ON THE front page of the morning newspaper, the salaries of Gary Williams and Ralph Friedgen were posted like a war bulletin. Mike Plater stood there in the sunlight of the Cloverdale Playground, at McCulloh and Cloverdale just off Druid Hill Park, and said he didn't want to talk about it. He watched a bunch of guys shooting baskets on three courts. Even their sweetest athletic dreams don't connect with the world of Williams and Friedgen, the high-end capitalist coaches at the University of Maryland.
"How much money you think Gary Williams makes?" two of the older, worldlier playground players were asked now.
"That's a pretty important job," said Herbert Lynn, 28, who makes his living as a plumber. "Gotta be $70,000."
"You kidding?" said Eric Armwood, 52, who drives a bus. "The man won a national championship. He gotta make near $100,000."
Armwood thought about this for a moment, then figured he might have overstated his estimate. "But that's only 'cause he won the national title," he said. "If he didn't win it, I'd say $40,000."
But Mike Plater didn't want to talk about this, because he knows better. The morning paper said Gary Williams makes $1.3 million a year coaching men's basketball in College Park, and Ralph Friedgen makes $1.1 million coaching football there. Plus incentives.
For a little perspective, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland that employs these men, William Kirwan, makes $375,000. The governor of Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., makes $140,000.
A fair argument can be made that Williams and Friedgen get more money because they do their jobs better than Ehrlich. But this bypasses the real problem: the value system of a country where the coaches of college sports, laughingly referred to as "amateur" competition, can earn nearly 10 times the money made by those with serious jobs - and one more sign of the gap between the nation's financial elite, making a fortune conducting circuses, and all those who watch from a distance, barely understanding the enormity of that gap.
And this is why, on the morning of the great salary revelations, we drove to McCulloh and Cloverdale, where basketball is considered religion and Mike Plater a secular holy trinity. He has been coach and commissioner and father figure here for the past 24 years. Under him, thousands have played league basketball. The pro stars Carmelo Anthony and Sam Cassell and Muggsy Bogues played here. So did Maryland stars such as Keith Booth and Ernie Graham.
Plater does all this work as a volunteer. Now 70 and retired from Crown Cork & Seal, he waves off any odious comparisons of his payoff to Williams' or Friedgen's. It's too easy. Williams and Friedgen didn't create the world in which they make their handsome livings. They just learned to cash in on it, as did college coaches around the country.
"What those guys do isn't about coaching," Plater said. "It's about big business."
But the business offers a false glitter. "The players win a national title," says Plater, "and we tell 'em, 'We done made a million dollars off you tonight, son.' The school makes money, the coaches make money, and any kid who doesn't make it to the pros, he's left with what?"
The sense that he chased a false dream. The sense that a world was created, out of young people's ambitions and television's big dollars, that utterly distorts the notion of college as an oasis of idealism and learning, untouched by the big-money manipulations of the outside world.
Now Plater noticed three teen-age boys shooting around. One of them, Qortez Lee, 17, seemed to have the basketball on a yo-yo string. He swept it this way and that while whirling and spinning. Plater watched from a distance, not entirely with pleasure.
"I try to tell 'em, it's not what you do out here, it's what you do before you get out here," he said. "Ask 'em about classrooms. Ask why they're not in school right now." It was just before noon. "They're chasing that dream, and the dream's all out of proportion."
This newspaper spent time and money urging state courts to release coaches' financial records. It isn't just about huge salaries paid to state employees. It's about "education" in a society where those who teach linebackers to throw forearms into Adam's apples are more highly rewarded than those who teach the fine points of suturing a bile duct.
Williams and Friedgen make a lot of money because they bring in a lot of money. Williams can earn up to $1.87 million with bonuses and incentives. Friedgen, up to $1.47 million. What brings them bonuses? NCAA tournaments and bowl games. Also, bonuses for players who actually graduate.
Do psychology professors get the same bonus? Of course not. The assumption is: TV sports bring in money. The assumption is not: A strong psych department attracts academic excellence, which enriches the greater community as these psychologists graduate.
At the Cloverdale Playground, where basketball is religion, not one player had even the vaguest notion of the money out there.
"Hell," Mike Plater said again, "what I do is coaching. What those guys do isn't coaching, it's just business."
The mistake is confusing one for the other.