Comments by former NCAA executive director Walter Byers, whose ideal of flinty amateurism set the course for that organization during the 36 years he lorded over it. provided a surreal prelude to last week's NCAA convention in San Diego. On Jan. 4 Byers decried the "neo-plantation mentality" prevailing in college sports and called for paying players what the market will bear. This was a little rich coming from the Simon Legree of American athletics, and may have had something to do with Byers's desire to Hog his forthcoming book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.
In San Diego the delegates treated Byers's words like the rantings of some escaped-from-the-attic uncle. "The day the membership decides to pay players to play will be the day my institution stops playing," said University of Nevada president Joseph Crowley, who's also the NCAA's outgoing president. But the organization might have neutralized Byers's criticism if it had made more significant progress on its pledge to address "student-athlete welfare, access and equity" at this year's convention.
To be sure, athletes did win a few last week. Every NCAA school will now be required to establish—and presumably listen to—its own advisory committee composed of athletes. An effort to rescind the year-old "testing the waters" rule, which permits underclassmen to put in for the NBA draft and still choose to return to college with their athletic eligibility intact if they ultimately decide not to go pro, appeared headed for defeat at press time. The membership also voted to delay until 1996 implementation of controversial Proposition 16, which will introduce tighter academic standards for freshman eligibility, to give high school athletes an additional year to adapt to their colleges' new expectations.
But on Monday the membership rejected a proposal that would have extended a fourth season of competition to an athlete who fails Prop 16's test of initial eligibility, even if he showed progress in the classroom by the time he was a senior. In addition, delegates defeated legislation that would have permitted athletes to earn up to $1,500 per year by working while school is in session, and the convention tabled for more study a plan to extend to football, basketball and hockey players the right to transfer once without having to sit out a season. Critics say those latter two proposals are fraught with potential complications. Athletes hardly have time to practice, compete and attend class as is, let alone hold down a job, and by letting them work, the NCAA would risk the return of no-show sinecures and the abuse of the $1,500 limit. An instant-transfer rule would most likely lead to an endless recruiting season, with malcontents lighting out for another campus at the slightest provocation. But the NCAA errs so often, it would be refreshing to see the organization err on the side of the athlete once in awhile. The lumbering pace of reform evident in San Diego only serves to give hysterical proposals like Byers's an appeal they don't deserve.
NFL fans are more than passingly familiar with the excitement provided by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice during their years together on the San Francisco 49ers. Last Thursday college hoops fans also got a taste of what can result when Montana and Rice hook up. After last-second heroics by each team pushed the game into two overtimes, the Grizzlies beat the Owls 90-81.
Obituaries of Woody Strode, who died last week in his native Los Angeles at the age of 80 after a battle with lung cancer, dwelt on his long and successful movie career while making only passing reference to his athletic accomplishments. The Associated Press, for example, mentioned that Strode had "attended UCLA" and "played professional football" but focused on his appearances as "an imposing character actor" in such films as Spartacus and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Yet despite a half century in the movies—he had recently completed work on a new western. The Quick and the Dead, with Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman—Strode's most important role may well have been one he played not on celluloid but on the gridiron.
In 1946 Strode and former UCLA teammate Kenny Washington, who seven years earlier had starred together on a Bruin squad that also featured Jackie Robinson, signed with the Los Angeles Rams, thereby breaking the NFL's longstanding color barrier. Known as the Goal Dust Twins during their glory years at UCLA, Strode and Washington became the first blacks to play in the league in 12 years. The NFL likes to point out that in contrast to baseball, it had accepted black players as early as 1920, and indeed a few of the league's first stars, such as Paul Robeson and Fritz Pollard, were African-Americans. But in 1934, with white players complaining about job competition, NFL owners drew the color line. Only when faced with competition from the upstart Ail-American Football Conference, which agreed to hire blacks, did the NFL reopen the door. Like their old teammate Robinson, both Strode and Washington endured prejudice and abuse during their time in the league. As a 32-year-old rookie—in the seven years after he left UCLA, Strode played semipro football, wrestled professionally and served in the Air Corps in World War II—Strode saw little playing time with the Rams and was released at the end of the '46 season. "I was shoved down their throats, and that made them mad, and they took it out on me," Strode once said of his NFL stint.
