Oh, for the scholar-athlete

Put the 'college' back in college football, or take football out of college

Nowadays it's sometimes hard to distinguish the football teams of the big-league colleges and universities from those who play in the avowedly professional leagues.

In his book, "Mad as Hell: How Sports Got Away From the Fans" (NTC/Contemporary Publishing, 1997), Mike Lupica advises pro sports fans: "Go ahead and love your team. Just don't expect it to love you back."

The same admonition applies to the so-called amateur football teams of the colleges and universities who go in for big-time football.

Most college players are simply tuning up for the megabuck salaries they can obtain when they officially enter the pro ranks. Some may not even be waiting for the pros for the big bucks, as suggested by last week's indictment of four ex-Northwestern University football players on perjury charges related to betting on their own 1994 games.

As for loving their alma maters and fans, it is at best a feigned affection - their real affection is reserved for the pro jobs and resultant cash dividends they will eventually receive. Many of them in recent years have even jumped to the pros a year or two before graduation, when the money offered was sufficiently tempting.

Of course, there still are plenty of colleges and universities where scholar-athletes play the game for the fun of it before sparse crowds. But they get minor media coverage and contribute little or nothing to the finances of the institutions they represent.

Big-time college football, by contrast, constitutes a major source of income for the universities that nourish it. For this reason, the trustees and administrators of these institutions find it next to impossible to stop permitting athletic tails to wag academic dogs.

Modern football fans will probably find it hard to believe that back in the "Roaring '20s" it was possible to win a national championship with a team comprised entirely of athletes with high scholastic achievements. Pro football in those days, of course, was just in its infancy.

The outstanding example of this was the 1925 national-championship 11 of a New England college - Dartmouth.

That year, Dartmouth could field a full team of players who then, or later, were Phi Beta Kappa members, and the team captain became a Rhodes Scholar. No other major-college football team has ever combined scholarly attainments with athletic success to the degree attained by that team, and almost certainly none ever will again, unless there is a radical change in the present setup.

The undefeated, untied Dartmouth Big Green, with All-American quarterback "Swede" Oberlander leading a dazzling pass attack, piled up 340 points that season, to its opponents' 29.

After demolishing Cornell, 62-13, it traveled west for a final game with the University of Chicago, then a Big Ten powerhouse and the defending champs of that formidable league.

Of course, this was long before Robert Maynard Hutchins took over as Chicago president and abolished football.

He said, "If we are just out after the money, why don't we simply buy up a stable of derby-winning horses and let them represent us."

Then, Hutchins argued, the students could concentrate on their studies and play football, if they wished, as amateurs, just for a frolic.

Allison Danzig, a former New York Times sportswriter and compiler of "The History of American Football" (Prentice-Hall, 1956), described Dartmouth's invasion of the Big Ten in its final game of that 1925 season: "Chicago expected to take the Green in stride. Said a member of the coaching staff to a New York reporter. 'You people in the East don't know what a good football team is. You'll see tomorrow. Dartmouth is just another ball club for Chicago.'"

Dartmouth's Oberlander threw four touchdown passes to overwhelm the Chicago Maroon, 33-7.

Those were the days: when genuine scholars, instead of teams made up mostly of so-called "students" who are really in training for careers in pro football, could still dominate the game.

Like mom-and-pop grocery stores and the one- or two-man investment or real estate brokerage firms, the "little guys" of the early decades of this century have been increasingly swallowed up by the big chains. In some ways, this may be for the best in bringing about such amenities as lower prices and broader inventories.

Unfortunately, however, this trend has now carried over into athletics, where it doesn't belong.

Our college students would be much better prepared for future careers if true amateurism in collegiate athletics once more became the order of the day. Witness the recent dropping of football by Boston University as a protest against the costly commercialization of the sport, and because of a desire to emphasize its academic program.

Some sports commentators believe this move foreshadows a general exodus from the game by many other institutions oriented toward scholar-athletes.

Could it be that Hutchins was right? If only the "football colleges" would seek other ways of fund-raising - a stable of horses, say - students could be students once more and spend most of their time preparing for future careers in business or the professions.

Then the pro teams would have to secure future talent from their own "minor league" clubs, as it's done, for the most part, in baseball. Meanwhile, the "big-time football" universities could concentrate - as they should - on educational pursuits, rather than serving as ill-disguised training schools for the pros.

* John F. Anderson is past president of the athletic club of Case Western Reserve University of Cleveland, which plays football in NCAA Division III.

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