Tuesday, October 15, 2013


                 When everybody says something should happen, it probably will. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
                 What everybody is saying now is that it’s about time big-time college athletes in the so-called revenue sports—football and men’s basketball-- are paid. Time magazine said so in a September cover story. Joe Nocera, the New York Times op-ed columnist who sometimes writes about the NCAA, has agreed on several occasions. Sports-blab radio hosts have been saying it for years; it’s like you can’t join their union if you don’t share that belief. You might think so, too.
                At least, it’s a commonsensical stance. Look around any college stadium on game day and you’ll notice that everyone who didn’t buy a ticket—sportswriters, TV folks, coaches, game officials, ticket takers, concessionaires, vendors and the people who clean up after—are on the clock. In a multi-billion-dollar business that enriches many, what could it hurt to toss a few bucks the kids’ way?   

                But think about it for a minute (I know, it hurts) and complications appear.  How much would be “fair” compensation for the hours the players put in-- $100 a month, $1,000, $5,000?   Should they be paid out of season as well as in? Should a kid who seldom plays be given as much money as a starter, or a starter as much as a star?  Should Johnny Football have a pay class of his own?

                Should players’ injuries be covered by workmen’s compensation, whose benefits can far outlast their college careers? Should the players be permitted to organize?  Should they have a voice in their conditions of employment, such as the duration and content of practices? Should they get to audition cheerleaders?

                I could go on but think the point is made. I also think it’s widely recognized that many if not most of the players already are being paid, only not by check. When I covered the University of Illinois football team for the Daily Illini in 1956 (gasp!), the players joked openly about the “$20 handshakes” they received from alums after games. According to a recent series in Sports Illustrated magazine about a long-term and far-reaching payment system in the Oklahoma State U. football program, it seems those attaboys are worth $200 these days.

                  No-work jobs from boosters were part of the OK St. package, SI averred; nothing new there, either. Ditto for free meals, beers, clothes and whatnot from friendly merchants around any campus. Agents can be counted upon to slip cash to players who might be future clients, as well as to their pals and loved ones; it’s a normal expenditure in that business. A recent piece on Yahoo Sports asserted that five current or recent Southeastern Conference football stars shared some $90,000 in agent payouts over a 15-month period ending last December.

                But even such hauls pale in comparison with the value of what athletes are permitted to receive.  The annual cash value of a “free ride” athletic scholarship to a top-division sports school-- covering tuition, room, board and books-- ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 for students at public universities to more than $50,000 for such high-toned private schools as Duke, Stanford and Northwestern. Multiply that by the four or five years it usually takes a jock to play out his eligibility and you have more-than-ample compensation for semi-skilled labor.

                The final figure is much higher for athletes who manage to emerge with degrees. If you estimate that college grads earn about $20,000 a year more than people without degrees over a 40-plus year work life, you see the basis of the claim that a degree is worth a million dollars, not to mention whatever intellectual lamps it lights.  Even those who wish to quarrel with that estimate must admit that a sheepskin is much more valuable monetarily than any salary young jocks might be paid while in school.

                The real scandal of college sports doesn’t concern what the players get— legally or under the table—but what they typically don’t get, which is the ability to pursue the education they sign up for. Playing football or basketball at the top college level is a full-time job, with players so tied up in games, travel and workouts and practices of various kinds that they have little time or, sometimes, energy for schooling.  Add that the youngsters must cope with the sort of news-media attention that would disconcert most of their elders and normal student life becomes an impossibility.

                It’s possible that a strong-minded, persistent and well-advised young man can get through the athletics’ cement mixer with an education worth its name, but most 18-to-22 year-old jocks don’t fit that description. Abetted by their coaches, most are channeled into unchallenging majors whose requirements don’t conflict with their sports schedules, and eased along further by “program-friendly” profs and “academic advisers” who relieve them of the necessity to do much coursework.  Yes, the lads often are complicit in their own exploitation, but their youth is an excuse while the adults who manage them have no such “out.” Putting players on a payroll only would increase the overseers’ leverage.

                 They’re not going to tear down the stadiums, the coaches aren’t going back to being paid like regular teachers and dumb-ass boosters aren’t about to get lives outside of sports,  so remedies are hard to imagine, much less implement. One small thing that could be done, though, is return to the former practice of denying athletic eligibility until a student satisfactorily completes a full academic year. That might discourage college attendance by players who are interested solely in honing their games and give the others a taste of what the rest of the student body is up to. Some might like it and insist on continuing.



