The Scramble for College Athletes

The president of Hamline University in St. Paul, Paul Giddens here questions the increasing professionalism of college athletics with a candor which is not too often heard in the Midwest.


I HAVE always maintained that college athletics exist primarily for the enjoyment and benefit of students who wish to participate in them, and they should be conducted as an integral part of the educational program. The same is true of all other extracurricular activities—choir, band, student publications, debate, dramatics — which supplement formal classroom learning. They provide outlets for learning by doing, and they contribute to the development of students’ special talents and skills. There is little or no justification, educationally speaking, for maintaining intercollegiate athletics, except for the benefit of the players.

The concept that intercollegiate athletics exist primarily for the benefit of the general public and for the purpose of making money has been long in the making. There has been an unprecedented growth of interest in athletic contests of all kinds. First radio and then television have made it possible for millions of people to become ringside spectators at professional baseball, basketball, and football games, and at wrestling and prizefighting matches. The National Broadcasting Company now has a five-year contract to pay $36,000,000 to televise all regular season games of the American Football League. Just recently it purchased the rights to televise the AFL championship and All-Star football games for the next five years for a sum in excess of $7,000,000.

Organized baseball little leagues for the kids from nine to twelve years old have spread all over the country. High schools have expanded their athletic programs, have built large stadiums and established district, regional, and state championship tournaments, are playing night games and postseason games, and are selling rights to broadcast and televise their games. Colleges and universities sell bonds to build large athletic plants and stadiums holding 55,000 to 85,000 people. They also play night games to draw larger crowds and increase gate receipts, participate in postseason tournaments, and compete for the right to play in the Rose Bowl and in other bowl games: Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Gator, Sun, Raisin, and Cigar. These games have become great national spectacles with parades, “million-dollar” marching bands, and half-time shows.

The National Broadcasting Company recently negotiated a two-year contract and agreed to pay $800,000 per game for television rights to the Rose Bowl game. For this mammoth circus in 1965, the gate receipts amounted to about $500,000. After the expenses of the participating teams were paid, and the travel expenses of bands, Big Ten athletic directors, coaches, and faculty representatives (who were allowed $750 each to travel with their wives), each Big Ten school received over $30,000 as its share of the gate receipts, the highest in history. The Rose Bowl is avowedly big business, with every Big Ten university sharing in the profits. Also indicative of the popularity of college football is the fact that the total attendance for the past four seasons of Big Ten play was 12,534,199.

As a result of this tremendous public interest, intercollegiate athletics have become increasingly commercialized and subjected to pressures wholly alien to an amateur athletic program. In order to win public acclaim, some colleges and universities have resorted to practices which are certainly shoddy, and questionable from an educational point of view. In order to have a winning team, for example, full-time members of the coaching staff are employed the year round to scour the country, scout high school games, interview star players, and offer them all sorts of inducements to enroll at their college or university. They bid for these players as though they were on the auction block. It is not uncommon for a star player to have fifty or sixty or even eighty or more offers.

The chief weapon in this competitive battle for blue-chip athletes is financial aid. Unless financial aid is offered in abundance, coaches say they just can’t get enough good players and produce winning teams. The basic question asked by a star student athlete when interviewed by coaches is, “How much?” In the bargaining that takes place, the parents of these boys are as much to blame for what happens as anyone else; they play the role of a broker. According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association, if the amount of financial aid exceeds tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and $15 per month for incidental expenses, it is considered pay for participation. In some colleges, athletes are given preferential treatment in the awarding of financial aid; they get the best scholarships. One college in the Southeast recently reported in the press that of 228 nonresident scholarships awarded, 118 went to athletes.

Georgia Tech announced in January, 1964, that it was quitting the Southeastern Conference and would play as an independent because it could not get the conference to raise its limit of 140 football and basketball scholarships. The announcement said that the rule was too limiting, that Georgia Tech could not field a respectable team under the rule, and that this was not fair to the alumni, to the players, or to the school. Incidentally, by withdrawing from the conference and playing independently, it was estimated that Georgia Tech would increase its revenue by $100,000 on all future televised games and from $25,000 to $50,000 on future televised bowl games.

Colleges and universities may put limits upon the amount of financial aid given to student athletes, but this does not prevent all kinds of under-thetable payments. Jobs are provided where little or no work is required. Special well-known athletic funds, contributed to by businessmen, alumni, and friends, with thousands of dollars in the kitty, provide the wherewithal to get star players. In many cases there is little or no college or university control over these funds or over how they are spent.

The mad scramble for student athletes and their subsidization is not confined to large universities; the small colleges engage in the same practices. They, too, want to win games, championships, and public acclaim and prestige. They cannot possibly compete with the resources and influence of the large universities for star athletes, but that does not prevent them from using similar methods to get the next best talent. Large and small, public and private colleges and universities are engaged in the fierce competitive struggle for student athletes.

