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When `student-athletes' are drug-free but hardly studious

OUR colleges and universities are responding to the furor over drug abuse in the same distressing and simplistic way as most other institutions are. But, though you probably haven't heard it above the din of hysteria and hypocrisy, at least one influential academic voice is finally being raised in protest. That's the voice of Stanford University, one of the country's highest-ranked schools athletically as well as academically. Stanford is one of the very few members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association that hasn't rushed forward with a testing program for ``student-athletes'' to show that it, too, is tough on drugs.

The drug testing programs are ``monstrous'' violations of constitutional rights, says Jack Friedenthal, associate dean of Stanford's law school and its representative to the NCAA.

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Mr. Friedenthal spoke out in response to a new NCAA rule that required football players to sign forms at the start of this season pledging to undergo urinalysis before and possibly after any championship or bowl game their school might play in.

NCAA's plans to extend the program ultimately to championship events in virtually all sports have drawn protests from at least one other prominent university basketball power - Georgetown - and could yet draw others. But even Stanford is unwilling to match its important words of protest by deeds. It told its football players to sign the pledge forms.

``A vast majority of schools have approved the program,'' Friedenthal explained, ``so if we want to compete, we must go along with it.''

Stanford is clearly as reluctant as any of the other schools to risk losing the piles of money available to those that ``want to compete.''

Football profits of more than $1 million a year from ticket and concession sales, and especially from granting TV rights, are common at Stanford and the 104 other schools in NCAA Division 1. Those that make it to bowl games do especially well - nearly $41 million in all for the 36 teams that made it last season. Wins, losses, above all profits - that's what the athletic departments at major colleges and universities care about.

It's hardly surprising that the schools have leaped on the drug testing bandwagon. Right or wrong, that's what the public is demanding. The surest way to make money, in the athletic business as in any other, is to give the public what it wants.

The schools naturally concentrate on such profitable image-polishing rather than to tackle the real problem that besets their athletic programs. The problem is not that some ``student-athletes'' take drugs, but that most of them are not students at all. They are full-time athletes who spend up to 60 hours a week practicing and playing, in season and out.

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``Schools pick them because they jump and run,'' says Stanford's Friedenthal. To them, ``going to class is just an annoyance.''

The athletes are recruited to help the colleges and universities win games and so increase athletic department revenue. That's what is wanted by the millions of people who attend the schools' athletic contests and by the TV broadcasters who pay the schools millions of dollars to show the games to millions of other people. They want winning athletes. They demand that they be drug-free, of course, but certainly not that they be studious.

Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball star whose cocaine-induced death in June prompted much of the furor over drugs, was allowed to continue playing last season, for instance, even though he was flunking every one of his classes. Four others on Maryland's 12-member team were also flunking all their courses, yet also playing regularly.

Many of the ``student-athletes'' are paid to play - room, board, travel expenses, and extras - out in the open and under the table - by college officials and college boosters.

Yet what the athletes get is chicken feed, only a tiny part of the money their play generates. Some do use the schools to prepare for careers as openly professional players. But less than 1 percent manage that, and two-thirds of them don't even get degrees for their efforts.

There are a few exceptions among the major athletic powers, including, of course, Stanford.

At Stanford, as Friedenthal notes, athletes must take the same courses and meet the same demanding standards as all others on campus. Yet 88 percent of the university's scholarship athletes graduate within five years.

Imagine. ``Student-athletes'' who are actually students. ``Student-athletes'' who actually earn degrees. ``Student-athletes'' with the same rights as everyone else.

Dick Meister is a San Francisco author.

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