Strapped Jocks

Everyone is wondering how the Boston College gambling scandal could have happened, but nobody is trying to explain why it happened. This isn't about an absence of morals, or a loss of innocence, or athletes representing society's worst. It's a wake-up call. And if people listen, it could be a chance to fix a broken system.If colleges paid their athletes, maybe the players wouldn't feel the need to jeopardize their scholarships by making petty $20 bets or even -- gasp! -- betting against their own team. This isn't the 1930s with gentleman athletes and eight-game schedules. It's 1996, and big money's at stake. Consider three points:* The term "student athlete" has become meaningless. "Student slave" might be a better term, because college basketball and football programs are virtual labor camps for the NFL and NBA. When a recent study came out ranking the 10 most profitable sports franchises, sprinkled among such professional juggernauts as the Yankees and the Cowboys were Notre Dame and the University of Michigan. We're talking about athletic programs that gross upward of $50 to $60 million annually from marketing, sales, alumni contributions, and bowl and playoff appearances.Meanwhile, the average football or basketball player receives ... a scholarship. By NCAA rules, players can't even have a work-study job. These athletes spend 30 to 40 hours a week on their sport (not including road trips), and any schoolwork comes on top of that. What happens if the player is from a poor family? Where does he get money?Not to pick on Boston College, but it's hard to forget the September '95 Boston Globe article about former BC coach Tom Coughlin's hard-nosed football program: of his 24 scholarship recruits in 1990, 16 left the team before seeing out the full term of their eligibility. The team's work schedule was simply too much; the Globe reported that Coughlin's staff routinely exceeded the NCAA limit of 20 hours per week for athletics during the off-season. Meanwhile, BC's football program pulls in between $5 and $15 million dollars a year. Is this a college or a Kathie Lee Gifford sweatshop?* Where college athletics is concerned, the whole notion of "moral conduct" has pretty much gone out the window. Just for fun, go through the Boston Globe microfilms at the library and try to find one week -- just one -- in the past two years without a story about college athletes getting into fights, committing sexual assault, disturbing the peace, driving while intoxicated, stealing, and so on.And those are only the incidents we hear about. When the BC scandal broke two weeks ago, the Globe revealed that two Eagles -- Brandon King and Jamall Anderson -- had been involved in separate incidents of credit-card fraud last spring. Not only did the schools hush up the misdeeds, but the players were never even suspended from the team. That's college sports for you. With money at stake -- and lots of it -- the University of Nebraska had no problem playing running back Lawrence Phillips in the Orange Bowl last year, three months after he'd assaulted his girlfriend and thrown her down a flight of stairs.If the relationship between the school and the students was more equitable -- if colleges were paying players as well as making money from them -- maybe the schools would feel more comfortable tightening the screws on troublemakers. And if players had a financial stake in their college experience, they might not treat the rules so callously. Maybe they'd even police one another off the field.* Many "student athletes" don't belong in college in the first place; it's simply a stopover between high school and the pros. Although some schools with top athletic programs -- such as Notre Dame, University of Michigan, and even BC -- maintain high academic standards, most colleges give admissions counselors considerable latitude with applications from athletes, whose GPAs and SAT scores usually fall at the low end of the spectrum for the incoming class. Unconcerned about their education, future stars have no problems passing through school for a couple years, getting their names in the papers, and taking off for the pros.College basketball has suffered noticeably in recent years, as increasing numbers of its biggest stars have left school early for the NBA (the top five players in last year's draft included two freshmen, two sophomores, and one junior). Three young players in the past two years -- Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Jermaine O'Neal -- even bypassed college altogether, entering the NBA right out of high school.Economically speaking, it's ultimately in the colleges' interest to keep their budding superstars in school. Television ratings for the lucrative NCAA basketball tournament have dropped 22 percent over the last three years, partly because the top young players have left college for teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Orlando Magic. And that hurts team spirit as well: while the stars at University of X use college as a warm-up and then bolt for the pros, their teammates are basically playing out four years and getting zilch.Colleges use athletes to make money. Period. Too greedy to pay their players, colleges hypocritically claim to be upholding the sacred ideal of the "student athlete." But it doesn't seem to bother them when their players don't work hard enough -- or stay in school long enough -- to earn a diploma. For the players' part, they leave early because they have no other options. For instance, Georgia Tech point guard Stephon Marbury left school after his freshman year to play in the NBA. Everyone said he could probably use another year of seasoning, and the 19-year-old Marbury conceded that was true. But it wasn't the point."My family's broke," said Marbury, the fourth pick overall in the 1996 draft. "We need money. Now."UMass basketball star Marcus Camby was belittled in the local press for accepting jewelry and money from a prospective agent during his junior season. But he knew he'd be turning pro by summer, his family was dirt-poor, and he was leaving college soon anyway. Why not? Camby was the main reason UMass appeared on television more times last year than the cast of Friends. He didn't see a dime of that money. UMass cashes in, and it's hardly surprising that Camby wants some of his share.And can rules be followed in a forum where everyone takes advantage of everyone else? Agents, coaches, and alumni prey on high-school athletes, who then go to college and find they can pretty much get away with what they want. If they're good enough, the system keeps working for them, and they start to be wooed by agents and professional teams. Meanwhile, the average players fall through the cracks. Notice that when the BC scandal finally broke, every player involved was either a younger team member or a non-starter -- players with no chance for a professional contract. None of BC's stars -- such as Omari Walker and Todd Pollack -- were involved. They have too much at stake.That doesn't means gambling should be condoned, especially if players are betting against their team. (At least two players -- Jamall Anderson and Marcus Bembry -- appear to have done so.) But the scandal seemed to hit the BC community and the Boston area like a jolting left hook, and it shouldn't have. Anyone who believes there's a gambling-free campus in the United States hasn't attended college in the past 15 years. As for the 13 Eagles involved, they weren't conniving, just naive. They weren't acting maliciously, just reacting to a situation in which 1) they're taken advantage of every day, and 2) they're not accountable for the actions off the field as long as they're producing on the field. Yes, they were wrong, but they're also part of a wrongheaded system.Pay the players; it's that easy. Four years of free school isn't enough of a reward anymore. Give scholarship athletes five or 10 percent of program profits. Make it legal for future professional stars to obtain loans and insurance policies so that they can protect their futures and receive their degrees (and call it the Stephon Marbury provision). Give players a piece of all marketing rights. Maybe if players saw some financial reward for their hard work, they wouldn't even consider betting against their own team for a few extra bucks.There's a piece in Mitch Albom's 1993 book Fab Five (Warner Books), a superb account of the early-1990s University of Michigan basketball teams, about Wolverines star Chris Webber. One day, he and a friend stop for lunch at a fast-food joint at an Ann Arbor mall. Webber orders a five-piece chicken meal, two fish sandwiches, and a drink, then reaches into his pocket and realizes he's short of cash. Embarrassed, the future NBA number-one pick changes his order to a three-piece chicken plate and one fish sandwich, and cancels the drink. The two eat their food quickly and start walking around. Then Webber stops in his tracks.Hanging in the window in the store next to the restaurant is a replica of Webber's Michigan jersey, number 4. Webber and his teammates had fueled Michigan's marketing bonanza all season; kids across the country wanted to wear the team's yellow jerseys and oversized shorts. Webber and his teammates, of course, never saw a dime of the profits.Still hungry, still embarrassed about being short of cash, Chris Webber turned to his friend in disgust. "How fair is that?" he griped.Not fair at all. That's why things have to change.

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