Don't get me wrong, because I think the NCAA's reforms du jourtying schools' scholarship allotments to graduation ratesare the best thing since Proposition 48, which was the best thing since forbidding the biggest football programs from recruiting 100 players a year just to keep talent away from the little dogs.
But, last week, when the NCAA presidents hailed the latest savior of college football's integrity, I couldn't help but think of several of the enrollee-athletes with whom I attended collegeand, fortunately, for whom professional sports offered a fallback option in the likely event that their academic records failed to open any career doors.
I had a speech class with Ronnie Bo, who went on to play for many years in the NFL. As a mammoth tight end, Bo once separately flattened two All-America DBs from Texas A&M en route to an 80-yard touchdown run, which in the eyes of certain sympathetic professors made him an indispensable genius.
One day, Bo had to give a speech in class. The speech was supposed to tell everyone about himself, his family and his interests. I still remember his entire oration by heart:
"My name's Ronnie Bo. I play football. (long pause) I have a brother. (long pause) He plays basketball. (long pause) And that's all."
Had Ronnie Bo not stood 6-foot- five and weighed 275 pounds and frequently worn a T-shirt that read "Evil, wicked, mean and nasty," I imagine someone might have snickered. Perhaps sensing the imminent possibility of such a dangerous development, Dr. Stokes, the teacher (did I mention that he also served as p.a. announcer for football games and as the team's staunchest unofficial booster?) pronounced, "Excellent speech, Ronnie."
Did I also mention that Ronnie received an A in speech?
I also went to school with Terry, whose own unique genius lay in his ability to take off from beyond the free throw line and dunk a basketball. The coach once confided to a booster that Terry could do anything with a basketball but autograph it. Apparently, however, the autographing part was an overstatement.
My friend Stan sat next to Terry in an American history course. During a test, when the professor (inevitably) was looking the other way, Terry indicated that he wanted to examine Stan's paper. And Stan, himself a supporter of the basketball program, readily obliged.
When the tests were returned the next week, Stan was pleased to learn that he had earned a 93. But he was startled when he looked across the aisle to see that Terry had scored in the low 70s. What really got him, he said, was that at the top of the paper Terry had written S-t-a before crossing that out and filling in his own name instead. Happily, like the many other athletes who somehow found their way to Dr. H's class, Terry maintained his eligibility with a passing grade.
Were space permitting, I'd add something more about my friend Keith, a strapping linebacker who once asked our journalism professor whether it was illegal to advocate nonviolent overthrow of the government, "like through elections."
I think of Ronnie Bo, Terry, Keith and a bunch more like-minded fellows because, under the NCAA's newfangled rules to restore academic integrity to the game, all of these guys would still be able to don their caps and gowns and proudly receive their diplomas on graduation day. (Just now, in the security of my office and without Ronnie Bo's menacing presence around, all those suppressed belly laughs just came bubbling right out.)
So please pardon me if I don't hail the much-heralded rule changes as the sure-fire remedy against schools that exploit their athletes with no regard for whether or not they actually earn a degree.
Now, like I said, don't get me wrong. The new requirements can't hurt and will probably help. They make it harder for schools to avoid doing what they all should have been doing voluntarily: require athletes to take real courses and make progress toward real degrees.
The NCAA is preventing schools from encouraging athletes to load up on courses like Bowling, AIDS Awareness, Theory of Recreation and Walking 101. And, by taking away scholarships when athletes leave school in bad academic standing, the reformers threaten to hit programs where it really hurts. They've stopped meddling and gone to messin'.
Under the circumstances, you'd think that coaches like John Calipari, whose basketball program at Memphis State only infrequently produces a number of graduates greater than zero, would be quaking like the Pacific Coast in that new 10.5 TV movie. But I doubt there's much need for nervousness. Even with the new rules, a whole new generation of college students is likely to encounter a whole new generation of Ronnie Bo's and Terrys in the classroom.
In the end, NCAA reformers are likely to meet with about as much success as the Congressional Geniuses who attempt to close loopholes in the federal tax code and in campaign finance laws. Block one outlet, and determined, resourceful athletic departments soon will find another. In this game, the mouse is always one step ahead of the cat.
Here's how the game will work. The NCAA cat requires the athletic department mice to get serious about graduation rates and good academic standing. The mice load up athletes with as many blowoff courses as possible. The NCAA cat requires steady annual progress toward a degree, which effectively limits the number of blowoff courses athletes can take. The mice scurry to route athletes into non-blowoff courses taught by professors who are reliable sympathizers with the athletic mission.
Sometimes, schools find it beneficial to provide cooperative profs with sideline passes to football games or other special access. Even without winks and nods from helpful teachers, word gets around fast in athletic departments about which professors teach courses that aren't too taxing on overscheduled or underbrained student-athletes. And, as a last resort, some coaches (remember Clem Haskins at Minnesota?) know they can find a cash-strapped tutor willing to write Bubba's term paper.
As long as big-time college athletics are about big-time money, and as long as alums not only tolerate but demand whatever it takes to produce winners, clever athletic departments will find ways to skirt every new rule in the same way that clever corporate lawyers and accountants legally slide past tax laws by headquartering their companies in a Bermuda P.O. box.
In the end, the cats will win only if the mice stop running. Last year, Gordon Gee was a voice crying in the wilderness when he abolished Vanderbilt's athletic department and announced his intent to tear down all remaining walls that might separate athletes from the rest of student life. Whenifyou hear the voices of other university presidents creating a chorus, you'll know that the real reform messiah is coming.
Free at last
In a stunning display of common sense, Georgia's Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Marcus Dixon, the high schooler whose sexual dalliance with a consenting 15-year-old won him a 10-year sentence for "aggravated child molestation" from a honky-tonk court in his hometown of Rome.
You won't hear it from the justices or the prosecutors, but Dixon was tried because he is black and his partner is white.
Dixon's conviction for misdemeanor statutory rape still stands, and he also faces separate charges of sexual battery for allegedly fondling a 14-year-old fellow student.
If he is found not guilty, Vanderbilt should reinstate its scholarship offer to Dixon, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive lineman and National Honor Society member. That move not only would serve Vandy's football interests; it would finally serve some justice in a case where justice was stiffed far too long.