A Matter of Degree
In The Last Shot, Darcy Frey's elegiac new book about the threadbare lives of teenage basketball prospects in New York City, Stephon Marbury, a senior at Brooklyn's Lincoln High and the top point guard prospect in the nation, chastises a buddy for not driving a hard bargain before making his college choice. 'When you get to campus and see all them players driving those nice white Nissan Sentras, what you gonna say to yourself?" asks Marbury. "Oh, well, I guess they got them from their mothers?' "
Marbury knows exactly how the game is slaved. And no one who took note of last week's announcement that CBS will pay $1.725 billion to retain the rights to the NCAA basketball tournament through 2002 can claim to be ignorant of the out-sized role material wealth continues to play in college sports. The new CBS contract is the biggest sports deal in TV history, yet not a penny of it can be paid to the young men millions of people tune in to watch. Tins would be tolerable if the players were assured of getting an education. But in Frey's book, a conga line of coaches passes through the decaying tenements of Coney Island, trying to close a deal with Marbury or one of his hoop-playing homeboys, all the while making only incidental mention of a college degree.
By illicitly paying a young player off, unscrupulous recruiters and boosters decrease the likelihood that a prospect will insist on getting an education. Similarly, a school that has paid off a player won't feel the same compulsion to provide that education. "Direct payment is not a feasible solution." NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey has said of calls for over-the-table compensation. Thus indirect payment through third parties prevails by default, and colleges continue to wash their hands of the inconvenient business of paying athletes directly. Even as money pours into its coffers, the NCAA keeps its enforcement staff thin and green, while apologists debunk reports of widespread cheating with phrases like "way overblown" and "just a perception."
Former U.S. Olympic Committee executive director Harvey Schiller was a master apologist while commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Asked in 1986 whether big-time schools could win without cheating, he said, "It's being done every day in the SEC. The teams in our conference are successful, and they don't break the rules." At the time Schiller uttered this statement, Vanderbilt had just gone through a steroid scandal, a newspaper was about to win a Pulitzer Prize for a series about payoffs to Kentucky basketball players. Jan Kemp had just exposed academic atrocities at Georgia, and Florida football was in the midst of a two-year probation. Meanwhile, Mississippi State had just gone before the NCAA infractions committee, Ole Miss was about to, and LSU and Tennessee were serving sentences for wrongdoing in basketball and football, respectively. When young athletes factor breathtaking falsehoods like Schiller's into their own experience, they hear the same message Marbury heard—college sports is one huge con game—and they want to be players.
As various interests begin their clamoring for a piece of the CBS pie, there will be calls for fixing up athletes with everything from modest stipends to university-funded trips home. A lot can be done with $1,725 billion. Before taking up other proposals, the NCAA should earmark its new riches for two things: stricter enforcement of its rules, to hammer home the message that no car, cash or other fleeting consideration is a substitute for a college degree; and a fully funded fifth year on scholarship so an athlete who really wants that degree has a fighting chance to get it.
As a result of the baseball strike, many major leaguers near the end of their careers are trying to hook on with Japanese teams. The odds of doing so are particularly long for catchers because most American backstops don't speak Japanese and can't talk things over with their battery mates. Undeterred, Arn Tellem, who represents free-agent catcher Matt Nokes, recently commissioned a five-minute video to help his client land a job in Japan. Though Nokes has played virtually all his career behind the plate, most recently for the New York Yankees, the video includes rare footage of him playing first base and the outfield. And evidently in hopes of exploiting the Japanese respect for one's forebears, the video evokes the Yankee tradition of Ruth and Gehrig, and DiMaggio, and Mantle and Maris, and...Nokes. Fortunately for Nokes, he won't have to perform as billed. On Saturday he signed a one-year deal—not with the Yakult Swallows but with the Baltimore Orioles.
Sign of the Times
If you still believe in the Norman Rockwell ideal of innocent young supplicants straining over the rail for a big leaguer's autograph, last week brought disillusioning news. On Thursday a federal grand jury in White Plains, N.Y., indicted San Francisco Giant outfielder Darryl Strawberry for failing to report to the IRS more than $500,000 in income from memorabilia shows and other public appearances between 1986 and '90. Strawberry says he's innocent of the charges, which are unrelated to another New York court case, in which two show promoters, Michael Bertolini and William Hongach, recently pleaded guilty to tax evasion in connection with a huge show they staged in Atlantic City in '89. In court papers Bertolini says he gave cash directly to various Hall of Famers "with the understanding it wouldn't be reported."
Super Show I was a sort of collectors' Woodstock, at which Bertolini, a former partner of Pete Rose's in a memorabilia business, and Hongach, an ex-New York Yankee batboy, assembled all 11 living members of baseball's 500 home run club. Fans were charged $150 for admission and an autograph from each player. According to Newsday, several of the 11, including Willie Mays, appeared before a grand jury, although not necessarily as targets of the investigation. "It was the mother of all autograph shows," says Gerald McMahon, the attorney for a man who delivered cash to the baseball greats that weekend. Hongach said at his plea hearing that he made a cash payment of $27,000 to an agent for Mickey Mantle, and McMahon told SI that the former Yankee ultimately took home as much as $175,000. Mantle's lawyers dispute that figure and say all cash their client received was reported for tax purposes.
