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Education: College Sport…Foul!

24 minute read
Ted Gup

The ball loved Flick.

I saw him rack up

thirty-eight of forty

In one home game. His

hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade,

he just sells gas,

Checks oil, and changes



Among the more than 25 million Americans watching the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament on television this week will be Tom Scates, the 6-ft. 10-in. former Georgetown University center. A 1979 graduate, he was once a mainstay of a winning team, and his hopes were pinned on making the pros. Today he is in uniform all right — as a doorman at a downtown Washington hotel. A gentle Goliath with a cavernous bass voice and a ready smile, he wears a pith helmet and has a whistle dangling around his neck to summon cabs. “There’s more to life than sports,” he says. “It’s a hard reality.” That is a lesson that Scates, and thousands of other student athletes across the land, are given a lifetime to mull over.

This is the season of “March madness.” It is a frenzied time when basketball rules the tube, millions pour into college coffers, and lanky young giants seem anointed with superhuman gifts of grace and courage. But beneath the pageantry of March madness lies another, more disturbing kind of madness: an obsession with winning and moneymaking that is perverting the noblest ideals of both sports and education in America.

During a three-month investigation, TIME talked to scores of young men who had hoped to exchange their sweat and talent on the basketball court for an education and a better life. Some, like Tom Scates, got their degrees and found jobs. But for many the promise of an education was a sham. They were betrayed by the good intentions of others, by institutional self-interest and by their own blind love of the game. Equally victimized are the colleges and universities that participate in an educational travesty — a farce that devalues every degree and denigrates the mission of higher education.

Out of sight of the fans and boosters, college basketball presents a sometimes sordid, often tragic scene of young men — some even functionally illiterate or learning disabled — trying desperately to keep up with their work. Some, unable to read an exam, must be read the questions aloud and respond with oral answers. Some were wooed by recruiters who could not make good on promises of tutors and extra study time. And some have found themselves befriended by unscrupulous agents and professional gamblers.

As the ongoing Chicago trial of sports agents Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom shows, it is often the integrity of the university that sustains the most serious injuries in big-time sports — football as well as basketball. Two former University of Iowa football players testified that they took such puff courses as billiards, watercolor painting and recreational leisure.

Corruption and exploitation are as old as sport itself. College basketball in particular has been punctuated by sensational scandals, including revelations of point shaving that emerged in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’80s. But today the money is bigger, the temptations are greater and the pressures to win more crushing.

Serious disciplinary problems have flared up at colleges where recruiters focused on athletic prowess to the exclusion of character. Recently, college players have been implicated in such crimes as attempted murder, break-ins, public drunkenness, disturbing the peace, battery and drug abuse. Coaches, too, can get into trouble when they lose their perspective on the game. Ex- Memphis State basketball coach Dana Kirk was sentenced to a year in prison for income-tax evasion. A former University of Kentucky assistant coach is under investigation for reportedly sending $1,000 through the mail to the father of a recruited player.

Why do otherwise respectable institutions of higher learning put up with all this? Because big-time sports, whose popularity is fueled by ever increasing TV coverage, are major moneymakers. For one thing, a winning team attracts alumni donations. Far more lucrative, however, are the direct revenues generated by sporting events. Last year’s NCAA basketball tournament was worth $68.2 million in gross receipts; the four schools advancing to the final round got $1.2 million each. Virtually all those funds go to athletic departments rather than academic budgets. Top coaches share in the wealth, often making several times as much as university presidents. Some earn more than $500,000 a year from salary, endorsements, speaking fees, television programs and summer camps.

But many student athletes, whose efforts make this bonanza possible, spend their college years scrimping to make ends meet. A large number of these players are black and look on basketball as their one chance to escape from poverty. But the path to the National Basketball Association, where annual salaries average $600,000, is exceedingly narrow. The chances of making it are less than 1 in 500. Nearly 20,000 young men play college basketball; about 40 will make the N.B.A. each year. “The odds of becoming a brain surgeon are greater than the odds of winning a starting spot on the Boston Celtics,” says John Slaughter, president of Occidental College. Of the thousands who do not make the N.B.A., a few will play pro ball overseas or for the Continental Basketball Association, where salaries average $8,000 a year. But most discover that there is no career for them in basketball, that they must rely on their educations to build a new career. After playing four years, many leave school without a degree.

