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Play Ball


By John Rosenthal

ONCE UPON a time there was a game called football. Men dressed up in funny-looking knickers and leather helmets and ran around a field for 60 minutes, while college students and alumni dressed in strange-looking fur coats sat in the stands waving triangular banners and sipping brandy from pocket flasks. The game was a sporting contest between 22 men from two different colleges.

Going both ways meant you played offense and defense. Recruiting was something the army did. And redshirting was something nobody had ever heard of.

This game known as football eventually spawned something called professional football. But it also spawned something much more heinous: modern college football. This game resembles professional football in most respects, but bears two distinct differences. First, in modern college football, you can attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown, while in the pros, only a one-point try is allowed. Second, in professional football the players are paid directly, via salaries; in modern college football, the players are paid indirectly, via salaries, sinecures, and sneakers.

Those schools that get caught paying their players over the table are put on probation. Those that do it anyway but don't get caught go to bowl games and reap lots of profits from ticket sales.

What Southern Methodist University did with its football program several months ago was certainly a violation of NCAA rules. But the school's practices are hardly different than those practiced by every other school every year. Is it worse to give players money than to offer them free scholarships to colleges they don't really belong at?

THE COST of a college education is approaching $20,000 a year. What is right about giving someone $80,000 in scholarships and wrong about giving him half that amount in cash? Add simple jobs like turning on and off stadium lights at $9 an hour and the equation is even more unbalanced.

It is time the NCAA realized that college athletics are anything but amateur and allow schools to run professional football and basketball programs. Don't make the players go to school; pay them to win football and basketball games.

This suggestion will be condemned as sacrilegious by purists, but at least it is honest. It realizes that colleges serve as minor leagues for the NBA and NFL, and it realizes that most college athletes are not very good at passing even the mickeymouse courses in which they are enrolled.

Players would be paid like minor leaguers in other sports like baseball and hockey without having to go to class. Their seats would be filled by students more deserving of a college education, and classes like "History of Carbonated Beverages" and "Topics in Badminton" would disappear from college curriculums.

The colleges themselves could become owners of minor-league franchises and ally themselves with major league teams. Just imagine: Patriots wide receiver Irving Fryar gets his hand sliced up by his wife and is forced to miss three weeks of the season. The Pats don't have to shop around for another split end; they just call up a player from their Boston College farm team to replace him. Same thing for basketball. Bill Walton gets hurt? No need to invent a stiff like Greg Kite--the Celtics just call up Rony Seikaly from the Big East League and have him fill in for a few games. Then send him back to Syracuse when Walton recovers.

CRITICS WILL say such a scheme impedes the true student-athlete from playing against the best competition. Hogwash. Are college baseball players prevented from competing against the best players in the country in the College World Series? No. Are Harvard hockey players prevented from going to the national championships? Certainly not.

True college athletes would go to schools that had collegiate football and basketball programs rather than play for college-owned minor-league teams in same way that Tony Hrkac (pronounced hr-kac) played hockey for the University of North Dakota rather than for an NHL farm team. The same way that Dave Winfield played for the University of Minnesota instead of the Padres' farm team.

The establishment of professional minor leagues would also leave the rest of the nation free to return to real amateur college athletics. It would mean that the Michigans and UCLAs and Ohio States of the world could play in the College Super Bowl or the Final Four for real money while the Harvards and Holy Crosses would play for school pride.

Colleges and professional minor leagues coexist in baseball and hockey. There is no reason the same can't be true for basketball and football. It is unfortunate that the only way to make it happen is by letting the schools retain the ownership of these teams, and the huge profits that go along with them. Still, it is a far cry better than the special brand of hypocrisy being practiced by the NCAA and colleges across the country.

Pay the players. Educate the students. Don't confuse the two.

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