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Time to let Catholic college athletics go


Sometimes I feel like Autolycus, the cynical rogue in Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," who is described as "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles." But then I am reminded of Goethe, who held that there is no such thing as a trifle and that a single detail may reveal a universe. So with college athletic programs. A trophy case can spell distortion.

The March Madness that swept the nation like a virus last month prompts my bold trifle. After decades of serious thought and after crossing myself like a faith-filled foul-shooter, I am going to suggest that all Catholic colleges drop out of interscholastic competition.

It's not that Catholic institutions are dominating the NCAA. Only nine of the 64 men's teams that entered the 1997 tourney have stickers identifying them as Catholic and only one team (Providence) made it to the final eight. Only eight Catholic women's teams entered the tourney and only Notre Dame made the regionals.

Overall, only 37 of the 237 institutions of Catholic higher education in the United States, representing 691,626 students, are in Division I of the NCAA. In college football, three papist schools play with the big boys in Division I, and two of these had losing seasons in 1995. Indeed, in the past 60 years, a Catholic institution has been named national collegiate football champion only eight times -- and all eight titles went to the Irish.

The holy grail of football -- the Heisman Trophy -- has been given to only eight Catholic college players since its inception in 1935. Seven of the awards went to Notre Dame players.

New York's staid Downtown Athletic Club awarded its first Heisman to Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago. At that time, the "Monsters of the Midway" dominated the Big Ten. Their coach, the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg, literally shaped the modern game of football. But their Boy Wonder president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, abruptly pulled the university out of the Big Ten. Since then Chicago has had to live with the ignominy of only 67 Nobel Prizes and enough other academic awards to stuff their empty trophy cases.

Hutchins once stated that the worst fault of Catholic colleges is that they imitated the worst faults of other colleges. His caution clearly applies to athletic programs, which too often distort everything under the blessed ivy from entrance criteria to pregame Hail Marys.

Some years ago, I worked at the University of Chicago and took in the occasional game. One Saturday, when UC scored a touchdown against mighty Lake Forest College, their ersatz band played the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth. At half time, the band marched down the field, displaying the world's largest kazoo.

Chicago lost the game. Later, I commiserated with a player, suggesting that the narrow defeat must have hurt. "Oh, no," he insisted. "It was a good game. We had a good time."

I could have used CPR.

The UC believes that universities exist to exercise the cerebral cortex rather than the gluteus maximus. It is more likely to invest in test tubes than towel warmers. Yet the number of students who participate in intramural athletics consistently outnumbers those of other schools, partly because its athletic facilities are not reserved for behemoths whose only important test is of their urine.

OK. That's not fair. I remain a staunch Notre Dame fan. Few experiences are more renewing of the spirit than driving the 100 miles from Chicago to South Bend on a Saturday in the fall to take in a game. It is a contemporary Canterbury. The beautiful campus vibrates with genuinely good people who want only to escape life's realities for a few hours. I have had a chance to chat with a few of UND's top players, finding them intelligent, articulate and polite. Two of them were first-string quarterbacks, said to be the second most important job in the Catholic church.

Yet I remain vaguely troubled by the entire chemistry of interscholastic athletics. Years ago as principal of an all-boys Catholic high school with 2,100 students, I found corruption even at the elementary school level as schools competed more for athletic than for academic talent.

I felt vaguely guilty as I witnessed students with 600-plus SAT scores being rejected while athletes with 400-minus scores were not only accepted and scholarshiped but given campus jobs that required little more than winding the eight-day clock.

Trying to trace college athletic moneys is like following a glass of water over Niagara Falls. Even the casual observer must marvel at coaching salaries alone. And tracing a coach's perks may be like watching Barry Fitzgerald dip into the Ladies' Altar Society box.

As for the athletes themselves, there is a tendency to invest athletic mystique with every social virtue imaginable. Yet there is little evidence that sports build character. That seems to come in with the mother's milk, not Gatorade. Many athletic programs amount to little more than bonded slavery. Graduation rates remain low, although Catholic colleges fare somewhat better.

Student athletes are led to believe that pro contracts are just ahead, while in fact only about four Catholic college players made the first round of the NBA draft.

Sadly, Catholic colleges have about the same scandal rate as other schools. The reality is that the pool of academically qualified athletes is so shallow that it forces compromise. One elite college acknowledged that it must compete with some two dozen of its peer institutions for only about 325 academically qualified athletes each year. "Below that and we've got to cheat," the athletic director admitted.

When the subject of athletics is introduced, minorities are often mentioned. The suggestion seems to be that the only door to higher education for a minority student is through the locker room. I would suggest that there is an abundance of minority students who can enter college through the admissions office and meet the standards their scholarships require. Further, a genuinely close audit might reveal that the cost of educating a student athlete, including dipping his muscles in a whirlpool and sewing his name on his jersey, must rival that of a dean's salary. It's likely that colleges could fund a dozen minority students for each talented athlete it recruits.

I would suggest that Catholic colleges form interscholastic leagues of their own and, if necessary, pay their gladiators, just as they pay other student workers. Let them be paid for what they provide: entertainment. And, if they choose, obtain an education at their own off-season pace.

Perhaps colleges could arrange a few preseason games with NCAA schools that are effectively pro teams. Something like that.

It's obvious that I haven't worked out the details. It's just that I'd like to remove the hypocrisy that runs deeper than political fundraising.

I think it could be done. Catholic higher education wouldn't suffer. Indeed, it might signal a dramatic difference -- one in which the college president wouldn't have to proclaim: "We want to make St. Gipper's a school our team can be proud of!"

Tim Unsworth's latest book, I Am Your Brother Joseph: Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, is published by Crossroad, New York.

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997