"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“Of the making of reforms,” Confucius is said to have said, “there is no end.” With regard to college sports, he might have added: especially when the reforms are halfhearted.
Myles Brand, the new president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, says, “Academic reform in athletics is now a (college) presidential issue. Presidents are leading the way in making the decisions.” John Walda, the chairman of the board of directors of the Association of Governing Boards, says, “We can’t say ‘Leave it to the athletic directors to fix’ because it has been years and years and they haven’t been fixed.” And as we go to press, California state Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, announced that on April 9 he will be holding an “International Hearing on College Athletics” which will feature representatives from not only the NCAA but, dig this, the recently formed College Athletes Coalition. The winds of change are in the air.
If the academic folk within the NCAA are serious about making reforms in college sports, let them consider going all the way. There’s one sweeping measure that is simple, fair and economically advantageous: Do away with athletic scholarships. And while we’re at it, do away with special athletic dorms designed to set athletes apart from the rest of college life.
Now, I know no one thinks this is going to happen in their lifetime, but let me outline the advantages so we can get the program started.
Consider, first, that scarcely a week goes by without news of some fresh scandal involving the football and basketball programs at our major schools. Steroids, falsified grades, under-the-table gifts from boosters, and, of course, the vice that the NCAA was formed to eradicate in the first place, of gambling. My favorite new transgression was committed by 12 Villanova basketball players suspended for making unauthorized long-distance calls. I mean, where’s Catherine Zeta-Jones when you really need her? The off-campus activities of Florida schools alone could have supplied enough material for a revival of “Miami Vice.”
And how serious is the NCAA about solving these problems? The NCAA’s usual response, when it gets around to taking action, is to punish thousands of students and student athletes by barring their schools’ teams from TV and postseason competition. Of course students and student athletes are easier to punish than coaches and administrators; they have no rights.
It has been suggested that a return to one-platoon football would cut the average school’s athletic budget by nearly 25 percent. Why not go a step further? Since we now know that the overwhelming percentage of America’s athletic departments lose money anyway, and largely because of football, why not save everyone a lot more money by eliminating athletic scholarships entirely?
The barrels of cash college sports bring in is a fact that can’t be disregarded so long as millions of alumni and fans are willing to pay for tickets and turn on their TVs. What’s to be done short of turning 18-year-olds into legitimate professionals?
For starters, colleges can get out of the business of being a cost-free minor league for the National Basketball Association and National Football League. The elimination of athletic scholarships would mean that football and basketball players would be ill-prepared for pro sports. But why should that concern colleges?
Colleges would be forced to try something new: to field teams comprised of college students, not future pro draft picks. There would be no more preferential treatment for “scholar-athletes.” Nevertheless, more athletes would graduate because they would be entering college as students, not athletes. Without athletic scholarships, we’d really find out if students from Miami and Ohio State play football better than students at Stanford and Northwestern.
The primary objections to such a concept come, as you’d expect, from the coaches, athletic directors and NCAA administrators. Essentially their complaints can be summed up under two headings: money and minority athletes.
To dismantle the existing structure, they say, would drastically cut down on revenues. Why would networks care whether the players were on scholarship or not? The money they pay out is based on ratings. And isn’t the appeal of, say, the Ohio State and Michigan game that it’s a duel between Ohio State’s best and Michigan’s best, regardless of whether or not the players got there on scholarship? Does anyone honestly think there would be empty seats at Miami-Florida State, Tennessee-Florida, Alabama-Auburn, Notre Dame-Southern Cal or any other college rivalry because the players weren’t on scholarship?
And even if for some strange reason the revenues did decline and the networks paid less for games played by non-scholarship athletes, the schools would still be raking in big bucks, and with teams that cost a fraction of what they do now. For without athletic scholarships, schools wouldn’t have to outfit 130 players — or even 85, the current maximum number of scholarships the NCAA allows for football. (Why a college team needs to field more players than an NFL team has never been explained.)
The second objection is stickier: The elimination of athletic scholarships would mean fewer minority — mostly black — athletes. Though this would be true, at least for a while, it wouldn’t necessarily mean fewer minority college students. There may be nothing that can be done about the vast sums of money NCAA sports are bringing in, but something can be done about how it’s spent.
Most colleges funnel most of their basketball and football revenues right back into their ever-expanding basketball and football programs. Eliminate athletic scholarships, and the money saved could go toward putting minority students in school. In this case, though, the minority students given aid would be ones with aptitudes for math instead of for bench-pressing 500 pounds or for making 20-foot jump shots.
Then, the millions brought in by college students would at least benefit college students. Instead of sending thousands of uneducated ex-jocks out to face a hostile society every year, colleges would have the chance to send thousands of educated minority professionals out into a society that needs them badly. Is there anyone who wouldn’t contend that after 20 years that wouldn’t have an enormous impact — for the better — on society?
And just think, guys: All the time, you could be doing this while saving money. Now there’s something to think about at that next big conference on the future of college sports.
With the possible exception of Charlie Pierce, I can’t think of a sportswriter over the last two decades more worthy of having his work collected in one volume than William Nack. “My Turf — Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, and The Sporting Life” (DaCapo Press, $26) is a collection of Nack’s best pieces from Sports Illustrated that, like the collections of all really good writers, reads as if it was written in one long, torrid stretch. At his best, Nack always combined the savvy of an old time sportswriter — nobody else among the moderns has covered the two dying sports, boxing and horse racing, with his skill and passion — with a style and vocabulary that Hunter S. Thompson would have envied a quarter century ago.
“My Turf” takes Nack’s best-known pieces, including an eye-opening look at Rocky Marciano, “The Rock,” a study of baseball’s great forgotten team, “The ’29-’31 Philadelphia A’s” and a fond remembrance of the star-crossed Heisman Trophy winner from Syracuse, Ernie Davis, “A Life Cut Short,” among others. As a bonus, there are some great profiles of Bobby Fisher and A.J. Foyt (the latter of which hooked me with the opening sentence, “Three laps to go, floating out there in the middle of the high banking of turn three, Bobby Unser lost it.”
I don’t mean to make it sound like Bill Nack is past history. You can currently read him in GQ, from which we would hope there will be another collection within a few years.
OK, where to begin? I rewrote this week’s column three times because I couldn’t find a way to say this without sounding stupidly sentimental — which, to be honest, is exactly how I feel. This is my last sports column for Salon. Starting this Sunday I will be a columnist for the Sunday edition of the New York Times. There’s no way around admitting that for someone in my profession writing for the Times is like playing ball in Yankee Stadium. But to writers of my generation there is generally no higher aspiration than to write for what once was called “the alternative” press, which in my case meant moving from Birmingham, Ala., to New York to write for the Village Voice, which I did regularly for nearly nine years. I thought I would never again have that kind of freedom; I was wrong, because my truest expression, for better or worse, came in the nearly three years I wrote in this space for Salon.
I’ve worked with great editors before, but never a better bunch of people from top to bottom including David Talbot, Gary Kamiya, Joan Walsh, Laura Miller, and my sometimes editor and colleague, King Kaufman.
I was originally planning to talk about some of the pieces I wrote here that stirred the most reaction, such as the infamous “forced grief” column on the death of Dale Earnhardt, but it sounded too much like a greatest “hits” compilation. Let me just say that not only have the editors been great here, but I’ve never written for a publication that, if one can judge by the letters, attracted a classier readership. (And folks, there’s no need for me to suck up to you, since I’m heading out the door.) If I have any regrets, the main one is that I haven’t been able to answer more mail.
Let me part on this note. If you liked the stuff you read here, continue to support Salon.
Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.More Allen Barra.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)