The colleges say it is a fair exchange: the student athletes get a free education. Some do. But for many — particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often arrive in need of extensive remedial work — the opportunity to get an education is an illusion. Even the most motivated students would have trouble keeping up academically while practicing as much as 30 hours a week. Many student athletes, moreover, are not primarily interested in getting an education; they see college as a stepping-stone to a lucrative pro career. When Eldridge Hudson graduated from high school in 1982, he was named Player of the Year in Los Angeles and was ardently wooed by college recruiters with offers of cars and cash. “I didn’t even want to go to college,” says Eldridge. “I wanted to go to the N.B.A.. My life is basketball, period.”

“We’ve got our priorities mixed up,” says Thomas J. Niland, a member of the NCAA’s rules committee. “We used to play because we thought the kids were entitled and there were some values to be learned outside the classroom — hard work, sweat, the enjoyment of winning and even some disappointment. Then we got involved in how much money we could make at it, and it changed the game.”

But the root of the problem is neither renegade coaches nor avaricious institutions. It is a matter of societal values gone awry. “Don’t blame the coaches for the problem of exploitation in our country,” says Gayle Hopkins, an assistant athletic director at the University of Arizona. “Blame some of the communities that only respond to winning at any cost.”

Wayne Embry, general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is a black former pro who knows the problem well: “Quite often, coming out of school, these kids don’t know anything else but basketball. Someone’s altered their test scores to get them into school, and once they’re in, they’re directed to take basket weaving and plays-and-games, or whatever the hell it is. Tell me what they’re going to do in our society. I know quite often college coaches think they’re doing these kids a favor. The reality is they’re doing them a disservice, and I resent it.”

Sometimes, in the lingo of coaches, student athletes are “greased” — passed along by high school teachers, coaches or administrators who cannot bring themselves to bar a star athlete’s academic progress. Gene Pingatore, head coach of St. Joseph’s High School outside Chicago, has a reputation as a man devoted to helping his student players, on and off the court. “I take a very personal interest in the kids,” says Pingatore. “I’m going to do everything I have to do within the realm of what’s legal and right for the kids.” Just how far he is willing to go can best be illustrated by what he did for Carl Hayes, who graduated from St. Joseph’s in 1988.

At the completion of his junior year, Carl had a D average and stood 145th in a class of 145. But on the basketball court he was a formidable talent, nicknamed “Sco” for his scoring ability. His skill caught the attention of schools nationwide. “My phone rang 24 hours a day,” recalls Carl. “College coaches were chasing behind me.” In November 1987 Carl signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Nebraska.

But coach Pingatore worried about Carl’s low marks and the risk that he might lose the scholarship. Pingatore had an idea for bringing up Carl’s grade-point average. He had Carl enroll in two correspondence courses — American government and civics — at the Loretto Extension Service in Wheaton, Ill. Carl did assignments in a workbook under the tutelage of Pingatore. He received an A in both courses. The grades were recorded on his regular high school transcript. There was no reference on the transcript to any correspondence courses. The only thing to set the courses apart was the postgraduation completion date.

) Carl’s college-entrance exams also posed a problem. He scored 11 out of 36 the first two times he took the American College Testing exam. The third time, he scored a 6. Pingatore enrolled him in an ACT preparatory course. Two months later, Carl took the ACT again. His score rocketed up to 21. Testing officials asked for an explanation. Pingatore and others wrote about his exam preparation, and the score was allowed to stand.

“We wanted to give this kid a shot,” explains Pingatore. “The whole thing was an attempt on our part to help out a disadvantaged kid. That’s my job — I got to help kids. If it weren’t for me, Carl wouldn’t be at Nebraska. If it weren’t for me, Carl might be on the streets.”

Shortly after Carl showed up at Nebraska, his final transcript arrived, listing two courses completed after his graduation. The NCAA therefore ruled him ineligible. He lost his scholarship but took out a loan, and expects to regain his grant next year. Carl’s grades have stayed above 2.0 — but with considerable outside help. Soon after Carl arrived, Nebraska’s coach Danny Nee had him tested by the school’s Educational Center for Disabled Students. A diagnostician found that Carl was learning disabled, according to Christy Horn, the center’s coordinator for handicapped services. As a legally handicapped person, he became eligible to receive special assistance.

