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Original Issue


It's time to separate dollars from sense in college sport

Why am I bothered by the conviction on April 13 of sports agents Nor by Walters and Lloyd Bloom on various counts of fraud, conspiracy and racketeering for signing college athletes in violation of NCAA rules? Certainly not because I think Walters and Bloom are wronged angels. And not because I think big-time college sport has been unfairly dragged through the mud. (Trust me, mud is a level up for some college athletic programs.)

It's just that I see Walters and Bloom as convenient fall guys whom the sanctimonious chiefs of major-college sport can castigate while ignoring the real ills in their realm.

And what are those ills? They're the things that enabled Walters and Bloom to gain a foothold in college sport in the first place: the charade of amateurism and the "student-athlete"; the relentless pursuit of revenue by autonomous, self-aggrandizing athletic departments; the see-no-evil attitude of egocentric, out-of-touch coaches; the unwritten restraint-of-trade collusion between the NCAA and the NFL—although that policy appears to be in tatters—that seeks to prevent college players from entering the pros until they have exhausted their collegiate eligibility, while allowing the NFL to use the colleges as its minor league. Those are the things that should have been tried, convicted and sent packing.

But the college-sport-as-entertainment concept is so firmly entrenched in the American psyche that we can't imagine making changes in the fundamental structure of the institution, even though not doing so corrupts our ability to think clearly about education, competition and ethics.

True, we have shown that we can crack down on unscrupulous sports agents. Hurrah! But Walters and Bloom are opportunistic viruses, not the disease. (Indeed, if they hadn't been so brazen, forcing the NCAA and FBI to pay attention to them by physically threatening and suing their clients for breach of contract, they probably wouldn't have gone to trial.) No, the disease is hypocrisy.

"Why bring that up now?" cry defenders of the status quo. "We've had big-time college sports since the 1800s." And there have been problems since then, too. Consider that in the first intercollegiate football game ever played, between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, there was at least one athlete, and probably four others, who should have been declared academically ineligible.

Sure, there have been abuses all along; it's just that in recent years the unholy alliance between money-making athletics and higher education has grown uglier as the stakes have risen for both schools and the athletes. A bowl game with a $6 million payout can make a university look the other way when its star halfback sleeps through a year's worth of labs. Likewise, the blind pursuit of a big NFL contract can turn a college player into a mercenary without allegiance to coach, team or school.

Quite simply, big-time college sport has almost nothing to do with college anymore. But it has everything to do with moneygrubbing. Given the public's unwillingness to come to grips with this fact, there's probably not much that can be done to change it. But at least we can be fair in running the system as it exists.

The unfairness stems from the colleges" having laid most of the economic restrictions on the athletes and few on themselves. Players may not make money or sign with agents until they're through with their collegiate careers. All they receive for their efforts on the field or court are free educations, which some don't want or aren't smart or mature enough to pursue. Either way, these athletes should not be taking up space on college campuses.

But players must go to college to get into the NFL or, in most cases, the NBA. And to get into the pros they should have agents—not numskulls like Walters and Bloom, understand, but professionals who can look out for them. In his book, Necessary Roughness, former agent Mike Trope writes: ""To assume that it's wrong for a player to seek an advisor before his last college game is to assume that his best interests are being looked out for by someone else, namely the school. That's a theory that the colleges like to promote. It's a false theory."

The new Big Ten commissioner, James Delany, said recently: "I'm not comfortable with keeping a student in school only because the colleges and pros think this is where he should be. I don't think the colleges should be acting in concert with the pro leagues. We should be about education. If someone isn't interested in an education and wants to turn professional, then he should be allowed to do it."

Yes, he should. Anytime. As a senior, junior, sophomore or freshman. With an agent. And without any threat of sanctions; real or implied, by the NFL. We don't want any more Norbys or Lloyds rooting around in the sporting world.