Tough Lessons 

In sports, as in real life, someone has to take the heat

In sports, as in real life, someone has to take the heat

Back during Nashville’s dark ages—the Boner years—I remember a conversation with my wife’s Aunt Novine, who lives up yonder on the Cumberland Plateau. Her state senator, Tommy Burnett, had just been hauled off to the federal pokey on a tax beef, and Aunt Novine was vexed.

“He wasn’t doing anything any of them others weren’t doing,” she explained. “They’re just trying to make an example out of him.”

In the next breath, Novine wanted to know what was wrong with those people in Nashville, electing “a crook” (our Bill) like that to be mayor. Nothing like a little perspective, I always say, to cure you of your smug self-righteousness.

I couldn’t help but think of Tommy Burnett and Bro. Boner when I read about Clem Haskins, the shooed-off, bought-off former basketball coach at the University of Minnesota. Clem is Tommy all over again.

I feel for Clem. How could you not? Like Tommy B., Clem suffered the grave injustice of what some of you speed-limit scof-flaws like to call “selective enforcement.”

University officials were shocked—SHOCKED!—to learn that on Clem’s watch, and apparently with Clem’s knowledge (not to mention his whole-hog endorsement), tutors had been doing not only their part but their students’ parts too. Turns out that enrollee-athletes on the basketball team who found the school’s academic requirements a lee-tle too rigorous could simply commission a term paper from the athletic department’s Paper Lady and—wham—a masterpiece of research and composition would be delivered to their dorm room, as if it had been conjured up by a jinni.

The neat system might have operated indefinitely, had not the Paper Lady abruptly metamorphosed into Conscientious Whistle-Blower Lady—and produced the papers and pay stubs to support her story. Now the NCAA is getting ready to come down on Minnesota like a big ugly mudslide.

Minnesota’s board of regents evidently felt sorry for Clem too, even as they were giving him the boot this week. In announcing his forced resignation, school officials didn’t exactly stumble over themselves in rushing to profess outrage about cheating. In fact, they even wrote Clem a check for $1.5 million as a generous parting gift, so that he doesn’t face the daunting task of seeking another college job while he remains officially a pariah.

Where you and I come from, that kind of payout used to be known as “hush money.” Of course, that sounds too tawdry for a corporate deal like this. But the effect is the same.

See, even a coach of Clem’s gifts couldn’t have operated this student proxy ring for so long without collusion from sympathetic professors who chose to accept their free basketball tickets and look the other way when some katzenmoyer suddenly turned in a paper that reflected an uncharacteristically profound and sublime mastery of its subject.

Even worse, Clem could broadcast a dirty little secret about big-time college athletics: He and Minnesota weren’t exactly the Edisons of term-paper fraud.

Naturally, you can appreciate why other schools, and even the NCAA mandarins, might prefer not to remind everybody that this tradition is as all-American as your All-America team. Fans might tire of all the posturing and hypocrisy and redirect their attention to the NFL and the NBA, where no one pretends that money doesn’t rule. Advertisers and TV networks might grow jittery and dam the flow of revenue to NCAA sports, hurting business.

None of us wants to see that. Sham that it so often is, we need big-time college sports.

We don’t need any more scandals. We need coaches like Clem to reorient their thinking. None of this namby-pambying around; they need to review every aspect of athletes’ performance in the classroom as if it were film of upcoming opponents.

In this helpful spirit, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for avoiding future embarrassments.

Pick more realistic topics. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the best strategy to allow papers on topics like menstrual cycles and the dialectical materialism of Hegel to be turned in under the names of enrollee-athlete schlubs at Minnesota who hadn’t previously succeeded in stringing together more than five sentences. Perhaps a little more quality control would have been in order. From now on, schools would be wise to restrict athletes to papers that sound more jockish, like the courses for athletes that David Letterman once listed for scandal-plagued SMU (“The First 50 Pages of A Tale of Two Cities: The Foundation of a Classic,” “Age of Consent Requirements of the 50 States,” and “The Poetry of Hank Stram,” to name a few). I don’t know about you, but if I’m a professor at Minnesota, a paper from a basketball star on Hank Stram would be much less likely to raise a red flag than one on, say, social and economic effects of colonialism on the Caribbean Basin.

Watch your language. Here’s another no-brainer, if you’ll pardon the expression. From now on, every Coach Clem in America should make sure that cribbed research papers are run through a grammar check on the athletic department’s word processor, with the program set for an 11th-grade level. Any $5 words supplied by prolix ghostwriters must be eradicated. No sense in arousing suspicions with multisyllabic suspicion-arousers like “verisimilitude” when “looks real” will do just fine.

Train more teachers’ pets. A positive demeanor can work wonders with recalcitrant professors. I once shared a history class with an All-America defensive tackle named Gary Don Johnson. About once a week, you could rely on him to remind you, “Hey, man, did I tell you Earl Campbell’s my cousin?” These memory skills notwithstanding, Gary Don could not have recalled the Missouri Compromise or the Dred Scott decision had his NFL prospects depended on it. But he always sat on the front row and nodded approvingly when the professor touched upon arcane subjects. He passed.

No spontaneous questions. At the same time, it’s important for katzenmoyers to avoid opening their mouths in a classroom—as Keith, another burly football friend of mine, beautifully demonstrated in a class on journalism law. As the professor droned about the illegality of advocating violent overthrow of the government, a dark cloud came over Keith’s face, and he shoved his hand into the air. “Um,” he began, “is it illegal to support the NON-violent overthrow of the government...like through elections?” Keith passed too, but it was dicey.

Of course, even with the best organized frauds, failures sometimes just happen. Stan, an old friend who sat next to former Laker Terry Teagle in a college class, relates that the basketball star indicated before a test that he wanted to copy the answers. Obligingly, Stan provided Teagle with a clear view of his paper.

The next week, when the tests were returned, Stan was pleased to find he had earned a 92. He looked over and noticed that Teagle, even with most of the correct answers available, had scored only 63. In the upper right corner of the paper, the future NBA guard had dutifully copied S-T-A, before crossing it out and filling in his own name.

Sometimes, as Clem could surely testify, there’s just no substitute for smart players.

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