Because Carl has trouble reading, his texts are tape-recorded for him. His exams are read to him, and he is given more time than other students to complete them. He is sometimes accompanied to class by a notetaker. Explains Horn: “It’s difficult for him to absorb the lecture and take notes at the same time.” Nor is Carl alone. He is one of four current Nebraska basketball recruits — 25% of the squad — who have been classified as learning disabled and eligible for special assistance.

Despite the extra help, Carl and student athletes like him face an uncertain future. “Even if we determine that a kid like Carl is learning disabled, he has missed so much, he has been so poorly educated that he’s going to struggle all the time he’s here,” says Horn. “We may be able to accommodate him enough so that he can survive, but that’s about it.” Horn fears what will happen to Carl if he becomes eligible to play basketball next year. “He’s going to be in the limelight again, and he’s going to have this idea in the back of his head, ‘I was greased all the way through high school; they’ll grease me through here.’ “

( Many student athletes think that way. The fact is that many colleges and universities systematically bend and often break the rules to get top players and keep them eligible. “The crime in the NCAA is not in breaking the rules, it’s in getting caught,” says American University’s respected coach Ed Tapscott. He and others speak of a “veil of silence” existing among coaches. “We have our own MAD — mutual assured destruction. There’s a threshold of dirty linen we can all build up and know that all of us agree tacitly not to disclose it, because none of us could succeed without breaking any rules. But when someone gets outrageous, then he breaks that compact, and we launch our missiles.” University of Nevada-Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian puts it more bluntly: “The code I was raised on was ‘You can do anything you want, but never squeal on anybody.’ “

As any coach knows, the outcome of a season is often determined before the opening tip-off of the first game. It begins with the high school players recruited by the school. A single talented player can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a college — and, indirectly, to a coach. The NCAA prohibits recruiters from offering money to prospective players. But many student athletes say recruiters offered them cash, cars and jewelry. For some young players, and especially for their families, the promise of educational help can swing their decision. It is not only the larger schools that have problems.

Take the case of Reggie Ford. As a 6-ft. 4-in. senior at Marion High School in rural South Carolina three years ago, Reggie was an All-State center. More than a dozen universities salivated over his 22-points-a-game average. They paid little mind to his scant 2.0 grade-point average. It was Bob Battisti, coach of Northwestern Oklahoma State University, who persuaded Reggie to attend his school. What won him over, said Reggie, was Battisti’s promise that a tutor would be available to help him through the difficult academic times ahead. “I knew I wasn’t no A student,” explains Reggie. For the Ford family, it was a shining moment. They are poor. Reggie’s mother is disabled from a car accident, his father from a stroke. Reggie was the first member of his family to go to college.

Initially, the coaches were attentive. Reggie remembers they joked with him and invited him into their homes. But each time Reggie asked about a tutor, he was put off. Then he injured his knee, and everything changed, he said. The coaches ignored him, and the invitations dried up. His grades dropped; the scholarship was withdrawn. “After I hurt my knee, it seemed like they were trying to tell me there wasn’t much I could do for them, so I got up and left,” says Reggie. Now 21, he lives with his family in South Carolina and is collecting unemployment.

Battisti says that he and members of the team occasionally helped Reggie with his studies but that the school does not have a budget for formal tutoring. He says the real problem was that Reggie failed to apply himself. “Abe Lincoln and them people were self-taught,” he said. But Reggie’s teachers say he did try, he struggled to overcome a third-grade reading level, fought off the exhaustion of practice and in the end succumbed to the realization that he could not catch up. “He was hoping against hope,” says Jack Carmichael, who heads the school’s social sciences program. “Goddam, he deserved it. He wanted to have the initiative to make up the deficiency, but I’m not sure he could ever have made it up, short of taking three years and going back to high school.”

Each year, says Carmichael, he has a couple of players who are unable to read their exams or write intelligible answers. For them, he must read the exam aloud and accept oral responses. “There’s something wrong with the fact that they arrive here functionally illiterate,” steams Carmichael. “It means they were probably treated as a piece of meat somewhere else. What are their chances? Probably 1 in 50. It isn’t fair to anybody.”

