Big-time college sports got caught with their greed and hypocrisy showing again last week when Herschel Walker decided to play his professional football for the New Jersey Generals instead of the Georgia Bulldogs.
Let's get that part straight right away: Herschel Walker was going to be a pro by any reasonable definition of that term no matter where he played in 1983. Anyone who doesn't understand this must be living on another planet or in another century.
Of course all those college coaches and athletic directors with their pious pronouncements about education and character-building like to pretend otherwise. That's where the hypocrisy part comes in.
We've heard all sorts of talk about the ''unscrupulous'' raiding of the Georgia campus and how it might sound the ''death knell'' of college football. The principal thrust of this argument is that the signing of Walker could set a precedent for pro teams to lure other young scholars away from the groves of Academe before they get the degrees for which they have been studying so assiduously.
It is indeed heartwarming to see how concerned some college officials are about this issue. And I guess only a quibbler would wonder out loud whether they'd protest with quite the same amount of zeal if a promising young member of the band decided to forgo his senior year to accept a position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In fact, of course, thousands of students decide somewhere along the line that it is better for them in their particular situations to leave school at least temporarily and launch careers. Many are even athletes, including some famous ones (John McEnroe, Reggie Jackson, etc.). Why, one wonders, is it only football players whose education is so vitally important - especially when the latest figures of the National Football League Players Association indicate that 71 percent of the league's current players never bothered to stick around campus long enough after their last season to get their degrees anyway.
In other words, what is all the fuss about? Well, it's not about education, that's for sure - but then we knew that all along, didn't we? It's about money, of course, which we also knew from the beginning. Which brings us to the greed part.
It's no secret that college football has mushroomed into quite a lucrative business over the years, but the enormity of it all still probably escapes the casual observer. With many teams regularly filling their 80-to 100,000-seat stadiums; huge network, cable, and local TV contracts; and bowl games proliferating as fast as anyone can think up the names of fruits, flowers, fabrics, foods, hats, reptiles, holidays, celestial bodies, etc., to name them for, we are talking about an enterprise dealing in hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Nobody involved with such a moneymaking scheme is likely to want to see anything happen that might rock the boat.
Fortunately for all concerned, the professional leagues realized long ago that it was also in their interest to leave the college game alone. So the NFL and even the new United States Football League have rules stating that a player can't be signed until his class graduates (the class, not the player, for reasons that should be obvious in view of that 71 percent figure cited above).
This system benefits the colleges, which keep their players for four years, and the pros, who avoid subsidizing an expensive minor league system a la baseball. It doesn't benefit the players, of course (unless you believe the fiction that any but a tiny percentage get a bona fide education), and it almost certainly violates their constitutional right to seek employment in their chosen field.
The National Basketball Association dropped its similar rule several years ago, and it is now routine for top college stars to turn pro after their sophomore or junior seasons. Walker, in fact, talked about testing the NFL's rule after his sophomore year at Georgia, then eventually decided to play another season. But the best guess is that anytime one of these de facto minor league pros masquerading as students wants to go for the bigger money in the NFL or the USFL, the leagues would have a hard time stopping him from doing so - rules or no rules.
This, in effect, is what the USFL gave as a rationale for breaking its own rule and permitting the Generals to sign Walker. But the hypocrites who run the college game, hoping to make this a one-time exception, have been quick to drag out all the old cliches about how concerned they are for the young man and his education, and to issue dire warnings about what this could do to their sport.
The way they talk, in fact, one could be pardoned for thinking that the ''Generals'' who perpetrated this awful deed were named Grant and Sherman, and that the devastation they wrought was roughly comparable to the latter's march from Atlanta to the sea.
Yet there's no real reason to believe that the signing of a few underclassmen would disrupt the college game in any significant manner. It certainly hasn't hurt college basketball, which is just as popular as ever - or even more so. And basketball, by nature, is a game in which there is far more likelihood of a player blossoming into a pro prospect as a junior, a sophomore, or even a freshman.
The Walker story, of course, is only the latest in a long line of such examples demonstrating the topsy-turvy values in our society. But while it is a sorry enough commentary that a 20-year-old college junior is considered worth $5 million because he's strong and fast and plays football well, it's nothing short of ludicrous to see institutions of higher learning getting into a name-calling squabble with the pros and showing their true, not-so-pretty colors just because he has decided to go play somewhere else.