Indentured Glory

It's time again. Time to bust out the nachos and salsa, crack open a cold one and partake in that perennial spectacle of exploitation we've come to know and love: college football bowl season. Along with basketball's Final Four, it's one of the twin towers of NCAA hypocrisy, another ebullient celebration of the thing that's made this country great -- cheap labor!The build-up for these festivities has been underway for quite some time. Just a few weeks ago, 18-and 19-year-old kickers and receivers were determining, with their field-goal attempts and touchdown receptions, whether their school and conference would get a major (read: multi-million-dollar) bowl invitation. In a high-profile example, Shevin Wiggins of Nebraska made a controversial last-second catch against Missouri, securing a trip to the Orange (I mean, Fed Ex Orange) Bowl and a $7.7 million payout.What is the recompense for such gridiron heroics? A pat on the butt and some press clippings that will eventually fade like the noise of an emptying stadium. While players content themselves with the "thrill of victory," their schools, along with media and corporate sponsors, are busy greasing up with cash for an orgiastic marketing frenzy. A short list of this season's bowl games tells the story, reading more like a page from the New York Stock Exchange than the colorful collection of collegiate contests of yesteryear. There's the AXA/Equitable Liberty Bowl, Builders Square Alamo Bowl, Carquest Bowl, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, CompUSA Citrus Bowl, Nokia Sugar Bowl ... the list goes on, ad(vertisement) nauseum.Only a few games, including the venerable Rose Bowl, have declined to sell out to corporate sponsors. Don't worry, though: I'm brokering a deal between them and Richards distilleries to re-christen the event as the Wild Irish Rose Bowl, a fitting marriage between a ritual of pacific pageantry and a wine with an equally esteemed legacy among drunks everywhere.Which, aside from the free samples I'll earmark for upperclassmen participating in the game, still won't make a difference to the players. While networks bask in ad money, schools and conferences collect appearance fees and TV revenues, coaches pocket apparel contracts and corporations cover college athletes with logos and patches like Indy cars, the players are still forbidden remuneration by the NCAA. Not pizza money, not take-your-girlfriend-to-the-movie money, and damn sure not fly-my-family-across-country-to-see-me-play money.Make a mention of the inequity of the college-sports system, and you won't likely hear any cheers. "Boooo!" will come the cry from college-football traditionalists and other defenders of the status quo. Student-athletes should be happy for the opportunity to play major collegiate sports, they'll holler. Look at all the attention they get. If they're really good, they get to go pro. And even if they don't (drumroll please) they get a free education!Yeah, right.Excuse me while I get out my broad brush. But first, most folks who have no problem with the current system lack any firsthand knowledge of it. And second, most of the folks who "do" know the system and don't find fault with it -- e.g., coaches, commentators, school officials and NCAA administrators -- have a vested interest in keeping it going.As a former Division I athlete, I bring a somewhat different perspective. Most notable, probably, is my conviction that the notion of the student-athlete -- in revenue sports like football and basketball, anyway -- is a sham. These are athlete-students. Period.Despite the fact that I was on academic rather than athletic scholarship at the University of Maryland, I never saw advisers in my major during my three years on the football team. Instead, I was advised and registered through the athletic department, where the focus was on eligibility, not excellence.Sure, I got to register for classes earlier than the rest of the students. But rather than a perk, this was a necessity; we had to squeeze classes in between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., to avoid any interference with practices, films and meetings. We were "advised" to carry only 12 credits during the fall (in season), and 15 in the spring. The rationale: If we failed or had to drop a class during the fall, we'd still be eligible to play for that semester. And if we ended the year a class short, it was actually a good thing: That way, we could attend the first summer-school session and hence be around for the voluntary/mandatory summer workout regimen.From what I gleaned from friends who played at other schools, our daily routine at Maryland was typical. During the season, we attended meetings and studied films in the athletic office beginning around 1:30 every afternoon. Then we hustled down to the team house to get taped up, dressed and onto the field by 3:30 p.m. for special teams and practice, which lasted until 6 p.m. or so. With that done, we'd lift weights for another 30 to 45 minutes, shower and hightail it over to the training table to eat by 7 p.m. Not too many players faked getting hurt, since an injury meant you'd be expected at the team house for treatment at 6 a.m. the next morning. Oh yeah: And for those whose grades were low, there was also a mandatory study hall from 8:30 to 10 p.m. Whew!Then there was game day -- or game weekend, rather. Even when we had home games, we were sequestered on Friday nights in a hotel just on the edge of campus, where meetings, quizzes (?) and more followed a 9 p.m. check-in time. A night game, or an away game, meant we wouldn't get back to the dorms until around 12:30 a.m. on Sunday. Which didn't leave time for much else.Now, I'm well aware that there are many highly motivated students who work comparable hours at actual jobs while attending classes full-time. But the fact is, "any" non-academic activity that consumes this much time puts a student at a disadvantage. Plus, there are a couple of key differences between a student with a job and a so-called student-athlete: namely, motivation and priorities. Students working their way through college are very clear that their jobs are means to an end -- and that the end is education. For most athletes I knew, school was seen as a co-requisite of eligibility, a form of drudgery to be endured toward the higher goal of playing a sport. Classes were, like weightlifting, something that had to be endured in order for you to do your thing on the field or on the court.For me, those lines of relative priorities and motivations were blurry. I had boxes of academic recruitment letters to rival the athletic offers of my friends on the team. But I'd also been a solid three-sport performer in high school, and had some offers to play football at smaller places. I chose Maryland based on their engineering rather than their football program, but was happy to be invited to summer camp with the scholarship freshmen.Inexplicably -- to my parents and counselors, anyway -- I considered being an athlete as integral to my self-identity as being good in math, writing or art. I made the traveling squad in my sophomore year, played a little, and was set to receive my football scholarship at the end of the season until Coach Bobby Ross left for Georgia Tech. Disillusioned, I played one more year before deciding that I was putting out more than I was getting back.During those three seasons, I observed and absorbed some of my teammates' priorities. After a particularly depressing wave of final exams during my junior year, I remember telling my roommate, a sophomore tailback, that I hated school. "Not as much as me," he said in his slow Western Pennsylvania drawl."Yeah, I do," I replied."I hate school sooo much," he said, in all seriousness, "I'd rather work in McDonald's.""Daaaammn ... you win," was my sheepish response as I made a mental note to study harder.Most guys' views of academics weren't as bleak as my roommate's. But there weren't too many on the other extreme, either -- very few guys with the drive and focus to get good grades in a challenging major while contributing on the field. For every one of them that I knew, I knew 10 more who were fairly intelligent, but who chose "easy" majors so their classwork wouldn't interfere with 'ball. This at a good academic institution, not a football mill. This under a coach who stressed education and followed the rules so closely he'd have to check his NCAA handbook if you asked him for half a stick of chewing gum.With the current popular cry for a college-football championship game, and the continuing escalation of revenues, there's no end in sight to the pressure to win. Nor is there an end in sight to the ultimate result of that pressure: the Just Stay Eligible academic ethic.Which leads to a logical question: If athletes are being forced, even indirectly, to minimize the value of their only compensation -- their scholarships -- shouldn't they be compensated in another fashion?Don't try posing that question to your average sports fan. Full of nostalgia for the good old days in pro sports, when you could root-root-root for the home team and not worry about the star jetting off next season to the highest bidder, these fans love college sports as they are. With football, at least, it's like everybody's under a four-year contract.That's why a collective "boo" goes up when anyone suggests paying the players. These die-hard fans don't want to see college ball go the way of the pros. (Surely it's not a love of academia that motivates their high-minded views; if that were the case, wouldn't there be legions of folk watching PBS or A&E on Saturday and Sunday afternoons?)A growing number of reformers agree that, at least in the revenue sports, there should be a modest stipend paid to players. Not the lavish sums reserved for pros, but enough to cover incidental expenses. With the amount of money now being generated by TV contracts and endorsement deals, there should be more than enough to fund the non-revenue sports and still slide $50 a week to the folks who are bringing it in.But short of an NCAA Player's Union being established, I don't see that happening. Even a proposal to allow players to work a real job while on scholarship has been delayed until August 1998, a year after it was supposed to take effect.The collegiate sports powers that be continue to insist that a free ride is compensation enough, no matter what the athletes think. But if the schools and the NCAA honestly believe that a college education is fair payment for services rendered, they could do more to ensure that athletes get a real value from their college experience.One possibility: Make scholarships good for an extra two (or more) years beyond the athletes' eligibility. This way, the powers that be could maintain their winning-is-everything philosophy, could keep admonishing their warriors-by-proxy to Just Stay Eligible for four or five years. But after that, when the pixie dust of a professional career has cleared from the athlete-student's eyes, there would be a chance to experience life as just a student -- one who doesn't have to choose between the library and the weight room.Imagine: The average jocks would have a chance to upgrade their majors to something that would prepare them for the real world, instead of careers as bouncers. And the really sharp kids, the ones who already thrive in a less-than-conducive learning environment, could come out with their master's degrees. It would be a start, at least -- not to mention a logical way for the NCAA to expand on the 174 merit-based postgraduate scholarships it already awards.Post-eligibility scholarships would make the whole setup a little more seemly. But until that happens, or until players start getting stipends, we're stuck with business as usual. We'll watch the bowl games, ooh and aah over the parades, the glitz, the glamor. We'll cheer on our favorite teams, sop up commercials and marvel at the skills of the players, oblivious or indifferent to their indentured servitude.We'll keep thinking that these kids' fleeting moment in the spotlight is ample payment for the entertainment they provide us. And despite the six games on New Year's Day, and the two marquee matchups on Jan. 2, the "really" big game will still be the one that's being run on the athletes.

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