If players who can scarcely read are accepted by colleges and universities, it is no surprise that large numbers of them never get a degree. The NCAA publishes an annual compilation of athletes’ graduation rates, but withholds the names of individual institutions. With good reason: many schools would be embarrassed. Of the 20 black students who played for Memphis State University’s basketball team between 1976 and 1986, for example, only one left the school with a diploma. Among the top basketball powers, only a small number — including Duke, Georgetown and Providence College — claim a near 100% graduation rate.

No one expects all big-time student athletes to make the dean’s list, but grades should not be the least of their concerns. An internal study at the University of Houston found that the cumulative academic average of the basketball team in the spring of 1986 was a dismal 1.35. (By spring of 1988, . that average was up to 2.5.) Good basketball and good grades can go together: the University of Arizona sent a team whose cumulative average was above 3.0 to the Final Four in 1988, and the University of Mississippi put players who had a 3.0 average or above n the cover of the school’s media guide.

Grades, however, can be misleading. What courses are the athletes taking? Several schools have set up special classes for basketball players, giving them academic credit in conjunction with overseas trips. Students at Ohio University, for example, could not have found International Studies 369B in the school’s catalog. The four-credit course was tied to a 14-day trip the basketball team took to Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and France during the 1986 summer vacation. Alan Boyd of the department of sociology and anthropology taught a portion of the course. “Its purpose was to try to help the basketball players to more thoroughly enjoy a cross-cultural experience so it would be more than just shooting basketballs,” says Boyd. The players were required to keep a diary of their excursion, during which they played ten basketball games in 14 days. “It was not as tough as other courses intellectually,” concedes Boyd, “but it was as tough experientially.”

Even those players who arrive on campus hoping to get a practical education as well as play ball can find obstacles in their path. That was the case with Brian Rahilly, who as a 6-ft. 10-in. senior electrified Oklahoma’s Muskogee High School with his on-court wizardry in 1983. Brian, who comes from a white, middle-class background, was sought after by dozens of colleges before choosing the University of Tulsa. He says he had two goals: to play in the N.B.A. and to become a sports broadcaster.

Four years later, Brian left Tulsa without a degree. Today he thinks he understands what went wrong. From his first day on campus, every decision was made for him by the coaches. His summer job was arranged by the athletic department. He says that a few times during his first two years when he was low on money for the weekend, he went to one of the coaches and got $20. “It was something you were taught from the older guys — ‘If you needed money, go ask.’ ” Even Brian’s courses were selected for him.

Trouble was, the athletic department had enrolled Brian in the business college, although he had no interest in the subject. “I was kind of ignorant,” he admits. “I thought this was the way it was done. I had no idea I could be in charge of making my own course decisions.” Brian hated business. His average dipped below 2.0. After his sophomore year, he asked to study communications, but by then his grades were too low for him to transfer. Instead, one of the coaches walked him over to the physical-education department, which had agreed to take him. There Brian remained for the next two years. He says he never did get to study communications. Brian’s former coach, Nolan Richardson, now at Arkansas, says all incoming Tulsa students were required to take certain courses and that every attempt was made to allow students to pursue their fields of interest.

That is little solace for Brian. “We’re talking my career here,” says Brian, now 23. “I trusted these guys and said, ‘O.K., I’ll put my faith in you.’ I was shortchanged. There are times I feel that I was nothing more than a piece of equipment, like a football or a practice jersey that the athletic department owned.” Brian was recently making $8,000 a year playing for the Topeka Sizzlers in the C.B.A. He is wondering what’s next for him.

On the night of Dec. 19, 1987, Lafester Rhodes did what no one in Iowa State history had done before. He scored 54 points in a single game, razor-edging rival University of Iowa 102-100. No one who saw that game will ever forget Lafester Rhodes. But these days he doesn’t feel like much of a champion.

Back in 1983, when he graduated from Manassas High School in Memphis, Lafester was a hot property. Despite a 1.9 grade average and a meager 17 on his ACTs, he was courted by more than 80 colleges, some tempting him with offers of money, clothing and jewelry. “Assistant coaches would take me outside my house and show me some stuff,” he remembers. For an 18-year-old, it was all too much. Lafester was six the last time he saw his father, and his mother had two failing kidneys. The family lived on her Social Security and disability checks. Lafester was excited and confused by the swarming recruiters (he still keeps their letters in a Nike shoe box under his bed). “I didn’t really know what was happening,” he says. “I didn’t have a father to guide me, so I decided.”