Over the last ten years the Big Ten schools have tried several plans in search of an acceptable standard as a base for awarding financial aid. In 1961 the need factor was dropped by the Big Ten and a “stringent” grade-average requirement was substituted, making it easier to recruit. In addition to class rank, a freshman must be able to achieve a grade average of 1.7, a D minus, in order to qualify for a scholarship and practice with the freshman team. He must then show a minimum of progress for three seasons of varsity competition — 1.7, 1.8, and 1.9 — to keep the scholarship. He can, therefore, still qualify and get financial aid for four years without attaining even a C average.

The pressures are so great to get a star athlete that it is often necessary for a college or university to pay his expenses at a preparatory school for a period of study so that he can qualify for admission. For example, this is what the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy do. Other colleges and universities “farm out” an inadmissible student to a junior college for a year in order that he may qualify.

Some very respectable academic institutions are even known to have a double standard for admission, one for the athletes and one for all other students. For the desired athletes, they will accept college-entrance examination scores ten to twenty points below those they require for other students.

ONCE student athletes are admitted to college, they are in many cases given further preferential treatment. They are segregated from other students, lodged in a special dormitory, and given benefits not extended to other students. They are allowed to take a reduced academic schedule during the game season. Special tutors are provided in case they are not doing well in their studies. For each game they are given complimentary tickets, which can be used by friends or sold to make a little money. Travel uniforms — slacks and sports coats — are provided. If a student athlete fails a course or two and becomes ineligible for the team, there are actually some colleges which are known to have changed the grades in the registrar’s office to make the student eligible. Recently the classroom attendance records of a certain college were rigged, resulting in a scandal that led to the resignation of the football coach.

If a potentially good freshman athlete is physically immature or poorly prepared in the fundamentals of the sport, coaches resort to what is called red shirting, whereby a student is deliberately held out of varsity competition for a year so that he may become older, bigger, and stronger, and have a year’s additional practice behind him. But this means holding students in school a year longer than necessary merely for the sake of their athletic ability.

Participation in intercollegiate athletics requires long hours in practice sessions. The daily grind is fatiguing, and a student is too tired to study at night. Often there are night sessions. The season is long. Football practice starts in late August or early September, before other students arrive on campus to register. If an invitation to a postseason game or tournament is accepted, this means the season is extended possibly another month with daily practice and play, and the pressure upon student athletes increases. By the time the postseason game has been played, practically a whole semester has passed with a substantial portion of the daily hours devoted to athletics. After a brief interval, spring football practice begins. From an educational point of view, such loss of study time is indefensible.

The pressures to win too often cause coaches to risk playing a student who has not fully recovered from a serious internal injury or a fracture. Winning the game is far more important than the welfare of the student. It would be interesting to know just how many college physicians have been pressured by coaches into letting a player, not fully recovered from an injury, play in a game. It would be equally interesting to know just how many permanent injuries have resulted from playing a student not in the best physical condition.

Recently the National Football Foundation awarded Earl Blaik Fellowships of $500 to each of the eleven outstanding college football players who had an excellent scholastic average. Six were going into medical school, three into engineering, one into law, and one into the ministry. Yes, there are some fine football players who are excellent students. But what about the hundreds of others who play football? Reports on the “high” scholastic record of athletes are proudly made from year to year by individual colleges and universities, but they are not very convincing. As you examine the report, you wonder how many of these men majored in physical education. How many of these men were in physical education classes taught by their coach or coaches in intercollegiate athletics? How do the marks of those in football and basketball compare with those in swimming, tennis, golf, or wrestling? I recently studied one of these reports made by a Big Ten university. It showed that out of 293 men on the 1964-1965 varsity squads, thirty-seven freshmen, sophomores, and juniors had a grade point average of 3.0 or better (B equals 3.0). But only eight of the thirty-seven came from the baseball, football, and basketball squads. Nineteen came from the golf, tennis, track, wrestling, and hockey squads. And ten of the twenty-nine were on the swimming squad !

In view of the mounting pressures, the growing commercialization of intercollegiate athletics, and college and university practices, it is not surprising that there have been recurring scandals involving cheating, bribery, and dishonesty. In 1945, five Brooklyn College players admitted accepting bribes to throw a basketball game with the University of Akron. Frank Hogan, the district attorney of New York City, later reported evidence that between 1947 and 1950, eighty-six basketball games had been fixed at Madison Square Garden and at arenas in twenty-two other cities in seventeen states by thirty-two players on several teams. In March, 1961, Hogan disclosed another scandal that involved thirty-seven players from twenty-two major colleges who accepted bribes ranging from $700 to $4450 to fix games.

