A couple of news stories caught my eye in recent weeks. Maybe you saw them, too.
One was about O.J. Mayo, the young basketball player. He played for the University of Southern California as a freshman last season, and very well. Then, having reached the magic age of 19 that enables him to turn pro under NBA rules, he declared for the June draft.
But it turns out he’s been a pro for some time. One Louis Johnson, a former member of a sleazy adult clique that surrounds Mayo, stepped forward to reveal that the young man had received some $30,000 in cash and gifts from a sports-agent’s “runner,” with the payments dating to Mayo’s high school days. In return the kid promised to employ the agent once his pro status became official, which he did before the agent backed out after the arrangement was aired.
The other concerned Arizona State University, my friendly, local mega-U. It announced it was dropping three men’s varsity sports—wrestling, swimming and tennis—for financial reasons, although private givers later gave wrestling at least a temporary reprieve. The move would clip $1.1 million from its $42 million athletics budget, the school said. That sum, incidentally, is a good deal less than the annual compensation of a single ASU athletics-department employee—football coach Dennis Erickson.
If you were surprised by either item, you haven’t been paying attention the last several decades. Under-the-table payments to college athletes are as American as the Mafia, and as enduring. Jocks got handouts in the 1950s when I went to college, if only in the form of “$20 handshakes” from alums outside the locker rooms after games. The stakes have risen since: investigations have been plodding along for a couple years over an agent’s alleged payments of some $300,000 to Reggie Bush, the Heisman Award-winning football player, during his days at—yes!—USC. One can only conclude that Mayo should have hooked up with Bush’s guy.
Cuts in college “minor-sport” programs also are old news, owing both to budgetary concerns and the male-female athletic-scholarship equality mandated by the Federal statute known as Title IX. That’s a problem for big-time football schools because the women have no numerical equivalent to their 85-player teams in that sport.
Whatever you think of that last matter, the conclusion is inescapable that things are out of whack on campus. First, while there’s money aplenty (both licit and il-) for the sports that bring in the money, there’s little for the ones that exist mainly to provide students with healthful recreational opportunities, which is what college sports were supposed to be about. Moreover, it’s universally acknowledged that minor-sports athletes—the ones who are getting the axe—are far more apt to be actual students than the football and basketball players who get the juice. In a better world that might count for something.
What’s really out of whack, though, is the gross imbalance between the attention paid to what various sugar daddies do for college “revenue-sport” athletes and what their colleges do to them. Properly cast, the roles of villains and heroes in the drama would be reversed.
To understand that let’s change the usual scenario a bit. Say that my neighbor has a son who’s a budding piano virtuoso but needs further schooling to develop his art. Then say his parents have fallen on hard times and can’t afford to give him that training. Mr. Nice Guy (me) comes to the rescue, offering to put the kid through State U’s excellent music school and buying him a car besides if the family agrees to make me the young man’s partner for a few years once he hits the concert trail.
Anything wrong with that? Not that I can see. The real-world difference is that big-time college sports are a nasty business in which the competitors (my school and yours) have zero trust in one another, so they make rules banning anyone from taking anything above the scholarship basics, then cross their fingers and hope no one notices all the late-model SUVs in the jocks’ parking lot. Every big-school president goes to bed praying that the next sports scandal won’t land in his lap.
Worse yet is how the colleges treat the youths entrusted to their care. It’s by saddling them with practices, film study, year-round conditioning programs, games and trips that all but negate any chance they’ll have to receive an education worth the name, which would be worth more than whatever graft that might come their way. If the kid is an O.J. Mayo he’ll get a seven-figure pro contact that will (or should) put him in Phat City for life, but if his first step is a bit slow, tough luck. Once his eligibility is gone a player is old news, just like the stories I mention here.
So is his school’s likely reaction to him. It’s “Go away, kid. You bother me.”
CORRECTION: NBA exec Brian McIntyre informs me that the singer who fouled up the National Anthem before the 1978 Chicago Bulls game I described in my last blog was Ferlin Husky, not Conway Twitty. He says he knows this because he was employed by the Bulls at the time and had to shepherd Mr. Husky through a trying day before pushing him out on the floor to do his singing bit. Next time you see Brian you should ask him to tell you the whole story because it’s a good one. Meantime, I apologize to the late Mr. Twitty, his heirs and assigns.