Kick the habit, not the ball: let colleges be colleges again

AS the Texas governor apologizes for authorizing cash payments to football players, the message is clear: The restrictions on recruiting college athletes may be getting tougher and the academic requirements for these athletes may be getting more rigid - but the beat goes on. The college and university campuses continue to be training grounds for the pros. And the question lingers, ``Why?'' The answers are varied, and they all have to do with the ``system'' set up to try to keep the contest of acquiring the best athletes for these college teams as ``honest'' as possible. But no system and no policing are ever going to get the job done. That's simply because there is absolutely no connection between this passionate drive to field winning teams and what colleges are set up to do: achieve academic excellence.

Television has added much to the problem, helping to enrich the colleges whose teams are good enough to draw national TV coverage. That's what winning does, of course. It means making money that these schools say they must have to keep athletic programs - other than football and basketball - going.

That's the excuse that is partly responsible for the corrupt operation that follows - this mad scurrying about to recruit the best athletes. The answer here is that all programs should be financed by the schools involved; that means, by private contributions, by student fees, and, when applicable, by state legislatures.

Part of the problem is that a word and concept that was once looked down on - ``recruiting'' - has been given an approved meaning. Colleges should not be in the business of trying to influence athletes to come to school.

If the simple encouragement of an athlete to come to a fan's favorite school could be kept to just some words about what a great education was available there, that wouldn't hurt much. But it never stops there. Very quickly a little friendly encouragement becomes the offering of financial help or direct pay for the athlete's services.

As I see it, however, the basic problem is in all of us - this writer included. I love to go out and cheer for my university football team on a beautiful autumn day. And I go away with a feeling of exultation when my team wins, particularly if the victory has been an upset or is one that will provide big headlines.

At Southern Methodist University, where the payment to players put the governor as well as the school in a big mess, one official was quoted as describing the intense desire to win, which has resulted in these payments, as ``cheap ego-gratification.''

I think that we all get a certain amount of cheap ego-gratification out of seeing our teams win, even if we don't condone the overemphasis on athletes that may well have been involved in the victory. We close our eyes to practices that may not be stipulated by the NCAA as shady but that come close to being wrong.

When we hear that the coach is making a salary that goes far above that provided for the university's best teachers, we may say very quietly that that doesn't seem at all fair. But that's about all we do. It is so lovely to have a great, winning team.

The answer for what may be the biggest problem now facing educators - and I sometimes think it may take 100 years or so to come around to it - is not this gradualism that is at work today, where the academic heads are trying to bring athletic programs, as they put it, ``under control.'' Sure, there may be some improvement. It may be that, to get into college, athletes will have to be better students and will actually have to attend classes and make adequate grades and graduate. I say ``may.'' But I think there's always going to be those schools that will, to satisfy this driving, passionate desire to win, break the rules.

No, I think that only by adopting a radical, new approach can the colleges and universities truly break away from being used as the training ground for the pros. The ``new'' approach is really the ``old'' one. In political circles some Reagan supporters have been saying, ``Let Reagan be Reagan.'' I say that, to remove this corruption from the campuses, we let our academic institutions be academic institutions again. Isn't it too bad that the main source of professional football and basketball players is from universities - and not a professional farm team system? Let the pros set up minor leagues for football and basketball, just as they do for baseball. They have the resources to do it now, with all that money coming in from television.

So let college deemphasize big-time athletics, using real students as participants in their sports activities, while keeping such programs within the college academic budget.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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