Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Same Old Song: College Athletes and $

Recent news that Ohio State football players have been suspended for five games next season for various offenses involving money reminds us that college athletics will never change. In fact, short of actually paying stipends, you can expect nuclear disarmament will come before the last college athlete takes the final buck under the table.

My father, usually not prone to animation, expressed extreme disgust with the aftermath of the “slush fund” scandal at his alma mater, University of Illinois, in late 1966. The university turned itself in after finding a grand total of $21,000 had been doled out to 7 football players and 5 basketball players over a 5 ½-year period. The basketball players included Rich Jones and Ron Dunlap, who had helped my friend Jim Dawson lead the Fighting Illini to a 98-97 road victory over NCAA runner-up Kentucky and Pat Riley in November. All were suspended and allowed to transfer. Assistant Athletic Director Mel Brewer, unhappy at not being promoted to AD, blew the whistle on his own school before resigning. Football coach Pete Elliott, basketball coach Harry Combes and assistant basketball coach Howard Braun were forced to resign. At least Braun’s resignation made my father happy; after winning an intramural doubles tennis match at the college, dad hopped the net to shake hands with Braun and his partner. Braun instead threw an errant punch at him.

Illinois until then had a clean program, and their punishment seemed hypocritical in the face of other Big 10 schools. Woody Hayes, for example, had been reprimanded for a “personal loan” fund in the mid-1950s, about the same time my father was auditing the Pick-Fort Hayes Hotel in Columbus, where he found several Ohio State football players on the payroll but none doing anything more than eating lunch. Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue had similar problems during this period.

One way around paying athletes used to be “jobs.” For example, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) during his recruiting process was offered a job cleaning seaweed off a football field. The unnamed school was 1,000 miles inland. While at Ohio University, Walter Luckett (the highest chosen player in the 1975 NBA draft never to play a game) reportedly had a very visible summer job at a local auto dealership. Customers would see the star guard seated at a desk equipped with a telephone; the phone, however, wasn’t connected. A young colleague at my last company told me his father, a basketball player, had a job watering plants in the athletic department offices. Alas, the plants were all synthetic. At least the recently deceased Quintin Dailey was honest when asked what he did for his $1,000/month summer job at an electrical-supply company owned by a prominent University of San Francisco booster. “I don’t know,” Dailey said.  “I never had to go.”

Speaking about honesty, a friend traveling with the Chicago Bulls during the 1982-1983 season relates a humorous anecdote. The team was walking through an airport at the same time the Portland Trail Blazers were arriving. Bulls coach Paul Westhead spotted Maurice Lucas, who he’d tried to recruit to LaSalle University some ten years earlier when Lucas was a star at Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School. Westhead held up his LaSalle traveling bag, pointed to it and said, “Maurice, if you’d gone to LaSalle you could have had one of these.” “Yes,” Lucas replied, loud enough so everybody could hear him, “but the bag I got from Marquette had stuff in it.”

A most notable commentary about athletic slush funds came from a University of New Mexico basketball fan.  In 1979, coach Norm Ellenberger resigned after the NCAA found 57 rules violations, which resulted in a conviction on 21 counts of fraud two years later. “He did what he was supposed to do,” the fan said of Ellenberger. “He brought pro basketball to Albuquerque.”


  1. The NCAA continues a system which is not only hypocritical, but also exploitative of the athletes involved. These young men (and, to a lesser extent, women) generate significant income for Division I schools, risk career-ending injury, and receive no official compensation. These big-time basketball and football programs should be placed on a professional footing, with the players receiving salaries.

    Don Friedman

  2. What does it mean when highly-accommodated student athletes at taxpayer-funded schools choose to sell their Big Ten championship rings and awards?

    Yup - it means they are secret opportunists in the halls of higher learning. It means they have no sense of sportsmanship and no respect for the game.

    Sportsmanship: "An aspiration or ethos that the activity will be enjoyed for its own sake."

    Maybe these kids should just drop out of school and work at Christie's.