Tuesday, October 1, 2013


                The baseball playoffs start today and since my Chicago teams aren’t in them (they rarely are) it’s good to have a Plan B. This year I have one in the Pittsburgh Pirates.
                I lived in Pittsburgh from New Year’s Day, 1963, until Labor Day, 1966, almost four years.  I went there to take a job on the copy desk at the Pittsburgh Press, one of two largish newspapers that offered me employment after I’d completed my six months of active duty with the Army Reserve.

 Working in Pittsburgh hadn’t been my objective but getting on a metropolitan paper was; in my previous jobs in Champaign and Elgin, Ill., and Ann Arbor, Mich., I’d seen too many good newspaper people stuck in small towns past the point they could easily leave, and I’d resolved to escape that trap. My other bid was from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and for meteorological reasons Pittsburgh seemed the better choice.

It turned out that being chained to a copy desk wasn’t for me, and by the summer of ’63 I was looking for alternatives. Providentially, I got a call from the Wall Street Journal, with whose Chicago bureau chief I’d previously interviewed. I’d scarcely remembered the chat but for some reason he had, and when an opening arose in the paper’s Pittsburgh bureau he passed along my name. I didn’t know a stock from a bond (really), and never had read the paper before I went to work there, but when the Journal offered I accepted, figuring I’d at least get out of the office once in a while.

Life is a series of accidents and this one turned out happily. My new colleagues by example taught me more about reporting in a few months than I’d picked up the previous six years, and I thrived under the paper’s nurturing regime.  My late wife Carol and I liked Pittsburgh, too. It wasn’t the city our native Chicago was but it was livable on our modest budget, and a half-hour’s drive in any direction from our home in suburban Crafton got us out into some pretty, rolling countryside. We had children there, and made friends, and were sad to leave when the paper transferred me to New York.

Carol wasn’t a sports fan, and the kids kept us busy, so I didn’t do much ballgame-going in Pittsburgh, but several times I did make it out to Forbes Field, where the Pirates played. It was a big old park, a remnant of the dead-ball era when shots between the outfielders could roll forever and triples were frequent. Sometimes they’d roll under the batting cage, which after batting practice was stashed on the playing surface in deep-center field because there was no other place to put it.  You don’t see that sort of thing anymore.

I mostly followed the Pirates (or ”Bucs”—short for Buccaneers-- as they’re called in Pittsburgh) on radio and TV. This acquainted me with Bob Prince, one of the best baseball mike-men ever. Prince was smart and clever, a “homer” who nonetheless made baseball fun even if you weren’t a local. He hung whimsical nicknames on Pirate players of the era (the light-footed centerfielder Bill Virdon was “The Quail”; the tall, stooped leftfielder Bob Skinner, who ran with a bent-legged gait, was “The Dog”), crowed “we had ‘em all the way” after close wins, and sometimes interrupted his playing-field narratives to verbally admire females in the stands. It wasn’t PC but you had to smile.

 It didn’t hurt that Prince was a legend in his own time who earned his macho bones with a dive into the swimming pool of a St. Louis hotel from a third-floor balcony, and something of a night-life hero as well. It was said that his nickname “The Gunner” stemmed not from any rapid-fire delivery but from his being threatened by a gun-toting man while he was chatting up the guy’s wife in a bar.

            There are reasons besides personal nostalgia to root for the Pirates this fall. This season they broke an epic, 20-year run of sub-.500 finishes, a record for futility even my Cubs can’t match. Their last playoff appearance was in 1992 and ended in agonizing fashion when they blew a 2-0 ninth-inning lead to the Atlanta Braves in the seventh and deciding game of the National League Championship Series. Pirate fans still can see Sid Bream, a heavy-legged Brave, chugging home with the winning run in that one, just eluding catcher Mike LaValliere’s tag after a Barry Bonds throw. I covered that series and recall the play vividly.
           It’s widely held that Pirate fans are loyal and long-suffering, and thus worthy of occasional success. I agree with the conclusion even though only the last part of that description is true. The steel mills are long gone but the Pittsburgh area remains blue-collar in spirit, an agglomeration of towns around a smallish central city (population about 300,000) where people are careful with their dollars and wary of enthusiasms.

 Sure, they love their football Steelers, but who wouldn’t? The team long has been one of the NFL’s best, and you can fill a big football stadium even in tiny burgs like Clemson, S.C. The Pirates, on the other hand, have topped the 2 million mark in season home attendance just five times in their century-plus history, and this season are averaging only about 28,000 spectators a game, 19th in the majors. The team draws better on the road than at home.

But the people who do show up like what they see and for the nonce, glad to reclaim my Pittsburgh past, so do I.  Go Bucs! Win one for The Gunner.