Considering that John Underwood has written articles on athletic shoe company payoffs, various abuses in college athletics, shady dealings in sports arena concessions, football violence and, most recently, in collaboration with former NFL player Don Reese, the use of drugs in pro football, SI readers may easily have concluded that Underwood is some kind of armchair curmudgeon. Not so. "I'd rather go fishing with Ted Williams or hunting with my son and write about that any day," Underwood says. Attesting to this love of sport are his two most recent SI pieces, a reminiscence about Bear Bryant in our last issue and this week's report (pages 58-70) on Notre Dame's athletic program, which Underwood admires more for its success in turning out educated athletes than for its victories.
"Bryant represents the character traits that make a champion," says Underwood, "and I feel Notre Dame is a fine example for sport. Father [Edmund P.] Joyce, Notre Dame's executive vice-president, completely opened up the school for me. And though I criticize Father [Theodore M.] Hesburgh, the president, for saying, unrealistically, that Notre Dame football is 'only a game,' I think other schools should swallow that statement and digest it. Hesburgh and Joyce represent good, strong, enduring, effective leadership—the best thing that a college sports program can have."
But Underwood's most recent stories don't mean he has gone soft. "We still need a conscience of sport," he says, "and I think it should be SI."
In that case, Underwood is the conscience of the conscience. His feelings are contained in the title of his latest book. Spoiled Sport, which will be published next fall by Little, Brown. "Sport is too good to be left to publicists and bottom-line entrepreneurs and league presidents," he says. "When its image is tarnished by brutality and corruption, it needs to be looked into.
"And I'm afraid things have gotten worse, primarily because of the influence of the professionals: I heard a hockey player at a Congressional hearing say he'd never seen a fight before he became a pro. The Congressmen didn't get what he was saying, so I had to underline it: When he became a professional, he was required to brutalize the opposition.
"Fortunately, guys in the trenches, like Don Reese and Carl Eller, come forward, Unfortunately, labor-management disputes have alienated athletes from the owners and fans. It's easy to blame the players, but they are more victimized by the system than anybody. The National Football League draft is the most demeaning form of labor oppression I know. If we graduated from MIT with a degree in physics, how would we feel waiting to see if we got drafted by Dow Chemical?
"I'm more hopeful about the colleges. They make plenty of mistakes, but they often also represent the best intentions in sport, and we can look to them for our priorities."
JOHN UNDERWOOD: HE'S SI'S CONSCIENCE