A generation ago, the voice of American sports, Howard Cosell, spoke out. "The only choice left," wrote the Tell-It-Like-It-Is Cosell on July 2, 1986, "is to eliminate big-time college sports entirely. There is no other means to rid ourselves of the corruption, and stop the degradation of our educational system." Why should our colleges and universities be in the semi-pro entertainment/sports business? Howard knew the score.
The long history of widespread corruption in big time school sports, especially college football and basketball, is not as well known to many who live in the Northeast corridor and the largest cities on the West Coast, where these games are not a matter of life and death, as it is for the rest of the country where we see the shenanigans begin as early as elementary and middle school, become exacerbated in the high school sports programs, and reach their full, filthy bloom in the bosom of the nations biggest colleges and universities, many of them state supported.
The latest scandals and accusations -- true or not... who knows? -- particularly those surrounding the once-and-since disgraced Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush, and the presumptive next Heisman honoree, Cam Newton of Auburn, are really nothing new. While some might even blame Howard Cosell himself, and others like him, for the massive exposure of college sports on national television and the big money consequences that followed, we should remember that the same kind of corruption being talked about today was commonplace long before TV was a factor in school sports.
Hugh McElhenny, who is still regarded as being among the top all-time running backs in the NFL, left the University of Washington when his playing eligibility expired in 1951. That's the way things worked in those days. Players could not leave college early to join the pros. McElhenny, who like so many college athletes never graduated, was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and what made his going pro so controversial was his comment that he would be taking "a pay cut" to turn professional. Remember, this happened almost 60 years ago in 1951. The first nationally televised college football game, the 1952 Rose Bowl, hadn't even been played yet. The NFL was no hotbed of TV money either. They did not have a national TV contract until 1953. And that was with the old DuMont Network. Remember them? DuMont was the original TV home of the National Football League. Quite clearly, corruption preceded the TV age.
McElhenny later wrote about his college days and his description of the recruiting process sounds quite contemporary. When it works, why change it? He originally "signed" with USC, but when they reneged on the $65 a week they promised McElhenny, he left Los Angeles and went to Washington. Why? Because there he was paid $10,000 a year to play college football - that's 1950 money! He said he received weekly checks, never signed by the same person twice, an apartment for himself and his wife, a car and the privilege of running a restaurant tab that - guess what - he was never billed for. When he signed his first pro contract with the 49ers, and was the NFL Rookie Of The Year in 1952, he was paid the league minimum $7,000. That's why McElhenny wasn't joking when he said he had to take a cut. Cut to today... no current player under investigation or scrutiny or even their parents were born when Hugh McElhenny was running off tackle. College sports, however, was already a dirty place.
For those of us who live where high school football is a central community event, a lifelong enterprise for many, and college football takes on religious overtones, even for locals who never finished high school, we are familiar with the special big children, as young as sixth graders, having their birth certificates altered to make them younger so they can be nineteen and even twenty year-old high school linemen, big, beefy and all grown-up. It's often not until these players turn professional that their actual age is revealed or when their pro career seems to halt abruptly at only twenty-nine or thirty do we learn they are really "a little older." In the South and Southwest, the stories are legendary of young prospects being moved from school district to school district and coach to coach, mothers and fathers getting jobs provided by school boosters and interested alumni, and players being "red-shirted" as early as eighth and ninth grade. For the best of the high school standouts who make it to the college level, these star prospects can not only see the gold at the end of the rainbow, some get a taste long before they reach the professional ranks.
We don't really know what's happening with Cam Newton or any other player at any other big-time college program. But we do know that whatever it is that's going on, it's been going on for a long, long time. We fool ourselves into thinking of big-time college football and basketball players as "student-athletes" and talking about the stars we see in big games on network TV as "college kids." But we know, don't we, when we stop to consider why there are big-time college sports at all, that Howard Cosell was right.