In January, 1965, a major scandal involving intercollegiate athletics at the Air Force Academy rocked the country. It was disclosed that 109 cadets, including about thirty members of the football team, had either cheated on examinations or knew about the cheating and did not report it, and would be separated from the Academy and the Air Force.

A recent study by Columbia University on cheating in college pointed out: “Despite angry denials by coaches and football-minded alumni, the dishonesty among athletes is staggeringly high.” The moral fiber of impressionable young men is eroded and broken down when they are bought. If you have peddled yourself to a college or university recruiter, it is only a short step to rationalize that it is perfectly all right to sell yourself to a fixer. According to a recent report of the Commission on Higher Education, National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., “The colleges teach them how to cheat even before the kids have left high school.”

WITH the rapid growth of professional football and the keen competition between the two major leagues, a Frankenstein monster has been created within the last five years that threatens to make college football a training ground for professional leagues. Even before the 1964 season, the two professional leagues, battling fiercely for prestige, television income, and gate receipts, began raping college football. Jim Wilson of Georgia signed a contract with the Patriots and played as a pro during his final year in college. Before the season ended, George Sauer, Jr., of the University of Texas signed with the New York Jets, although his college eligibility had not expired. Four key Oklahoma players were dismissed from the squad on the eve of the Gator Bowl game for having signed undated contracts with Houston and the Vikings. One authority estimated that as many as two dozen pro-signed players competed in year-end college bowl games. Others had verbal understandings in advance. When one of the New Year’s games on television ended, a pro scout dashed onto the field, corralled one of the stars, led him to the sidelines, set up a makeshift desk, and handed him a pen. Without even reading the contract, the player affixed his signature. The climax of the season was the signing of Joe Namath of Alabama, the numberone college player in the country, by the New York Jets to a three-year contract for $400,000 plus $5000 per year for life.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and college coaches across the country were indignant about the pros tampering with these players before the expiration of their college eligibility, but there was little that they could do. In commenting upon what had happened, Coach Norm Van Brocklin of the Minnesota Vikings made a spectacular and revealing declaration. He is reported to have said, “I really don’t know what to say when people ask me about the ethics of this sort of thing. In our business, we live by results.” In the torrent of discussion over the situation, college and university football coaches didn’t get much sympathy for several reasons. It came out that possibly two hundred assistant coaches were on pro payrolls as scouts to furnish extensive information on players and to induce players to sign with a particular team. Second, college and university coaches bother star high school athletes all during their senior year, trying to get them to enroll, in the same way that pro scouts lay siege to a senior college player. On ethics in big-time sports, one sportswriter said it is an area “in which neither the pros nor the colleges can stand much scrutiny.”

It is heartening to report that four or five years ago the nine presidents of the member colleges of our Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference began giving greater attention to intercollegiate athletics. Because of rumors and gossip over what this or that college was doing in awarding financial aid to student athletes, each president agreed to submit to all the others an annual report on the grade average and the amount of financial aid — scholarships, grants, campus jobs, and loans — which his college gave to every man on the eligibility list of every intercollegiate sport. In addition, the presidents agreed to spend one evening together — and we have done this annually — going over these reports and asking pertinent questions. These meetings have been frank, friendly, and helpful. In them we have discussed many problems relating to intercollegiate athletics and made a number of recommendations.

We suffered our greatest humiliation and defeat, however, when in one session the presidents unanimously recommended to the faculty representatives of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference the abolition of all postseason games. The faculty representatives voted down the recommendation of the presidents! Our most recent accomplishment was to agree that the member colleges would not grant any financial aid to a student athlete in excess of the amount indicated in the College Scholarship Service report of family need. We have not solved all the problems, but a beginning has been made.

If intercollegiate athletics continue on their present course and direction and there is no change, they will be gradually abandoned. The small colleges, already hard-pressed for funds sufficient to maintain the quality of their faculty and educational program, cannot afford to continue in the mad race to recruit and subsidize student athletes. Nearly one hundred colleges have abandoned football since 1947. Even larger colleges and universities feel the financial drain; the University of Chicago, the University of Denver, Fordham, Marquette, and more recently, the University of Detroit have abandoned either football or all intercollegiate sports. Even the largest universities are finding the financial burden increasingly heavy. One Big Ten university is reported to be spending $225,000 a year for athletic scholarships. But with their immense resources, the largest universities apparently can afford the luxury for a while.

If intercollegiate athletics are to be saved from extinction, it is high time that college and university presidents, deans, and faculties exert strong and courageous leadership, assert greater control over athletic coaches, eliminate practices not in accord with sound educational principles, and restore intercollegiate athletics to an amateur basis.