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Original Issue


Does a felon deserve another shot at college football?

Charles Thompson wants to go to college and play big-time football. Again.

Therein lies a dilemma. Thompson, prisoner number 10692-064 at Big Spring federal prison in Texas, failed miserably in his first attempt at being Joe College. In February 1989, Thompson, then a star quarterback for Oklahoma, was arrested in Norman by the FBI, which had taped him selling 17 grams of cocaine to an undercover agent. He was sentenced to two years in prison for conspiracy to distribute the drug.

Does Thompson, who may be released to a halfway house as early as next week, deserve another chance on the college gridiron after he finishes his sentence next summer? Should a university athletic department, which is, after all, a division of an institution of higher learning (and, one assumes, of higher ethics), recruit him? Should a felon be allowed to sit down at the same training table with well-scrubbed student-athletes? And do well-scrubbed student-athletes even exist?

All those questions rise like mist from the swamp of big-time college sport. You know that bog: University football and basketball teams must win to appease rabid boosters and to bring in money for gluttonous athletic departments. To collect W's and thereby keep their jobs, coaches recruit studs who can carry the mail, but who may not be able to read it. Games are won. Trouble follows. A school like Mississippi State hires a football coach like Jackie Sherrill (page 34), a man who seems to check his ethical baggage at the gate. Reason for the hiring: Sherrill is a known W-producer. And so it goes.

Thompson could be seen as the epitome of the cocky, I-don't-give-a-damn-about-the-rules superathlete whom zealous coaches have pursued in recent years. Former Sooner coach Barry Switzer discovered Thompson while Thompson was break dancing on the floor of an Oklahoma City car dealership. Maybe Switzer should have left him there. Maybe the kid represented everything that was vile about big-time college sport.

Or maybe he was a victim, too. Though Thompson had already had a brush with the law—he pled no contest to an assault charge after his senior year of high school—it may have been his greatest misfortune to come under the influence of the laissez-faire attitude of a man like Switzer. Maybe the college football system was the catalyst that put Thompson over the line.

I consider all this as I look at him now, across a small table from me in a barren interview room at Big Spring. He's wearing a khaki uniform, and he's heavier than he was at Oklahoma. He weighs about 185 pounds, he says, and he looks solid. He says he would like to play defensive back or wide receiver at his new school, wherever that might be, and forget about being a wishbone quarterback. He wants to graduate and take a shot at the NFL.

For a moment I again see him dazzling the hostile crowd in Lincoln, Neb., in 1987, an unflappable 174-pound redshirt freshman leading the No. 2-ranked Sooners to a 17-7 win over the Cornhuskers, who were No. 1 at the time. Then I see him in handcuffs and an orange prison suit, the climax of an unbelievable string of Sooner football arrests that would end with two players going to prison for rape and another serving time for shooting a teammate. In December 1988, the Oklahoma football program had been put on NCAA probation for three years and Switzer resigned six months later. Of course, players' crimes have nothing to do with a school's being put on probation; the NCAA is not concerned with law-breaking, only with violations of its own rules.

Does Thompson believe that he was a victim of the chaos at Oklahoma? "I'm responsible for what I did," he says. "I didn't want limits. But I think about all those times Switzer built me up so much, put me on a pedestal, got me out of this problem or that one, built me up to thinking that no matter what I do, I'm going to get away with it. So why not go to extremes?"

Would Thompson have run into the same trouble had he played for a coach who demanded more discipline? Maybe, maybe not. He was aloof and had received little guidance at home. But if he had played under a coach who cared about him as a person and not just as an athlete, Thompson might have figured out that rules pertain even to those who can run like the wind.

He's learning that lesson now. "I'd rather have somebody shoot me in the head than go back to prison," he says. That's education. His Oklahoma roommate, Jerry Parks, is the player who spent 82 days in jail for shooting a teammate. Parks quietly transferred to Houston this fall and started at free safety for the Cougars. Thompson thinks he can turn himself around like that. If the NCAA grants him an extra year of eligibility—he will need it, because he exhausted his last season of eligibility at Big Spring—he might play ball, study, graduate and become a law-abiding and productive citizen.

It would be nice if that happens. It would be nice if college football could save someone.