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We're still watching, but not with blinders on

Published August 31, 2003

Isn't it good to see news of college football beginning to cook?

FSU, after months of off-field turmoil, opening its season at North Carolina's idyllic stadium, allowing the 'Noles to escape into a cocoon where challenges are more sporting and less litigious.

Florida's Gators christening an expanded Swamp, selling an opener with San Jose State to 90,000, among whom mass conversation quickly turned to, "This was nice, but how are we going survive next week at Miami?"

USF, having experienced Oklahoma last season, jumped to the Big Bear planet in the Alabama galaxy. Accelerated growth for college football's ambitious babe ... but by now it is apparent these Bulls are chasing dreams not fantasies.

Campus athletics have long been dear to me, but I've never been so staggered by concerns ... about decadent attitudes, institutional and personal greed, distorted values and the sickening viruses that keep turning coaches into lunatics.

Cheating to sign or retain athletes has long been odious university stuff, but the scope of sins has terribly ballooned. You know the ugliness that has gone on with football coaches at Alabama and Washington and basketball profs at Iowa State, St. Bonaventure and Georgia. Worst of all, the nauseating Baylor basketball mess.

Seemingly on every NCAA level, on most every campus, there are crushing, egomaniacal demands for acclaim. Win at any cost. Getting money to afford any cost. So much pressure. So many shenanigans.

Some coaches cheat. Some are slow to punish players for off-campus wrongs. Some administrators choose to be oblivious and/or gutless.

I want to keep enjoying the competitions. Hearing the excited crowds. Seeing the athletic excellence. Noting the clean, heroic personal melodramas. But to do it while wearing blinders, blocking out troubles so real, well, that's about as sporting as a kick in the gut.

So we watch ... in all ways.

GOODNESS: For a few years during the prime of Pete Sampras, history's biggest tennis winner was our neighbor, living in Tampa Palms, down the block from Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer.

If you ran into Pete in a restaurant, on a golf course or at a Lightning or Bucs game, the personality was admirably consistent - gentle, humble, shy, courteous, caring. Don't we wish every jock of note merited such a report card?

There was a warmth, a tingle at my shoulders, when Sampras was cheered into retirement at the U.S. Open on Monday, a year after going out a hero, shocking critics by winning a record 14th major title.

How about his future? Pete is just 32, with prodigious wealth from a $43-million career. Married to a beauty. Father of a darling son. Living in a Los Angeles mansion. Life could be terrific for the Samprases for, say, the next 50 or 60 years.

It's always easy for outsiders to suggest ways for the rich to invest time and money. But, knowing his demeanor, I would like to ask something of Sweet Pete.

How about getting involved with something that can be a civic wonder and a personal joy? Put your heart, soul and clout behind a project that can do much good.

Pete, ask your old rival, Andre Agassi, about his pet project. In a less glittering section of his neon-lit hometown, Las Vegas, today's most magnetic tennis name creates all operational revenues for a prep school that is to expand to full K-12 operations by 2009.

Or maybe it could be something like the involvement of boxer Oscar De La Hoya, who gave $1-million to a charter high school.

Tiger Woods appears to give a lot to his foundation for kids. Many athletes attach their names to community work; some doing just enough to reap P.R. value but, thankfully, there is a good number who work at it with sweat, heart and wallet. Derrick Brooks comes to mind.

You're a good man, Pete Sampras, heading into a lovely stage of golden existence, but I'm thinking you might agree ... there are too many money-sacking athletes who are less than prone to truly give back? Why does Michael Jordan keep coming to mind?

- Whatever happened to Carl Lewis?

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