Lafester’s choice: Iowa State. Coach Johnny Orr had flown to Memphis, where, says Lafester’s mother Elsie, “he made two promises — that he would graduate and that he would play pro ball.” Lafester did neither. Today Elsie is bitter. She feels Iowa State did not keep its word. “My momma talks about it – every day,” says Lafester, who after five years left Iowa State a few credits short of a degree in family and consumer science. He took twelve hours of classes, but often put in 20 hours of practice a week. Ironically, it was his freshman year, when he was ineligible to play, that gave him the most satisfaction. “It was great for me. I got to be like a regular student.”

Lafester’s chances of making the N.B.A. are slim. Last year he dropped out of the C.B.A. after fracturing his foot two days before the season began. For the moment he is back in the league, but considering playing overseas. As with many student athletes, there are questions about just how much of an education Lafester Rhodes got in five years at Iowa State. His former C.B.A. coach Art Ross said Lafester struggled to fill out the team’s simple application forms. Ross was later told by Iowa State’s coach Orr that Lafester “couldn’t read past a sixth-grade level.”

Orr denies promising Lafester that he would make the N.B.A. and says that with the help of tutors Lafester made progress while at Iowa State. “I knew he was struggling,” says Orr, “but he worked at it. He’s like a majority of them. The books are not the main thing with some of them.” Orr draws a $90,000 salary, has a hefty endorsement contract with Reebok shoes, makes $40,000 a year in speaking fees, has a radio program, a TV program and runs a summer camp. The school makes more than $1 million a year from basketball. Orr says he does not feel guilty that the players do not share in that wealth. “We’re giving the kids something,” he says. “We’re giving them an education.”

Few university presidents defend the system, but many of them feel it is not beyond repair. “All we have to do is find the wit and will to get it done,” says University of Miami President Edward Foote. In recent months, coaches and school administrators have debated the NCAA’s Proposition 42, a plan that would raise the eligibility standards for athletic scholarships. Both sides of the argument claimed to speak for the disadvantaged. Some who opposed higher standardized-test scores tried to limit debate by labeling as racist or elitist those who favored such a change. But the focus of that debate was misplaced: too much attention was given to who gets in and too little to what happens to students once they are accepted.

Some proponents of reform go so far as to suggest that student athletes be paid, thereby ending what they see as the pretense of amateurism. Others insist that all athletic scholarships be scrapped. Senator Bill Bradley, a former college and pro-basketball star, has proposed federal legislation requiring that schools disclose their student athletes’ graduation rates. It’s a solid idea — one the NCAA should have taken the lead in long ago.

But the NCAA has thus far shown more sensitivity to its own tarnished image than to the plight of student athletes. Says Tulane University President Eamon Kelly: “The NCAA has been part of the problem, not part of the solution.” If that body is to retain any credibility, it must take practical steps to ensure student athletes the same educational chances and responsibilities as other students.

Such reforms could help end the exploitation and hypocrisy that now sully the game of college basketball, as well as other sports. That would be good for the schools and good for sport. If colleges and universities assumed their responsibility as institutions of higher learning and if sports programs were kept in perspective, more student athletes might turn out like Fred Brown. Fred grew up on the gritty streets of the South Bronx. His father was taken off to prison when the boy was in third grade. His mother worked in a grocery and tended bar. On the $4,000 she made, she raised a family of six. But Fred had a way with the basketball and a vision of his own. “By traveling with basketball,” he says, “I saw there was a better life, and I aspired for that better life.”

Today Fred has made it to a better life. He graduated from Georgetown with a sociology degree in 1984. While working for Xerox as a marketing representative, he became active in real estate investment, calling upon several of his sports contacts. He is now taking courses at Georgetown law school. “On paper, I guess I’m a millionaire,” he says.

It was not easy for Fred at Georgetown, but he was determined to make it. “If you come into a school, you may not be on an academic par with the general population of the school, but if you as an individual can sit there and learn something and better yourself, that’s an education,” he says. Stroking the lapel of a well-cut gray suit, Fred reflects on his rise from the ghetto to the good life. “I always ask my mother, ‘If I hadn’t played basketball, what would have happened?’ ” he says. “Ninety percent of the people I grew up with are dead or in jail, and I would have been the same way. Without basketball, I wouldn’t have had an outlet.” The challenge is to help more student athletes channel their talents into usable skills rather than into the dead end of broken dreams.

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