Jewish World Review July 30, 2003/ 1 Menachem-Av, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Saving the game from the sewer | Two crimes don't make a wave, particularly if one of the crimes has not yet been proved a crime, but the stench of big-time sports is about to overpower us.

Or maybe not. Maybe we've become so accustomed to bribery, deceit and sports-page thuggery that life can be sweet in the sewer.

The discovery of the body of Patrick Dennehy, the Baylor basketball player missing since June, may even be good news for Kobe Bryant. Maybe murder can divert attention from accusations of mere rape and mayhem. Our advanced civilization has more or less reduced rape from felony to misdemeanor, to something like shoplifting.

The cops and the courts will sort out the particulars of murder and rape, and whether anyone is guilty and if so guilty of what, but the enduring crime is what has become of the games people play, the people who play them and the people who pay to watch.

The NBA, like the NFL and the NCAA, no longer have to worry about reputations, with dope-dealing and woman-beating having become so commonplace as to be beyond anything more than idle campus conversation. The professors and the preachers at Baylor, "the world's largest Baptist university," are, however, squirming, with the school's 15 minutes of fame likely to become 15 minutes of infamy, and extend far beyond the usual quarter of an hour.

The professors nearly everywhere are getting restive, if not yet rebellious, at what big-time athletics has done to institutions of higher learning, so called. "One would hope that a university with a religious heritage would not have these ethical problems," says Chuck Weaver, president of Baylor's faculty senate. "That's not always the case. Coaches at Baylor face the same pressures to win as coaches at any other university."

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Ah, yes, and the early evidence suggests that the coaches at Baylor deal with the pressures in the generally accepted way. Three professors from the law school have been appointed to look into allegations that coaches tried to bribe Patrick Dennehy to give up his scholarship for a year, to make room for a better player, offering him $1,800 in exchange. His former girlfriend says he once returned from a recruiting trip to Baylor and told her: "They're going to hook me up and they're probably going to get me a nice SUV."

The girlfriend didn't think much about it "because I've heard too many stories of good athletes getting so many benefits from their coaches."

Whatever shady that happened at Baylor isn't unique. It's the way things are, from coast to coast. Entertainment is what the schools are expected to provide, and when the university builds an enormous stadium in out-of-the-way places like Athens, Fayetteville or Pullman the coaches are expected to fill them, by any means necessary.

Sometimes a university president tries to get in the way. John White is the chancellor of the University of Arkansas, which has been trying, with limited success, to rebuild football fortunes that topped out 35 years ago with a national championship.

The chancellor wanted to ease out the 78-year-old athletic director (Frank Broyles, of near legend) after the university was penalized for paying football players in a summer jobs program more than the NCAA allows. When the noise subsided, the coach got a five-year contract renewal and the chancellor saved his job only because the Walton family came through with a $300 million gift to the university endowment. It might have been unseemly to bounce the chancellor into the street, even if he didn't show proper respect for the football team, so soon after landing such a gift.

This is not the game Knute Rockne knew. Some coaches and athletic directors think the time has come to cut out the sham, and pay the athletes what they're worth, particularly since the best ones are leaving school early to play pro ball. This is an idea whose time is coming soon to a stadium near you.

Many athletes, not to put too fine a point on it, don't belong on campus. Books and lectures are a distraction to the only purpose of their college years, which is to score touchdowns and dunk shots for ol' Siwash U. This is why so many of them never adapt to the discipline, such as it is, of campus life.

To assuage the sensitivities in the faculty lounge, the universities should construct a two-tier program. The pro team would play on Sunday afternoons, to the big crowds in the enormous stadiums like the other pro teams, and a student team, recruited from the dorms and fraternity houses, would return the collegiate game, with its fine old traditions intact, on golden Saturday afternoons. The girls might even dress for the game again, and their young men could learn to tie a proper tie.

The pressure on the coaches and true collegiate athletes would subside, and the only beatings would be applied to the team across the line of scrimmage.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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