encourage athletes to be tough on the field, but we have to ensure that conduct stops in the locker room," Dull correctly said. "We should expect them to be good citizens on the streets."