The mantra when I was young was that young men should get involved in sports programs because, "participating in athletic programs builds character."
I believed it at the time, and it might have even been true in the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s, the time that I was in high school and college.
It surely is not true today, at least it is not true if you judge by today’s newspaper stories.
Don’t get me wrong. I knew about the nightclub escapades of Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer and Yogi Berra. I remember reading about the big fight in the Copacabana nightclub. I knew that baseball players of the day, even the best ones, were not angels. Players such as David Wells, who wrote that he was ripped from partying the night previous to his pitching a perfect game, carry on that hell-raising tradition. You’ll remember, of course, that Wells was involved in a bar room fight last year.
You’ll remember also Pete Rose, who bet on baseball and was suspended for life.
Of course, you’ll remember the CCNY team that was the last to win both the NCAA Tournament and the National Invitational Tournament at a time when that was allowed. Shortly after their win, a number of players, including Sherman White, were arested and indicted for shaving points for gamblers who had bet heavilly on the games. There have been other colege betting scandals as well, some of them that caught the best ballplayers in the nation.
Everything old is new again, but it seems to me to be escalating.
While those players got drunk, got into fights, and bet on the game (as bad as those things are), they were not, however, raping women, robbing stores, shooting people or taking part in other violent crimes. They did not use vulgar language in public, nor did they use racial epithets when dealing with the public or with the press.
Today, athletes at the high school, college and professional levels are doing just that.
So many of the stories about pro athletes are well known, and I am not going to rehash them here. Witness, however, the stories from the papers published in the last week.
Several members of the St. John’s men’s basketball team (in the 50’s and 60’s you did not have to differentiate between men’s and women’s teams, because there were no women’s teams) crowded onto a freight elevator at Madison Square Garden, where they had been practicing. When the elevator got overloaded, the operator asked some of them to get off.
Some of the players reportedly shouted racist remarks at the White elevator operator. The team’s coach said that no player would be suspended for the incident, but that players would be given a "writing assignment" because of their actions.
In November, St. John’s center Grady Reynolds was arrested for beating up a 20-year-old woman. Junior Guard Willie Shaw was arrested late last year for smoking marijuana.
Five students at Greenwich High School in Connecticut, a number of them from very wealthy families, were arrested last week just before then entered a stationery store in the town with toy weapons. Three of the young men were on the basketball team, including the team’s captain, Bobby Spezzano. Spezzano reportedly told police that he was along just to stop the other four youths from pulling the robbery.
There are also many accounts of cheating and ineligible players.
Fresno State this week said that it would not accept any post-season games because the grades received by many of the team’s players were padded by staff and by the fact that their term papers were written by assistant coaches.
St. Bonaventure forfeited its wins because a transfer player, who had a junior college certificate in welding, was declared eligible to play over the misgivings of the school’s own compliance officer. Both the school president and the coach overruled the school staff member.
Georgia fired its assistant coach in the wake of proof that he had falsified grades that the student received from a junior college as well as from Georgia and that he arranged for the student to get an A grade from a course that he did not even attend.
At Michigan, a booster of the school’s basketball program in the late 1990’s gave more than $600 thousand to players who were then on the team.
The violence, the cheating, the scandals seem to be escalating. The question is, "why," and the answer is not an easy one.
Perhaps the increasing salaries of professional players has escalated the drive to succeed at any cost.
In my college days, all of the players, with the exception of the top pros, had off-season jobs that kept them going because professional salaries were so low, even in relation to what everybody else’s salary was like in those days.
Most of the players deemed it an honor to be one of the few to play the professional game. There were fewer players in every sports league and it was more difficult to make the pros.
Today, top players are identified at a young age. By the time they are ready to leave the seventh grade, they are identified and actively recruited by top high school programs.
In this city, where recruiting in the public schools is frowned on, the top parochial school programs, such as Christ the King, often actively recruit top middle school prospects. It has not been unknown for schools to place a student in a home nearby the school to procure a top prospect.
The players are told that they are special. They are pampered by the schools, given full scholarships, easy programs, and a safety net that other students do not often enjoy.
Many of them begin to believe the hype, to think that they are above the behavior demanded of mere humans.
College recruiting programs are even more aggressive. Players are provided with trips to the campus, meals, transportation, members of the opposite sex to keep them company, promises of money, glory and playing time.
It is often more than an eighteen-year-old can handle.
Athletes in top college programs seldom see school during the season. They are given "tank" courses, provided with test answers, have papers written for them, live in separate facilities and are treated like demigods on campus.
They truly believe two things: That they are above the law and that they are destined for big professional bucks.They are ready to fall.
Many college athletes are already, in fact, professionals in the sense that they are being paid in different ways for playing a game.
Perhaps, that fact should be realized and scholarship athletes should be treated as professionals. At the same time, they should be constantly reminded that they are not above the law, that the law will eventually catch up with them and that they will then be playing in the penal league rather than in the pros.