Pay College Athletes? Maybe on a Per-Antic Basis…

Most Wesleyan students during the 1980s were ambivalent toward organized sports and would’ve reserved an outright hostility for the golf team, had they known it existed.

There is little agreement on whether and/or how collegiate athletes should be paid. Honestly, what revenue could college golfers, for example, possibly generate and ultimately demand? They and their teams are essentially loss leaders, like all varsity athletics had been their first 100 years and continue to be at  colleges and universities with less athletic ambitions but the gall to charge students upwards of $50,000 per annum to attend. The only universal recognition is that a whole lot of money is clearly being generated by certain collegiate athletes, and those actual revenue-generators get nothing but barter value in the form of scholarships.

The New York Times’ Joe Nocera weighed in on the matter this weekend, in the NYT Magazine, and Sports Illustrated offered up a comparable scenario for how a paid system might work, in a November report. For the sake of context, the SI article noted that the University of Oregon annually budgets around $650,000 for its men’s golf team. This might be standard for Division I college programs, but it’s probably jolting to anyone who participated in small-college programs (which comprise the majority collegiate golfers, mind you).

It’s positively mind-blowing to those of us who competed for Division III Wesleyan University in the 1980s. This was competitive golf, but it was the stuff of van-enabled matches, mismatched shirts, and the odd overnight invitational. We got paid a couple times: per diems of $5 for lunch at the Big Boy just off I-91 in Agawam, Mass.

Still, while I would never hold out the experience as an argument for or against, I wouldn’t trade the experience.  It was a blast, and what stands out today, 25 years on, aren’t the personal victories (which were sadly few) but the ridiculous personalities the game attracts and the sometimes-absurd situations tournament golf continually drops in their laps. You can’t put a price tag on this stuff. At hippy Wes, where the vast majority of students essentially scorned athletics, golf was even more low-profile. Indeed, they’d have surely been appalled — if they even knew Wes had a varsity golf team.

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Two of my teammates and I recently harkened back to those days via an email roundtable. Rich “Danny” Gibbons and John Brais were both one year my junior, so we shared three seasons together. Despite what the rest of campus didn’t know or ignored, much hilarity ensued.

John Brais: So I’m in Professor Greene’s class, which is set up to produce your Senior paper, to complete your History major. We’re at his house for dinner, about 10 of us, and we’re sitting around the table at his house, setting up the schedule to present our papers. Two separate dates: First day, five people present and the other five choose a paper to critique. The following week, same thing but reversed. Problem for me was the second week was the first day of New England Intercollegiates at New Seabury and I present this dilemma to the professor while going over the schedule, in front of everyone. I suggest that I present and critique on the same day, first week. Professor Greene’s response: “You do know, John, that I was on a committee to cancel the golf program outright as certain students have protested that to support golf, which is obviously an elitist sport, is against the moral and ethical principals that Wesleyan represents.” I replied, If these people knew the members of the golf team, I am sure they would reconsider this opinion. Professor Greene went on to say, “It is your decision to make, if others in the group agree… By the way, congratulations for the great year on the hockey team. My son and I are huge fans.” The other students were stunned.

Rich Gibbons: Talk about worlds colliding. Golf team and the People’s Republic of Wes ethos…

JB: I seem to remember we consumed several cases of beer and an assortment of doobies that trip to New Seabury.

Hal Phillips: I seem to remember that was the case any time we traveled with the golf team. There was one epic quarters game and general piss-up in some condo where we stayed at New Seabury. Much silliness. That was the year Teddy Galo shot 75 or something on the easy course, when all the good teams were playing the gnarly Ocean Course. So he was, like, top 5 overall after Day I. He pointedly maintained a level of sobriety but went out and shot something in the high 90s next day. Classic.

JB: Wes golf was an absolute forum for top-notch comedy. You remember that 1st hole at New Seabury, the Ocean Course, like 590 yards dead into the wind to a green about an acre in size? Dude from Middlebury (you know that guy… blonde, blue eyes, 6’4” basketball player with no personality) is on the back of the green putting downhill, downwind to the front, about 120 feet of putt. The three of us are near the pin as he crouches down to read the putt. Now picture his golf getup. He’s got tan Haggar slacks (the kind Jack Nicklaus made popular in the ‘70s) with not a millimeter of room to spare around his waist… He crouches down and we hear this amazingly long and loud tear. He has split his paints, front near the belt buckle to back near his belt. He looks like he’s wearing one of those huggy blankets, only this one is for his legs not his arms. He plays nine holes like this and actually turns out to be a great dude.

RG: I recall the guy shredding his pants. What a cruel game. What a wealth of material. New Seabury brings to mind another, but it may have been my senior year after you graduated… I’m rolling a few on the green in preparation for the tumult that is a New Seabury round in wind/rain/cold. Pat Dudley comes out of the clubhouse, walks onto the green looking vexed. Then he’s shaking his head and muttering to himself. “Pat, what’s wrong?” There’s some poor guy in the bathroom just pissing out his ass with diarrhea. I don’t know how he’s going to go 18… College golf. Nothing better. Life lessons of endurance and fortitude abound.

HP: And empathy. Pat could have been that guy. Remember when we did an overnight for NESCAC Championships, spring my senior year, up at Middlebury? As captain, I had located for us a killer party on campus. On the way home Pat projectile vomited out the passenger-side window of the Wesleyan Athletics van into the cold Vermont night. We got him home and revived him in time to stumble onto the 1st tee, successfully drive the ball in play, and walk down the 1st fairway — into a gathering snow squall! This was, like, March or early April, in Vermont. Poor Pat. He turned back to those of us assembled on the tee behind him with profound resignation. He and his ghost-like pallor disappeared into that freak storm like an old time baseball player into a field of corn.

