By Patrick Hruby
Special to Page 2

Greetings, salutations and, above all, congratulations. All of you gathered here today -- except Maurice Clarett -- are living, breathing proof that classrooms and film rooms need not be incompatible, that the term "student-athlete" is more than a cynical marketing device of the BCS football cartel.

Maurice Clarett
Maurice Clarett isn't in the NFL, or the Class of 2004.

Also, none of you was good enough to turn pro early.

That said, chin up: You are now the proud owner of a college degree, a towering accomplishment that no one can ever take from you. Unless you studied under Jim Harrick Jr., in which case there isn't much to take away in the first place.

As you venture forth into the Real World, or perhaps a spot on a different reality show, you will quickly discover that a diploma not only looks nice in a frame, but also opens the doors of opportunity. After all, Borders and Starbucks don't hire just anybody.

For those of you who will play in a professional league next year, or even Major League Soccer, a few words of advice are in order.

Many of you have devoted countless hours to your favorite games, sacrificing both academic and social life in an effort to achieve mastery. While your dedication is laudable, be warned: Madden Football and NBA Live 2004 are hardly the real thing. For one, you can't edit your speed rating after Randy Moss smokes you for six. And two, Steve Spurrier still has a job in Madden, since the 2005 edition won't hit stores 'til August.

Likewise, keep in mind that the world of pro sports bears little resemblance to ESPN's short-lived series "Playmakers." Granted, drug use, promiscuity, locker-room fights, closeted gay athletes and cameo appearances by Snoop Dogg are inescapable aspects of big-league life. However, it is highly unlikely that all of the above would happen to the same team in a single season, partially due to the law of averages and mostly because Barry Switzer and Gary Barnett aren't coaching in the pros.

Some of you may be tempted to try performance-enhancing drugs. Others may find them in the bottom pouch of your official pro baseball starter kit, next to the pre-chewed sunflower seeds and salary arbitration FAQ. I implore you: Steer clear. Cheating robs the game and the fans, the same way a $7.50 stadium beer does. Adding an asterisk after your autograph gets tiresome. And think of the kids: If today's Little Leaguers start 'roiding up on THG and HGH, you and your oversized, Barry Bonds-shaming noggin will be out of a job that much sooner.

Remember, too, that drug habits are expensive. Never mind the cost of procuring biochemically-engineered supercompounds that can escape detection; the legal fees alone will burn through your signing bonus faster than a $5,000-a-month clothing allowance and a stable of pet tigers.

Time was, you could plausibly deny any knowledge that the South American nasal decongestant in your travel bag contained enough banned stimulants to resurrect Tupac. But no longer. In the here and now, anti-doping authorities don't even require a positive drug test. They simply need what is called a "non-analytical positive" -- which, translated from the original Latin, means that someone has to finger you. So you're going to need a good lawyer. Preferably Kobe Byrant's.

At some point, Class of 2004, you undoubtedly will hear a coach, a teammate or even yourself liken sports to war -- and if you don't hear it on tape, immediately deny that you ever said it. Simply put, no good can come from this parallel. Sports is arguing over who gets to shoot the ball; war is arguing, followed by actual shooting.

In sports, you can buck the draft and end up in New York City; in war, your options are Canada and Mexico, which puts you in the same boat as Jeff George. And while wartime occupiers are seldom greeted as liberators, the opposite is true in sports -- at least when the road team in question is the Los Angeles Lakers.

If you compare yourself to a soldier, or call an opposing player "gay," or simply try to pass your aluminum foil-wrapped stash through an airport metal detector, you might find yourself delivering a public apology. More likely, you will find yourself mouthing an eloquent mea culpa written by your agent, or perhaps your team's media relations staff. Caution: don't wade into this situation blindly. Insist that the apology include the fans, your teammates, the organization and your sponsors.

Kobe Bryant & attorney
If you need a good attorney, you could call Kobe Bryant.

Oh, and the victim, too.

Also, make sure that you don't actually apologize for your actions or the dunderheaded stupidity that led to them. Rather, apologize for the victim's feelings of distress. For example: I'm sorry you're upset about me shooting your limo-driving father while I was blotto and playing with the loaded shotgun I like to keep around the estate.

Try that for yourself. See how easy it can be?

As I gaze upon the bright young minds and future NFL analysts arrayed before me, I am reminded of the refrain from G'n'R's "November Rain": Nothing lasts forever. And we both know hearts can change.

This is doubly true in sports. Always understand that it can, and will, be over in an instant. One moment, you're a Super Bowl MVP; the next, you're backing up Eli Manning. Or buried at the bottom of the Detroit Pistons' bench with a lousy dye job.

So save your money. Invest wisely. Never sign anything handed to you by Don King, not even a baseball card. Yet also be assured that it ain't over 'til it's over, and sometimes not even then. Sports is a magical realm of second acts, and not only for the reprobates and drug cheats.

When your playing days are finished, when you've thrown the last pass, hit the last homer, poured bubbly Cristal down the arched-and-tattooed lower back of your farewell lap dance, you'll find that you can go home again. Back to the ballpark, the stadium, the four-star hotel. Only this time, it will be as a broadcaster.

And if that doesn't work out, there's always sportswriting, be it from the esteemed pages of SI or with a part-time gig right here at Page 2.

Of course, the latter should only be considered as a worst-case scenario fallback plan. And probably not even that.

Patrick Hruby is a sportswriter for the Washington Times.