COLLEGE PARK -- The latest threat to all that is good and noble in college athletics is a 21-year-old basketball player here named Duane Simpklns. He is being pilloried for parking tickets. He ran up $8,000 worth of these tickets over several semesters before University of Maryland officials finally caught him. I wish to this Duane Simpkins. From him, I could learn.
Among other things, I wish to learn how he dodged school officials for "a couple of years." How was he able to keep registering for classes with all these unpaid tickets? How did he avoid having his car -- his father's cars, actually -- impounded? And, mostly, what tips could he pass on to the rest of us who are prone to such problems?
Also, I wish to tell this Simpkins kid, who has found himself on the front pages of newspaper sports sections for a week, about the legacy he carries on. Exact figures aren't kept on these things, but the suspicion is that Simpkins has set a school record for parking tickets. This is important to me because, as near as I can figure, the previous campus record-holder was a kid named Olesker. Yes, that Olesker. And the record-holder before that was a kid named Carl Bernstein. Yes, that Bernstein, the Watergate guy.
Here's the difference between Duane Simpkins, Carl Bernstein and me. Simpkins has a jump shot. Whoops! Sorry, we were talking about parking tickets The difference is, Simpkins seems to be paying for his mistakes. First, with money. Second, with another mistake.
He got suspended from three Maryland basketball games because he attempted to pay off about $2,000 worth of his tickets with a loan. The loan was considered improper because he got it from a former coach, Donnie Gross, and National Collegiate Athletic Association rules prohibit athletes from receiving "preferential treatment . . . because of the athlete's reputation or skill or pay-back potential as a professional athlete."
That's what Simpkins gets for trying to do the right thing. There was no attempt to cover up the loan. Gross wrote a check to the school and signed his own name. The school refused to take it. The NCAA thinks it has the look of pampering about it, and goodness knows we can't have pampered athletes. On this campus, there are 10,000 student parking spaces- but 32,500 students. There are roughly 10,000 faculty and staff members, who have their own spaces, plus untold numbers of daily visitors in cars, who have no parking spaces.
Duane Simpkins might have done what Carl Bernstein and I did with our parking tickets: Bernstein dropped out of school, and I got my tickets fixed by a friendly cop.
Some years before Bernstein became famous for uncovering the Watergate scandal, he was a reporter for the Diamondback, this school's student newspaper. When I joined the Diamond back a year after Bernstein's departure, the legend was that he'd left school because he hadn't paid off all the parking tickets he'd amassed.
So, minus his diploma, he talked his way into a professional newspaper job, and several years later, he and Bob were bringing down the Richard Nixon White House.
Meanwhile, I was running amok with parking tickets here. The summer before my senior year, I'd bought an old Plymouth for $1,000. It had a tendency not to start on all days on which a cloud passed over, but occasionally it got me around to various reporting assignments.
At night, I'd park on the little lot outside the journalism building here as we put the paper to bed. Why not? There were almost no other cars around. But campus police, making their rounds, would nail me for not having the proper sticker for the journalism lot.
I had about $300 in tickets-not quite in Duane Simpkins' league, but pretty serious money 30 years ago. So I went to a campus police lieutenant I knew. He had a sense of perspective. He understood this wasn't homicide, it was just a kid who'd parked in the wrong place when it really didn't matter. He tore up my tickets.
(A mixed blessing. Tickets fixed, I didn't have to leave school like Bernstein. Thus, he got to break the Watergate story that should have been mine.)
Duane Simpkins can't get away with such things. He's part of the great American process in which we build up people -- athletes, politicians, movie stars-and then tear them down.
Are college athletes pampered? Yes and no. They get a free ride, but for most of them it's a deadend trip. No pro career, no fabulous TV commercials. Just four years in which they practiced for hours every day while their classmates were taking it easy. Four years in which the TV cameras measured their every move and crowds of people turned on them if they threw an errant pass, or missed a jump shot-or ran up too many parking tickets.
Is $8,000 excessive? Absolutely. But it's parking tickets. If he'd skipped a few practices because he couldn't find legal parking, this thing would have been settled long before now.