The U.S. attorney's office describes the case as "continuing." But with the six-year statute of limitations on tax charges expiring as early as next month, any further indictments based on Bertolini and Hongach's Atlantic City extravaganza would have to be handed down soon. Even if the feds had a case against any of the 11—and all players reached last week by SI said they had done nothing wrong and weren't targets of a probe—prosecutors might demur on pursuing it. The IRS typically tries to make a point when it seeks an indictment, and in the Strawberry case there's a salient signal to send: that current players who don't report income will face the consequences.
At the 12th Meadowlands Classic sports-memorabilia show in East Rutherford, N.J., where $5 got you in and another $45 got you Reggie Jackson's signature, it was business as usual on Sunday. Jackson signed as he listened to football games on a radio, which was lent to him by a fan.
At day's end, coming by to retrieve his radio, the fan made the mistake of asking Mr. October for a couple of autographs, gratis. Jackson was willing to sign, but not without grumbling. "C'mon," he said. "The radio wasn't——worth $90 to me."
Paint that. Mr. Rockwell.
For years, for reasons no one can remember, Hamilton College fans at Sage Rink in Clinton, N.Y., have thrown things—traditionally tennis balls and oranges—at opposing goalies in celebration of the Continentals' first home goal of every season. The ritual has generally been tolerated in the past, but the Hamilton hurlers recently took their fling thing to such an extreme that it got them all tossed.
On Nov. 18, after the Continentals scored 26 seconds into their home opener against Wesleyan, more than mere oranges came out of the stands. The ice was littered with apples, melons, two live mice and a life-sized, anatomically correct inflatable doll. (News reports of kielbasa and a dead squirrel appear to be unfounded.) After a 10-minute interruption to clear the ice, Hamilton went on to win 7-1. There were no incidents in the following day's game against Tufts, but school president Eugene Tobin threw the book at the students anyway. He banned all spectators, with the exception of players' family members, from the next home game, a 5-4 loss to Hobart last Friday. "Extreme antisocial acts warrant censure," said Tobin.
Great Fall of China
We were as willing as anyone to give China's women swimmers the benefit of the doubt when they suddenly up and dominated the sport, winning 12 gold medals at September's world championships and another 15 at the Asian Games a month later. Here in the culturally blinkered West we might have failed to understand the benefits of herbal elixirs, newfangled training methods and the hunger of athletes just beginning to emerge on the world stage. Indeed, International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch vouched for them, saying, "I'm sure that Chinese sport is very clean." Besides, China is the world's most populous country—a place where being told you're one in a million means there a*"e a thousand more just like you.
But last week came confirmation that seven Chinese swimmers, along with two canoeists, a cyclist and a hurdler, had flunked drug tests before and during the Asian Games. Among the swimmers who came up positive was Lu Bin, who collected three golds at the worlds and set a 200-meter individual medley world record at the Asian Games. The Chinese Olympic Committee pronounced itself "shocked and upset," and the foreign ministry labeled the positive tests "an act by individuals," presumably meaning athletes. Yet Lu said she "absolutely did not use any kind of doping substance" and has no idea why she tested positive. That would leave the coaches, doctors and trainers in the employ of the Chinese Swimming Federation as the likeliest suspects—but that organization righteously suspended Lu and six others for two years.
In the face of such disgrace, Samaranch's eagerness to trumpet the purity of the Chinese seems misguided, as does his recent endorsement of relatively mild two-year bans for first-time drug offenders. Of course, Samaranch may simply be trying to avert a Chinese boycott of the 1996 Atlanta Games and to keep that country in the IOC fold. Still, in an era in which so many extraordinary performances are greeted with jaded suspicion, the keepers of international sport should be less worried about soothing feelings and more concerned about deterring the cheats.
On Monday morning, Nov. 14, the rumor around Houston was that the Oilers were about to replace coach Jack Pardee. Among reporters scrambling after the story was former Oiler quarterback Gif-ford Nielsen, now the sports anchor for KHOU-TV, the local CBS affiliate. After a fruitless morning spent making phone calls and chasing leads, Nielsen was at the Oiler practice facility when the team announced that Pardee had been fired and Jeff Fisher would be the new coach. KHOU went live with the information at noon. Later that day Gifford mentioned the big news to his seven-year-old son, Dane, a budding Oiler fan. "I asked him if he knew about the change in coaches," says Nielsen. "He said, 'Sure, Dad. Brandon told me about it at eight o'clock this morning.' "
That would be Brandon Fisher, the new Oiler coach's seven-year-old son and a first-grade classmate of Dane's.
"I just didn't call the right person," says Gifford.
Are Chinese officials trying to make Lu a fall gal?
File this one under This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Might Actually Be Put Off. The NCAA, whose mammoth manual has enough red tape to wrap the holiday gifts of every resident of Overland Park, Kans., several times over, is mailing out an uncharacteristically droll and self-deprecating Christmas card this year. The message inside: "We don't need 512 pages to wish you happy holidays."
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
THE NEW Calgary franchise in the Western Hockey League will be called the Hitmen.
They Said It
Former Los Angeles Ram linebacker, on recently shaking hands with Hall of Fame running back Hugh McElhenny, an erstwhile opponent: "That's the first time I ever touched him."