THE HUNDRED YARD LIE
By Rick Telander
Simon and Schuster
221 pages, $17.95
PEOPLE WHO LIKE their sports -- and their sports books -- to be escapist entertainment aren't going to give a thought to the possibility of reading "The Hundred Yard Lie." That's too bad, because they are missing a book that is, if nothing else, thought-provoking and challenging.
Rick Telander's effort, subtitled "The Corruption of College Football and What We Can Do to Stop It." He is well-qualified to write on the subject. Telander played college football at Northwestern University and had a brief tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs. He eventually entered journalism and became the lead writer about college football for Sports Illustrated.
Telander has had some troubled feelings about the sport for some time. Finally, the events of the 1988 season pushed him over the edge. He asked his employer to move him to another sport, but not before he finished this book. This is his goodbye to college football, and it's not a fond farewell.
His examination of the sport led him to a basic question, one that is seldom asked: "What are institutions of higher learning doing in the entertainment business?" Think about that one. There are all sorts of possible answers, and Telander tries to shoot them down.
As an extracurricular activity, Division 1-A college football isn't exactly the school newspaper or student government. In many schools, athletes essentially are hired to play football. (Their payment is a scholarship, which in some cases is not a bad trade.)
Those athletes raise a great deal of money for their university, but Telander points out that in most places none of it goes to the school itself to pay for academics. Rather, the cash feeds and perpetuates an athletic bureaucracy. Winning football teams don't even help the university in its own fund-raising efforts, according to studies. For example, Notre Dame University did not see any drop in support during the mediocre Gerry Faust era of the early 1980s.
The rewards are great under the current system. Top teams are on television constantly and go to bowl games for additional revenues. Winning college coaches earn large salaries and have the chance to jump to better jobs in the college or pro ranks. Players have the opportunity to move to the National Football League if they are good enough.
But the temptations are great as well. The rewards are large if a coach can bend admissions standards or "arrange" special benefits in order to add a top recruit to his program. The players feel pressure to stay competitive physically, so they sometimes turn to steroids to keep up. The athletes also perform before tens of thousands of fans each week -- all paying to see them play -- yet are not allowed to take a job during the school year in order to earn some spending money. If an overzealous booster wants to give a player a $100 handshake, it's hard to see the athlete turning it down.
Telander takes on plenty of other targets along the way. The NCAA comes under particularly tough attack, but booster club members and so-called "character-building coaches" aren't far behind. Abuses in college sports have been around since the turn of the century, but Telander argues they have grown because of such factors as drugs, racial problems and television contracts.
The author's suggestion for cleaning up some of the problems in college football centers around the formation of the Age Group Professional Football League. Such a circuit would replace "big-time" college football, though it would be sponsored by the larger schools and games would be played at the same stadiums. In terms of structure, it would be much closer to baseball's minor leagues than what we have today.
This is hardly a balanced book. It could have used a look at some of the clean programs to add perspective. The story is a little unfocused, probably because of the rage Telander feels. It would have been interesting to have Telander come up with more realistic ideas for improving college football.
But the biggest problem with a book like this is that not enough people read it. "The Hundred Yard Lie" should serve as a wake-up call for those with the power to change college football for the better.