Cash flows freely in college sports

Lonnie White went from Asbury Park, N.J. to USC in 1982. While there, he set a single-season record for kickoff return yardage in 1986 that stood until 2010. White played under John Robinson and Ted Tollner. He earned his degree and went on to a career as a writer at the Los Angeles Times. White also wrote a book on the UCLA-USC rivalry. For the first time, he reveals he received money while playing at USC:

Imagine an empty lot with a young college football player sitting alone in a parked car late at night. After a few quiet minutes, a luxury sedan arrives and headlights flash.

That’s the sign for the athlete to move. He starts an uneasy conversation with the driver, but that chat does not last long before the two exchange bags and part.

Once back in his own car, the player smiles when he looks into a small brown bag filled with money. It’s $5,000 cash, and it could not have come at a better time.

Sounds like a bad movie. It isn’t. It was life for me when I played college football at the University of Southern California in the 1980s. If I were caught, my actions would have had an impact on thousands connected with the program.

To this day, it’s something I’m ashamed about. Rent was overdue, and my household bills were delinquent. I needed the money to live. So accepting the $14,000 in different forms of “benefits” over my college years three decades ago was an act of survival.

Bending rules to benefit a player has a long history in college football.

According to my father, Elwood White, a two-sport high school standout at Montclair (N.J.) High, it was a problem in the late 1940s when he played at Morgan State, a historically black university that dominated competition under coach Eddie Hurt.

It was an issue when colleges recruited my brother, Tim White, a two-sport All-American at Asbury Park (N.J.) High, in the 1970s, and it was still a concern when I went through the process in the early 1980s.

In many ways, it’s really not that difficult for college football players to establish connections to outside money sources. It starts with an upperclassman who takes new players under his watch, forging relationships connected to playing the same position on the field or being from the same hometown.

When I enrolled at USC as a freshman in the fall of 1982, my main upperclassman role model was my brother.

As a crafty fifth-year senior, Tim was a true connection to tradition at USC. He played on two Rose Bowl-winning teams and was a member of a national championship squad.

But Tim also knew about the other side of college football.

By the time Tim began to be recruited in the late 1970s, USC’s football program already had a negative reputation for “pushing the envelope” when it came to following rules. As a result, two of the five seasons that my brother played for the Trojans, they were blocked from appearing on television and in bowl games because of NCAA or Pac-10 penalties.

It didn’t take long before I noticed that my brother seemed to have a great relationship with a wealthy USC football supporter. Whenever Tim had a financial problem, his answer man usually responded.

Unlike other upperclassmen, who often assume roles as deal brokers within a program (keeping first-year players from meeting their benefit sources), my brother loved taking me along to meet our “money man.”

We would use the meeting as a joyous occasion, but for most of my freshman year, I didn’t exactly know how the process worked. This was before cell phones, and my brother kept me in the dark when it came to details. I just remember taking a variety of items, from signed footballs to player-issued season tickets, to our benefits source in exchange for money, usually cash.

Even though I knew what I was doing was wrong, it seemed like everyone I knew who played college football enjoyed some type of extra benefits as a player.

My money source was season tickets. Every scholarship player was given four home game tickets and the option to purchase an additional four.

These tickets often sold for more than face value and that’s how I ended up alone in the parking lot waiting for a brown bag drop off.

By then, I was a senior who had learned this side of college football from my brother and his classmates.

It must be noted that all this went on without the coaches’ knowledge. That seems hard to believe. It is true, though. At major programs, the pressure to win and the time commitment the coaches put forth toward the program itself leaves major opportunities for players to interact with people who have a different agenda.

For example, during my senior year, I had a strong game at Washington State, scoring a touchdown and building up solid kickoff return yardage that left me ranked in the top 10 nationally.

The following week, a fledgling agent began to wine and dine me, because he felt I was a sleeper NFL prospect.

He would give gifts — sneakers, sweat suits — and paid household bills. He would also pass along cash, not major money but “get-around” money.

He ended up dropping me, wouldn’t return calls and, instead, wound up representing my former roommate, Ron Brown, a late-round pick by the San Diego Chargers.

With today’s media in love with scandals, people would have a field day with some of the “unknown” things that happened within college football programs decades ago.

Everything from $100 handshakes (when players are slipped cash during meet-and-greet events) to sponsored party trips (often featuring women, sex, drugs and alcohol), would be exposed.

Even my recruiting stories would have been interesting. For example, the amount of tickets and free transportation offered by Rutgers would certainly have had a couple of days life as an Internet story, and the private plane Notre Dame sent to fly me to South Bend would at least be blog material.

(After I declined to commit to those schools, their attitudes changed — immediately. Instead of driving me to my home after my trip to a Rutgers game, I was dropped blocks away and my father had to pick me up. And, Notre Dame left me snowed in at an airport when it came time for me to return to New Jersey.)

It also should be noted that I understand that every college football player’s experience is different and there are many athletes who never receive money or illegal benefits. But it would not be wise to think that it doesn’t happen or that it only involves cut-throat successful programs. Or that it has stopped.

I know at least five athletes, who are either a relative or close family friend, who played at the BCS level last season. And they all agree, there’s more rule-breaking going on than people know.

It’s the “dirty secret” of college football that will continue to grow as money and power is connected with the sport.