The California courts and the NCAA are currently grappling with the question of whether college athletes should be paid for their services. It is a story that deserves to be reported. But because it involves numbers and is not as sexy as covering the election of a new Pope, most are reluctant, even afraid, to tell it.
I am not afraid because I have sources I trust and people with calculators on my payroll, plus one guy with an abacus. And I don’t care who the next Pope is, although I wouldn’t mind an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome to be on the lookout for white smoke billowing from the Vatican, which means that the College of Cardinals, aka the Redbirds, have elected a new dictator without any suggestion of quid pro quo or extortion and that by then there’s just enough time for one more bowl of cacio e pepe and a bottle of fruit-forward Aglianico del Taburno with a charming soft-tannic finish before flying home. (Note: Faulkner could not have penned that sentence any better.)
Few people know the secret I’m about to reveal. Even fewer are likely to believe a word of it. But in fact, I became a professional athlete—a baseball player to be exact—when I turned nine. You read that right. Nine, as in an x-to-a-higher-power number—an equation my team is currently trying to solve.
I was the catcher for the West Side Weasels, a ragtag outfit of underprivileged (so we were told) neighborhood youths. Our sponsor was Big Nick’s Saloon and Spaghetti House—a neighborhood joint that few of its neighbors dared to frequent. Nick’s customers were men who drove black Cadillacs and wore black suits with white neckties. Some of them might have had guns. (One can’t be too sure of these things.) They all had colorful nicknames that often referred to missing fingers, and really fancy-looking girls who made funny coo-ing sounds.
Big Nick was everything one could imagine and then some—from the scar down his left cheek and ears that looked like roasted cauliflower to a pinky ring with a diamond the size of a pistachio. Because he was found bound-and-gagged in the trunk of his 1963 Coupe de Ville in Las Vegas (his death was ruled a suicide), it is safe to reveal certain other facts about him.
Nick was big. Hence, the name. His last name, translated from a Sicilian dialect, meant “Who wants to know?” He had wavy black hair pomaded fast to his scalp. He had a way of speaking English without ever uttering the “th” sound, although that can be said about most Chicagoans. And stuffed in the corner of his mouth was an ever-present cigar the size of an enchilada, a food item we hadn’t heard of in the late-50s. Nick loved baseball and let everybody know he did by keeping several bats in strategic locations under the long bar at his West Side establishment. The story was that when he batted, he never struck out. Sandwiched between a bad Chinese restaurant and a Martinizing Dry Cleaners, Big Nick’s had its motto printed on the front door: “Don’t Ask.”
The long-form version was “If Yuse Knowz Whazz Goot fer Yuse, Don’t Ask.”
Big Nick treated us well. He bought the Weasels brand-new equipment that first year, and black T-shirts and black baseball pants. Each numbered shirt was emblazoned with “Big Nick’s” across the back. We had fitted baseball caps and new gloves, all the latest catcher’s gear and shoes with steel spikes that were sharp enough to cut open a second baseman’s leg from ankle to knee, which we were encouraged to do.
We had everything the Chicago Cubs had, but we had better pitching.
After each game, we went to Big Nick’s for bowls of spaghetti and meatballs. After Friday games, we’d have linguine with clams. We’d eat at a big table in a big back room that had the biggest chalkboard I’d ever seen—floor to ceiling, with numbers scrawled on a grid by some guy named Eddie whose pock-marked face had earned him the nickname of Moon. He always had a wad of papers in his hand. I thought it must have something to do with insurance because he kept saying something about “policies.”
Anyway, while we Weasels were eating the spumoni tartufo we always got for dessert, Big Nick would walk around the table, giving each of us congratulatory noogies. Then he’d give each of us a ten-dollar bill. One time we lost a crucial game and Big Nick gave us twenty-dollar bills, big steaks and warm zabaglione spooned over French-toast slices of orange-flavored baguette with fresh strawberries that was simply divine, not to mention lushly fragrant. He and Eddie then shared a private moment, during which we all heard the phrase “sports book.”
Gah fig-ya, huh?
The NCAA would like to keep organized crime out of college athletics, although we all know it’s too late for that. And the NCAA would also like to ignore the fact that baseball, track and field, wrestling, lacrosse, swimming, tennis, rugby, soccer and beach volleyball, as well as all women’s sports, even exist. The NCAA likes basketball and football because they are the big money tickets, especially football.
In the meantime, the NFL would like to keep every single one of the billions of dollars it collects from television rights, ticket sales, franchise fees, parking, team jerseys, beer and smokeless tobacco. The NFL is so greedy and cheap that when a field goal or extra point is attempted, they put up a big net so God-forbid some fan who paid in the neighborhood of a semester’s worth of college to sit there in sub-zero weather won’t be able to claim a $35 football as a souvenir.
Major League Baseball has testified that it operates its own farm system to grow its players at its own expense, and allows fans to keep foul balls and home runs, to which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell—in court and under oath—uttered the word “chumps.” For the record, Goodell makes in the neighborhood of $35 million a year to tell his bosses what to do. (Where do people find these jobs?)
The NFL argues that it wants its future players to remain pure until their days as dedicated scholars in the demanding world of academia are over and they transition to the professional gridiron. The real reason for this approach—other than money—is so that when the players’ likenesses are shown on television, the player can proudly state “Stanford” or “LSU” rather than the more accurate “San Quentin” or “Leavenworth.”
As a compromise, the NFL has convinced the NCAA to band together in several lawsuits seeking to prevent college athletes from being compensated in the form of salaries, expenses, benefits, bribes, luxury automobiles, hookers, sex-change procedures or bail bonds. The two entities have suggested to the Court that a third party be allowed to pay the athletes in the form of endorsements. So far, the Court is “considering” the motion, thereby giving the NFL and the NCAA continued access to all the money they can grub.
What this boils down to is that a starting linebacker for South Delaware College of Farriers can make any deal he wants with Nike or Pete’s Clam Shack, which in all likelihood is zip, but will not be compensated by the responsible parties for a 60-hour work week or the injuries that seem to accompany repeated blows to the head over the course of four years.
I wish Big Nick was still around. After a nice bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, Nick could take a little batting practice. Eddie could make book.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
8 large egg yolks
½ c. granulated sugar
¾ c. sweet marsala wine
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¾ c. whipping cream
In a copper or stainless steel bowl and using a whisk, beat egg yolks with sugar.
Blend in the wine. Place bowl over a saucepan with simmering water, stirring in one direction with a wooden spoon, until stiff peaks form.
Stir in vanilla.
If serving warm, fold in cream that has been whipped until soft peaks form. Serve spooned over small slices of orange-flavored French toast and garnished with fresh fruit and orange zest.
If serving cold, chill egg mixture in ice water. Whip cream and fold in with cold egg mixture. Serve in parfait glasses, topped with a dollop of whipped cream.