For better or worse, inequities, scandals part of college sports fabric
The logo for the new College Football Playoff should be a man covering his eyes and ears as he smiles.
If he is covering his eyes, how does he see the game?
He doesn't, but he thinks he does, and this makes him happy.
Deep down, in places we don't talk about at tailgate parties, we know the whole system is a mess. Coaches make millions and switch jobs whenever they want. Players can't take anything the NCAA doesn't want them to take, and face all sorts of obstacles when they want to transfer.
It's OK for Oregon to spend millions of dollars to have sparkling facilities for its players. But if an Oregon alum gives a player $1,000 to pay his mom's rent, that player is ineligible.
That is the value system of "amateur" athletics. It may not be the value system the NCAA touts or wants. But it's the value system the NCAA has created.
We know all this. But it makes us uncomfortable, because while the enterprise of college football is indefensible, the sport of college football is irresistible. The games are more entertaining than in any other sport. They give us a feeling of community, and a sense of history, that the NFL can't even imagine. And so we cling to the stories about players loving their school and using their degrees, and pretend to ignore the injustices and hypocrisy.
And when somebody washes off the makeup and shows us what college football or basketball is really like, we get angry. That happened in recent years after reports about USC, Auburn, Oregon, Ohio State, Michigan, Connecticut, Miami, and North Carolina, and naturally, it happened after Sports Illustrated's recent inside look at Oklahoma State.
One former Oklahoma State assistant coach told SI the program had so many problems that, "I knew this day was coming. It was a matter of time." That quote is on the cover of SI, and an incredible number of players are quoted on the record about what happened. But you can ignore them if you want. Predictably, some players said their comments were taken out of context, and we got the expected denials and attempts by Oklahoma State to use compliant media folks to spin the story in the Cowboys' favor, even before the story was published. And it reminded me of this:
"When this is all said and done, everybody will see at the end of the day that we've done nothing -- absolutely nothing wrong."
That was Reggie Bush, to ESPN, after Yahoo! reported he received illegal benefits. Four years later, Bush admitted to "mistakes" and gave up his Heisman Trophy.
If you tell 1,000 college football fans that players are getting paid under the table, and that many programs don't have much interest in their players' academics, most of them will agree. But tell them it happens at their school, and they will go nuts.
And if it does happen at your school, I'm here to help. Write down these phrases, and stick them in your wallet next to your alumni-association credit card: disgruntled players, misquoted, agenda, it happens everywhere, biased reporters, jealousy, why don't they look at (whoever your rival is) because they're the ones who are REALLY cheating.
I know some Oklahoma State fans will find this hard to believe, but the purpose of these stories is not to get a school in trouble with the NCAA. Oh, that may happen here, but most NCAA sanctions are ineffective, and the SI series comes with an escape route for Oklahoma State: The Cowboys can find themselves guilty of violations under a previous coaching staff, self-impose some minor sanctions, and sell the NCAA that the program was cleaned up before SI wrote a word. It doesn't matter if it's true. It's a compelling defense.
The purpose is not to shame players for taking some money, or boosters for giving it. As I've written many times, I don't think the NCAA has any right to restrict the income of a student.
The purpose is to show how the sport's machinery works. We can debate the merits of amateurism all day and night (pausing from noon to midnight on Saturday, of course), but the real story of amateurism is that it is not tenable. The NCAA asks thousands of people to act against their self-interest, and heck, the NCAA doesn't even say "please". Of course many of those people ignore the request. They always have and always will.
In the meantime, we have some rather large questions to answer, such as: Why does Oklahoma State University exist? Well, here is the very first item under "Prohibited Conduct" on the school's student code:
Academic integrity violations, including but not limited to cheating, plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, and fraudulent alteration of academic materials.
The SI series presented some serious evidence that the prohibited conduct happened, and that it was essentially tacitly sanctioned by the university. In different circumstances -- the kind that did not affect the fortunes of its football team -- Oklahoma State's administration would thoroughly examine allegations of this nature. But many Division I universities are so determined to protect their brand and comfort their donors that they forget the central mission of their schools. It is much easier to blame outsiders asking questions than force insiders to answer them.
For most of us, these reports are the equivalent of somebody standing between you and your television during a crucial fourth-quarter drive. We know what college football is like, but we don't want to talk about it or hear about it, because we are too busy watching college football. That former Oklahoma State coach was right. The day that the report came out was inevitable. So were the days that followed.