He had a better time of it in Hollywood. Strode went on to appear in more than 60 films, and for generations of moviegoers what he once did on the gridiron meant nothing. For generations of black players, however, it has meant the world.
The Federation of Professional Athletes, a member of the AFL-CIO, has announced the formation of an organization sure to warm Sylvester Stallone's heart: the Committee to Organize Professional Boxers in the U.S. Pointing out that boxing, unlike other major sports, has no pension program, health plan or benefits package, the federation says its new union will give boxers "a say in their own destiny."
We say it's about time—and predict that a pugilistic picket line will be one no one's going to cross.
As another season of the pro bowlers' tour gets rolling this week, the sport is gaunt and sickly beneath its oversized shirt. Bowling is still a hugely popular sport, played by more than 80 million Americans. But the number of league-registered bowlers has declined steadily over the past 15 years, high rents and low profits have forced hundreds of bowling centers out of business, and now the tour, the Professional Bowlers Association's showcase and a weekend TV fixture since the 1950s, is veering toward the gutter.
ABC has aired the tour for 33 straight years. Though the network renewed its contract with the PBA for 1995, it did so at a drastically reduced rights fee—$700,000 for 14 tournaments, rather than the $3.52 million for 24 tournaments it paid under its previous deal. Meanwhile the tour, which depends on the willingness of title sponsors to pay grandly for ad time and exposure on its broadcasts, has failed to find corporate backing for two of its 15 winter events. The sport's crown jewel, the Tournament of Champions, recently had to find its third sponsor in as many years. And True Value just ended its 12-year affiliation with the tour. The drought in sponsorship dollars has reduced purses, which, in tandem with steeper entry fees, has led many bowlers to cut back their participation or retire.
"Ratings aren't a problem," says ABC senior vice president Dennis Lewin, who points out that bowling still dominates its Saturday time slot. "Revenues are." The sport survived a lean summer tour, aired by ESPN, during which only two of eight events attracted title sponsors. (There's nothing so great about the Greater Wabash Open: the name simply means no sponsor has anted up the money to call it the Waddle Widget Wabash Open.) PBA commissioner Mike Connor is trying to get the bowling industry to consider each tour telecast a 90-minute promo for the sport and agree to sponsor it, just as golf-equipment manufacturers support their game. But much of the industry has balked, perhaps because it's busy enough trying to keep the bowling center from going the way of the drive-in theater.
Connor has already cut staff, eliminated events and resorted to such fanciful innovations as last year's staging of the Split Fire Spark Plug Open on temporary lanes in the Erie (Pa.) Civic Center, where some 4,200 raucous fans watched the final. This season at least five tour finals will be held at similar sites. SplitFire was delighted by the change of venue. "It was like being at a hockey game," says one company executive. Of course, given the recent state of hockey, that may not be the most auspicious analogy.
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain went at it again on Sunday, mano a mano, John Hancock a John Hancock, in the shadow of the John Hancock—Tower, that is—in Boston. The occasion was a memorabilia show at Boston College High, where they signed autographs at tables separated only by a yellow curtain. But while Wilt's signature went for a minimum of $75, depending on the object being signed, Russell, who is notorious for refusing to take up a pen, commanded $295 to $995 per and raked in about $150,000, of which he reportedly received "the largest chunk." Not bad for four hours', ahem, work.
We can hear the Russell cackle from here. Russ gets the better of Wilt. Again.
The Class of '95
Some persist in the old-fashioned notion that a high school is part of the community, a place where local kids go to study and participate in extracurricular activities, just as their older brothers and sisters did. If the high school's basketball team is good, that success ought to be the result of happy happenstance, a wise coach and a knack his kids developed playing together over summers and at the same elementary and middle schools. It should not be the result of the school's drawing hotshot players from distant towns or neighborhoods, offering scholarships or recruiting on the sly.