JB: Incident B — some horrible condo course outside Hartford…

HP: I think that place was called Farmington Woods. Tightest course in captivity.

JB: Yes. It’s Wes, Trinity and Coast Guard and the course is short and tight with condos on BOTH sides of almost every fairway. White stakes everywhere. The guy from Coast Guard is tall, thin and rigid in both swing and personality. I’m telling you, he had one way to play every hole: aim dead left off the tee and hope the first half of the trajectory cleared the trees. If this occurred the ball would land on the right side of the fairway. He was not a good player — but he was even par going into the 9th!! I swear it was a miracle round and he was actually loosening up and we were having a good time. Now, why am I telling you this… Well we all know the golf gods are sometimes with us and sometimes against us, usually within reasonable degrees. Well the golf gods were not going to be reasonable for this poor sucker, not this day. The way they set this poor bastard up for the fall made me rethink my own faith. Like I said, he’s going into nine even par… the round of his life… and that 80-yard slice is working like a charm. So he gets to the 9th tee, aims dead left, straight at one of those condos — and hits the condo. No slice. Out of bounds, so he re-tees. No slice. Hits the roof. He re-tees, no slice — puts it in the backyard. He re-tees, no slice, hits the house again. Finally he takes out a 5 iron, finishes the hole and cards a 15. Poor bastard.

HP: What about the Isao Aoki incident?

RG: Lyman Meadows GC, circa 1985… My putting is a disaster at the time. Eager to try ANYTHING to shake me out of my rut, I adopt an unconventional address/stroke that seemed to be getting some traction on the practice green. Brais and I are playing an afternoon practice round with, I think, Teddy. My Aoki set up with the hands-low, putter-heel-down has been working well for six or seven holes, allowing me to sink several over 20 feet. Finally, Brais can’t take it anymore. I roll in a 17-footer and you’re standing on the apron shaking your head, incredulous, yet also disgusted: “Look at him… He looks ridiculous… but he’s FUCKIN’ DRAININ’ THEM!!!” Delivered in your Chowderhead accent of course, which made it.

JB: Gotta shed light on the Little Three foursome.

HP: This is the year we did three-way match play against Williams and Amherst?

JB: Yeah. Me and Marty Shatner, alternate shot. We have no business being in this match but I swear every time I hit a putt, the ball drops in. The other guys are pissed, as we are one up with two to play (9-hole format) after I hit a seeing-eye 30-footer on 7. It was ridiculous. Marty steps up on the 8th tee, 160-yard par 3. He makes his swing but unfortunately that swing just did not hold up. His left side collapsed like an overcooked noodle and he shanked it dead right, 50 feet into the woods. The ball MAY have gotten two feet off the ground. I remember just trying to comprehend the simple physics of that shot. I think I came to the conclusion that only Marty and a jai alai player could produce that one.

So I get into the woods and find the ball. I’d say 110 yards through bushes, trees, you know, the works… I figure we got nothing to lose and just whack a half 5 iron. It clears everything, hits a mound, launches over a bunker and ends up miraculously 40 feet from the pin on the apron. Marty steps over the putt and rolls it down — and it lips out. He almost made the putt! I tap in which means we go to the last hole all square. Poor Matt is shaking like a leaf. He steps over the ball in the fairway and all five of us literally cover our eyes and, unfortunately, that swing just doesn’t hold up…

HP: Danny, perhaps now’s the time for you to give us the Brutalization of Marty Shatner Story.

RG: Circa 1986, Herb was coming down the passenger side of that huge white van and it was parked close to another vehicle, creating a tight alley. He was trying to get by Marty (after the former had likely shot a 98 with his mind-bending swing). In what was likely just Herb clowning around, but taken by Marty as an act of overt derision by the coach, Herb shoved him against the sheet metal of the van and walked past while muttering something. Marty was stammering and stupefied, repeating to anyone who would listen in high falsetto, “Did you see that???!?!! He just shoved me. HERB SHOVED ME INTO THE VAN!!!!” If you’d told me that day Marty was Woody Allen’s nephew, I would have bought it. Piss-your-pants funny.

HP: We haven’t talked much about Herb Kenny, our coach. He was the basketball coach, too, and a good one. Was an assistant on the 1972 Olympic team, or something like that. Golf was just a lark for him, another way to snag a stipend. I wouldn’t call him fun-loving. But he wasn’t a grouch either. Danny, tell the good people how Herb screened incoming freshmen to determine whether they had the right stuff to play golf for Wesleyan.

RG: “You got shoes? You got clubs? Alright then…”

JB: That’s pretty much all it took.

HP: I will say this about Herb — in my last match as a collegiate, he trotted me out no. 1 against some dude from Williams, who was New England Champion, all divisions, and some other stud from Amherst. It was three-way match play and I had been playing no. 3 or 4 that year. He tried to pass it off as an honor, playing my last match as a collegiate, my last match as captain, at no. 1. I was like, “Fuck that, Herb. You’re sacrificing me.” He just smiled and sent me off. The miracle was, I halved the guy from Williams. When I reported in after the round, he seemed genuinely happy and impressed. “Let me buy you a beer,” and he did.

RG: I recall one spring afternoon, Herb engaging in some “coaching”… We were mustered on the practice green and he called us over, intoning:

“If you’re having trouble with your 7-iron, get out there on the range and practice your 7-iron.”

“If you’re having trouble with your 6-iron, get out there on the range and practice your 6-iron.”

“If you’re having trouble with your 5-iron, get out there on the range and practice your 5-iron.”

“If you’re having trouble with your 4-iron, get out there on the range and practice your 4-iron…”

I looked around desperately to lock eyes with someone. Anyone. I was stunned.

I was this close to asking, “Herb, are you going to go through the whole bag?!”

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