An unfamiliar pack of critics is yipping at University of Maryland athletics and basketball coach Lefty Driesell. Armed with subpoenas and word processors, they may be considered uninformed and possibly dangerous. Judgments that may prove proper are being made for the wrong reasons.
" . . . Len Bias was being exploited by the university people around him in ways almost as venal as any cocaine peddler could have exploited him," wrote columnist Carl Rowan on The Post's op-ed page. "What kind of 'father' loves a 'bright and intelligent' kid so much that, in his passion for winning basketball games, he allows that 'son' to rack up three Fs and two withdrawals in his most recent semester ?"
I say Len Bias was not exploited at all. I say Bias got at least as good a deal from Maryland as Maryland got from Bias. I say Driesell was an enormously positive influence on Bias' brief life and shorter career.
That having been said, I add this: Maryland -- and every other big-time athletic school -- does exploit athletes. Badly, by failing to give them enough chance to succeed academically. In a sense, Bias beat the college sports system. Also, I think Driesell and some others are in more danger of losing their jobs than they seem to realize.
Saying she felt education was not a top priority for Driesell, the academic counselor to men's basketball, Wendy Whittemore, resigned Tuesday. It was reported that five of the 12 players flunked out last semester.
Whittemore recalled so much travel during the spring semester, especially the trip to the West Coast in mid-March for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, and said: "They the players were getting anxious, and by that I mean depressed and angry.
"They were saying: 'How in the world am I going to catch up?' All of them were feeling like a mountain had been shoveled on them and there was no way they were going to get out from under it. . . .
"Depending on the sport and the schedule, all of our athletes miss class at one time or another. . . . My feeling is that they care about class, but they are operating in an environment where it's hard to get it done."
Driesell's immediate reply: "Don't I have enough questions to answer right now without you all badgering me on an academic adviser resigning? I mean, what the crap. . . . My record speaks for itself. Any of my players will tell you I'm more concerned about academics than their jump shots and defense."
Evidence suggests he is. Typically, Driesell's response did not give the matter the attention it deserves. Preaching academics, he tried to avoid a stunning matter: His academic coach quit, and nearly half his team is at least temporarily gone.
Keep this in mind, Lefty. All Whittemore did was quit. You're the one with a problem.
About Bias. Directly and indirectly, he helped Maryland generate hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Terrapins would have been on television less often and in fewer tournaments without him. They would have received less free publicity throughout America while he was becoming an all-America. Chemistry professors have better beakers and music teachers more trombones because athletics pays for itself.
In return, Bias got to play in the most sophisticated basketball environment this side of the openly paid pros, and he was progressively better in it each of his four years. Driesell must be given quite a lot of credit for that.
Once Bias was in his final season for Maryland, he apparently quit academically. Who could blame him? He was certain of his life's work, certain that he shortly would be a millionaire, certain that walking into a classroom again was a waste of time.
Of the first 8,000 questions Bias was asked by prospective NBA employers, think any of them was: "How'd ya do in English?" The only transcript the NBA cares about is the career stat sheet. The most useless qualification for professional sport is a college diploma, the same as averaging 20 points and 20 rebounds won't get you into the State Department.
Jack Nicklaus never graduated from college. Julius Erving only earned his degree when his basketball career was in decline, at age 36. Washington's latest athletic hero is Moses Malone, who never attended a single college class.
According to USA Today, 12 of the 18 college seniors selected in the first round of last week's NBA draft have not yet earned their diplomas.
How much blame should Driesell shoulder for Bias quitting after he had done enough to remain eligible? How much should Bias, old enough and experienced enough to know his pro career could end with one twisted knee? How much should the Celtics and other teams that mandated that Bias be in their city for extensive evaluation?
Of the basketball players who entered Maryland between 1977 and 1981, 53 percent have graduated. That's 12 percent higher than the overall university average and 11 percent better than the football program mustered.
I have been in locker rooms, at Davidson and Maryland, and heard Driesell fuss at players to get after their schoolwork. Yes, their continued eligibility also helps him enormously. The long-range benefit is to his player.
The inordinate number of games a team plays, the strange and long trips during the postseason are in fact blessed not by coaches but academic thinkers. The NCAA must rule on length of schedules and the format of national championship tournaments; the NCAA is a collection of college presidents.
As every parent knows, you can push a youngster inside a classroom but you cannot make him learn. Which means that even graduation rates for athletes are not necessarily meaningful. Still, Rowan might like to know that at least one man in the highly pressurized, frequently corrupt sport of college basketball has managed to win 500-plus games and also coach two Rhodes Scholars.
At two schools in 26 years, there has been little to suggest Driesell did anything improper either in recruiting players or keeping them eligible. Perhaps the investigations have not been tough enough, or the wrong questions asked. The Prince George's County state's attorney, Arthur Marshall Jr., will take care of that.
If Driesell obstructed justice, he should be fired. He and the rest of the athletic department trumpet a drug-testing program as random and thorough. Is it? Just now, the only thing Driesell seems guilty of is his usual bluster and unusual ability to complicate an already bad situation.
The shame of college sport is greed that prepares exceptional athletes for professional careers but makes it very difficult for marginal athletes to get ready for life. Of Maryland's basketball players last season, only Bias seemed certain of making a pro team. Very likely, Maryland exploited every player except him.