Alas, last week's USA Today Boys Super 25 poll is top-heavy with teams that benefit from shoe companies' largesse and that crisscross the country to play in huge holiday tournaments. No. 1 Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., is an unabashed basketball factory, its roster studded with kids from all over the nation. Nos. 2, 3 and 4—St. Augustine of New Orleans, Roman Catholic of Philadelphia and Mater Dei of Santa Ana, Calif.—all offer need-based scholarships or other financial aid that can be doled out to students who may be impecunious, but can sink the money shots. No. 5 St. John's at Prospect Hall, a parochial school in Frederick, Md., has a Lithuanian star this year; Chicago's Farragut, No. 6, features a controversial transfer from South Carolina and benefits from a flexible enrollment policy that allows kids in the Windy City to cross districts to attend any school. And No. 7 Dominguez of Compton, Calif., played in national prep invitationals this season and owes much of its success to a transfer from Long Beach Poly.
That brings us to No. 8, Warsaw (Ind.) High, enrollment 1,894, record 12-1 at week's end. All but two of the Tigers' 14 players were born and raised in Warsaw, a town of about 11,000 in a regional school district of 46.000 situated in the lake country of northern Indiana. Most of the team went to one of the district's 11 grade schools and attended coach Al Rhodes's summer camp before coalescing into the squad that has maintained the tradition that makes Warsaw season tickets so prized that they're fought over in divorce proceedings. "The kids aren't away at some basketball school, they're in their hometown," says Rhodes, who teaches honors math classes at Warsaw. "I've been around these kids since first grade. It's nice to watch them grow."
For being Tigers of a different stripe, SCORECARD nominates Warsaw as last week's No. 1 real high school team.
Guy at Sea, Part Deux
Perhaps you'll recall our dispatch on French adventurer Guy Delage (SCORE-CARD, Nov. 28, 1994) and his plan to swim—yes, swim—the Atlantic Ocean. Well, on Dec. 16 Delage took the plunge, diving into the surf off the Cape Verde Islands, near western Africa, and as of last weekend the wild and crazy Guy was more than 500 miles out to sea, alternating sessions of swimming with rest periods on the raft he tows behind him. While he has enjoyed calm seas so far in the South Atlantic, Delage has been getting tossed about in the French press, which seems less than impressed by his undertaking. L'Equipe, referring to Delage as a "voluntary shipwreck victim," has pointed out that he makes better progress on his raft than he does in the water and accuses him of doing very little swimming at all. "At best, to be nice to our hero," read a recent story, "he takes a refreshing—albeit dangerous—dip for a few hours while his platform wanders in the Atlantic." Le Monde sniffed that Delage's efforts will "put him in that book of records, in between the world accordion champion and the person who can cat the most snails."
Delage remains committed, however. "I want to know the sensation of absolute solitude," he said in a recent radio transmission to Paris. "Better to die in the jaws of a shark than in bed."
Future film star Strode broke the NFL color line.
Kings with Two Crowns
The Bulls couldn't do it. The Tar Heels couldn't do it. The Seminoles couldn't do it. But the Borough of Manhattan Community College chess team—counterclockwise from upper left, that's Azerbaijan native Oleg Shalumov on fourth board; captain Gennady Sagalchik, a native of Belarus, on first; Montenegro's Nikola Duravcevic on second; Jeff Mitchell of the Bronx playing third; and Vicente Revilla, a professor of library science and a native of Peru, coaching—did repeat in 1994. On Dec. 30, in Providence, the Panthers won their second straight Pan American intercollegiate team chess championship, shaking the ivy of Harvard and out-street-smarting NYU in their tournament victory.
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
The father of 14-year-old German tennis phenom Marlene Weingartner has hired Jim Pierce, who was banned by the WTA for disruptive behavior and whose daughter, Mary Pierce, says he abused her, to be Marlene's coach.
They Said It
Princeton basketball coach, on why he wouldn't move freshman Steve Goodrich from center to forward: "He has the shooting range. What he doesn't have is the making range."