Saturday, January 20, 2001

Coaches' payoffs spur pay-for-play movement




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        Now that the black-market rate for prime college football players purportedly has reached $200,000, it was probably inevitable the players would start clamoring for more of the cash.

        Last week's allegations that defensive lineman Albert Means was delivered to the University of Alabama for the same figure that will appear on Bill Clinton's W-2 have been followed by this week's announcement that UCLA's varsity football players are trying to organize a national association with the aid of the United Steelworkers of America.

        The two events are unrelated, but both are indicative of the unstable state of the college game. If high school coaches are selling players as if they were their in
dividual property, does it not naturally follow that players eventually would consider collective bargaining?

        “We're not advocating a strike, but there will definitely have to be strategies,” Ramogi Huma said Friday afternoon. “We want to create a means for football players to influence NCAA legislation.”

Huma's role

         Huma, formerly an inside linebacker at UCLA, is the Norma Rae of political football. He chairs the fledgling Collegiate Athletes Coalition, an advocacy group that aims to go national with the help of the Steelworkers' organizing acumen. His stated goals are to increase stipends, enhance health and life insurance and eliminate employment restrictions for football players.

        “These are modest goals we're trying to make,” Huma said. “We know how much money changes hands over what we do.”

        College football and basketball are indisputably big business on America's campuses. Elite coaches are now compensated as if they were running Fortune 500 companies. Competition, naturally, is keen.

        “When you do win, the rewards financially are so tremendous that it makes the risk of doing something wrong almost worth it,” said Joel Maturi, Miami University's athletic director. “I think it has led to an awful lot of evil.”

Examples

        Kentucky assistant coach Claude Bassett confessed this month to sending $1,400 to Memphis high school coach Tim Thompson. Days later, that payoff was rendered petty.

        Milton Kirk, another Memphis high school coach, claims a third coach, Lynn Lang, brokered a $200,000 deal to deliver Albert Means to Tuscaloosa. Means, who says he was unaware of the arrangement, has since withdrawn from Alabama.

        “Improprieties go on in college athletics, but the money in this case is so great it sounds almost fictitious in nature,” University of Cincinnati coach Rick Minter said. “It's almost like the old slave days. Here's a kid told to go somewhere for somebody else's benefit.”

        Given the revenues generated by big-time programs, unpaid athletes are prone to feel like pawns. Huma says a UCLA scholarship is $2,600 less than the cost of attending school. He hopes to narrow that gap by cultivating more clout.

        Because most college athletic departments operate at a deficit, Miami's Maturi says only a few schools could afford to respond to the players' demands. He suspects the disparities within Division I ultimately may lead to a new class for those schools that can compete at the most expensive level — Miami not being among them.

        “We don't make enough money,” Maturi said, “to be in it for the money.”

        E-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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