What Lenin Knew about College Sports

by Steve Sailer

Published in The Sacramento Bee, 4/18/91, 950 words

The Knight Commission's call last week for a further crackdown on cheating in big time college sports is reminiscent of the Soviet hardliners' attack on the black market. While the corrupt system condemned in the Knight report needs strong measures as badly as the Soviet economy, further thought raises questions about who the crooks really are. Just as Soviet workers would be better off with the entrepreneurs legalized and the KGB jailed , so young adult athletes would thrive if they were freed and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) prosecuted for price and wage fixing.

Lenin said the key question is always "Who whom?" While surveys show that African- Americans understand that the collegiate cartel exploits athletes, whites seem to see the problem as being mercenary, illiterate jocks disgracing the tradition of the amateur scholar-athlete. Thus, whites tell pollsters they favor banning kids who play for pay or who are too lunkheaded for college. (In reality, though, white fans never boycott good teams with bad reputations.)

Myth #1: Amateurism. Privileged Americans cherish romantic notions about amateurism. Yet, our obsession with athletic excellence has turned college football and basketball into de facto professional sports, highly lucrative for the adults involved, but not for the players (many from poor families), who are forced by an open conspiracy of their employers to subsist on scholarships and the occasional envelope stuffed with cash.

While cheating is as widespread in college sports as in the Soviet economy, the NCAA largely succeeds in limiting the size of the payoffs. For example, a scandal erupted over whether the University of Nebraska's Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Rozier, had outside help in paying his $130 per month rent. Considering how much revenue the finest college football player in America was generating, the true scandal was why he needed help.

Whites need to grasp that amateurism's past was as ignoble as its present: English upper class sportsmen concocted amateurism to stifle competition from the lower orders. For instance, a Philadelphia bricklayer named Jack Kelly was banned from rowing in the 1920 Henley Regatta on the grounds that his job gave him an unfair advantage over the "gentlemen competitors." (No Irish-American workingman ever lived to enjoy a more regal series of vindications over English snobbery: later that year Kelly beat the English Henley champion to win the Olympic gold medal, then went into contracting and made $18 million, watched Jack Jr. win Henley twice, and saw his daughter Grace, the Academy Award winner, marry the Prince of Monaco.)

Myth #2: Scholar-Athletes. Although the sports pages are full of the travails of football and basketball stars trying to pass the dreaded Scholastic Aptitude Test, baseball players fear it not. Why the disparity? Not for the good of football and basketball players, but because of the historical accident that their sports, unlike baseball, emerged as colleges entered the sports business. Foreigners of course think it ridiculous that American universities sponsor celebrated teams, but the outside world is also baffled by our insistence that to play certain sports athletes must attend college. An overly simplified, but instructive, syllogism explains their viewpoint: If athletes resemble the general population in academic capability; and only people who rank in, say, the top half in scholastic capacity are true college material; then we cannot expect half of all athletes to thrive in college.

Prohibiting football and basketball players from doing what they do best in life because the colleges happen to run their sports is arbitrary and cruel. It's like demanding scholars bench press 150 pounds before they can enter the library. (Fortunately, the current system is so sleazy that even the dimmest athlete can sneak in somewhere, a small mercy that the Knight Commission hopes to stamp out.) Alternatively, to pretend that the less academically qualified players can benefit much from their scholarships while practicing hours daily is hypocrisy. Since universities won't teach unprestigious but decent-paying blue collar skills like carpentry, many athletes get dumped in watered-down and worthless courses like Rocks for Jocks (geology) and Clapping for Credit (music).

The Solution. Sadly, it's too late to get colleges out of the sports business entirely. That apparently inborn urge to root for your team, no matter how dubious its claim to represent you, means that a lot of people in Las Vegas, say, are always going to want to root for some team calling itself "UNLV."

Thus, there should be two divisions: the Academic and the Open. Colleges choosing the former would live out the amateur scholar-athlete ideal. Players would have to carry a full class load and even pass a national exam annually. There could be other innovations: e.g., a College Bowl quiz at half time, with the winning whiz kids' school starting the second half with 3 more points.

In the Open Division, colleges would simply license their famous names to profit-seeking team operators. Any athlete under 24 could freely bargain with any team, without fear of having to set foot in a classroom. (Some portion of payments to athletes under 21 could go into the players' trust funds until they reached a more mature age.)

Of course, while Open Division athletes would make some money, most would still miss out on the big NFL or NBA contract. Therefore, Open Division universities would have to grant each player a scholarship good at any time during the player's life at any educational institution (including trade schools.) Ex-athletes who chose to return to the classroom, older and wiser, would learn more. Unlike today, they'd enjoy both the time to study and the motivation of knowing that with their athletic careers finished they had better apply themselves.

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Written by Steve Sailer (steveslr@aol.com), a businessman and writer.

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