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Who's to blame in the Kansas ticket scam? The almighty dollar


You have probably heard about the crazy ticket mayhem that has been going on at the University of Kansas. In case you haven't heard, well, it seems like the last few years there was this itsy-bitsy little mix-up there where at least 17,609 premium basketball tickets and 2,181 premium football tickets were stolen from big-time Kansas buyers and then sold or used by Kansas ticket office employees. Right now, the estimate and charge is that about $1 million was siphoned away from the school and into the pockets of those employees. But Jack Focht, who led the internal investigation, concedes that he would not be surprised if the real amount was closer to $3 million. Whoops. Bit of an oversight there.

Kansas held a sad-faced press conference on Wednesday about the mess, leading Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins to become the latest person in our great land to "accept responsibility" without explaining how exactly he will be accepting responsibility. He's not leaving, that much he made clear. As Kansas athletic director, Perkins had either hired or promoted everyone involved in the ticket scandal, and he had more or less created the system that was so thoroughly abused, and he was in charge of the athletic department while this fun bit of malfeasance was going on. For this, well, let him explain:

"I accept responsibility, not for any criminal activity, but because I am the athletic director and it happened during my watch," Perkins said.

That statement doesn't exactly overflow with responsibility acceptance, does it? And come to think of it: Isn't "accept responsibility" kind of a weak statement in the first place? Accept means "Consent to receive." Big deal. Shouldn't you DEMAND responsibility? Shouldn't you INSIST on responsibility? Shouldn't you be SADDLED with responsibility? I mean, you accept apologies. You accept students to college. You accept that you're not good enough to play third base for the New York Yankees. Responsibility for millions of dollars in ticket embezzling happening in your department by employees you hired and promoted ... yeah, seems to me like "accept" is a bit light on passion.

Now, it should be said here that Kansas had several audits during the time ... and independent auditors missed the crimes as well. And Focht suggests that if those auditors couldn't follow the money, then it would be unreasonable to scream that Perkins knew or should have known -- this was obviously a well-orchestrated crime. And I'm not saying that Lew Perkins is guilty of anything more than being duped. Still, he was duped. Lew is widely regarded as one of the toughest, smartest and best athletic directors in the country. I've always admired his work. He has completely turned around the Kansas athletic financial situation ... and he has been willing to ruffle some Jayhawk feathers along the way. He gets paid -- and quite well, based on the reports that he pulled in about $4 million in 2009 -- to not be duped.

Whatever accepting responsibility means, he will have to answer to a whole lot of Kansas fans who spent a whole lot of money and didn't get the seats they paid for ... I'm not sure apologies are going to get that done.

Anyway, here's something about the scandal that strikes me: There are some people out there who are insisting that this sort of thing "happens everywhere." Stuff like: There are people stealing ticket money all over -- believe you-me, this kind of thing is not just happening at Kansas. Well, it just goes to reason.

That may be true. But it's funny how quickly this line gets trotted out anytime something goes wrong in any college sports program. When Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was caught breaking the NCAA rules for practice time, the main defense was that everybody breaks those rules. When word emerged that Kansas State offered an under-the-table $3.2 million buyout to former coach Ron Prince, the line was that every school does that sort of thing. When Memphis had to vacate its 38 victories in 2007-08 because of a series of violations including a fraudulent SAT, well, yes, it happens everywhere. And so on and so on -- find any violation in college sports and trailing it will be some form of the "It happens everywhere" defense.

Here's what makes the defense so compelling: It's almost certainly true. This stuff probably DOES happen everywhere. The truth is that major college sports has long been so much big business and -- as they say in Casablanca -- full of vultures, vultures everywhere. Well, how can it be any other way? There's SO MUCH MONEY involved.

That's what makes the "happen everywhere" defense so powerful. Think about these things simply. Think, for a moment, about the practice thing. Do football coaches cheat the system and practice players more than they are allowed?

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Football coaches get paid preposterous sums of money to win games. According to the Orlando Sentinel, here's what the Big Ten coaches made in 2009:

1. Jim Tressel, Ohio State, $3.5 million. 2. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa, $3.0 million. 3. Rich Rodriguez, Michigan, $2.5 million. 4. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State, $1.8 million. 5. Joe Paterno, Penn State, $1.5 million. 6. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin, $1.4 million. 7. Ron Zook, Illinois, $1.35 million. 8. Danny Hope, Purdue, $1.25 million 9. Tim Brewster, Minnesota, $1 million. 10. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern, $750,000 11. Bill Lynch, Indiana, $650,000

Well, they can't ALL win. I mean, we all understand that. Every coach that wins a conference game, another one loses. We all do understand. But the desire to win is so overpowering, winning is so rewarding, losing is so devastating -- this stuff affects so many things at a University -- that many schools feel it necessary to invest as much money as possible to try and make winning happen. If that means a couple million a year for a coach, hey, that's what it means.

Then those coaches have to do everything they can to win. There can be no excuses when you're getting paid that much. But how do you win? Other coaches are getting paid a lot of money, too. Other coaches are smart, too. Other coaches are good recruiters, too. Other coaches are drawing plays until 4 a.m., too. Is it surprising that a coach under that sort of pressure to win would try to get in more practice than allowed? Is it surprising that a coach under that sort of pressure would look the other way, bend rules that seem absurd anyway, do whatever necessary while reminding themselves that they're no doubt doing the same things everywhere else?

Or think about recruiting for a moment and how much a player is REALLY worth. Last year, Matt Stafford was the first pick in the draft -- and he signed a six-year, $72 million dollar deal with the Detroit Lions -- about $42 million of that guaranteed. That means that Stafford, before he ever took a single snap as a pro, was worth $42 million dollars to the Detroit Lions.

So ... how much was Matt Stafford worth to the University of Georgia one year earlier? Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., has 92,746 seats -- and they sell out every game. Georgia sells many millions of dollars worth of memorabilia and clothing. Bulldogs football fans are extremely passionate, desperate for a winner, just like most college football fans in America and maybe a little more. Matt Stafford can't be worth $12 million per year as a 21-year-old to a terrible football team and be worth $18,000 per year education plus room and board as a 20-year-old at one of the most passionate football schools in America.

I'm only using Stafford as an example because I covered Georgia football and really like Georgia and I know how much it means. This is not to get into that whole "should college athletes be paid" thing -- we can have that talk another time. No, the point here is that there's an enormous gap -- a gap that is artificially created by "amateur laws" -- between what a great college football or basketball player is worth to an institution and its fans and what a player actually receives from the institution and its fans. Is it surprising that people want to fill that gap? Is it surprising that players feel entitled to have that gap filled? A guy named Bob owns a slew of Bob's Dodge and Lincoln and Mazda Dealerships, and he would sure like for the Razorbacks or Buckeyes or Bruins to win on Saturday. Wouldn't he be more than happy to dish out 50 grand to a player or his family to bring them into the family? What's fifty grand to a rich booster when these players are literally worth millions? And what's fifty grand to a kid who comes from a family struggling to survive?

Think about tickets. The University of Kansas basketball team is the biggest thing going in an entire state. The team is good, the history is rich, the experience at Allen Fieldhouse is electric -- maybe the best basketball experience in America. People are willing to spend gargantuan sums of money to be a part of it. Again, we have that artificial gap between what price is listed on the ticket and what people are really willing to spend on it. They have sold out 147 consecutive games at Allen Fieldhouse, and there is a long line of people who are willing to pay a lot more money to get in. Is it surprising that a few clever people would figure out a way to manipulate the system, grab some tickets for themselves and make a fortune?

Is it logical to think that sort of thing is happening at other schools all across America? Sure. The big-time college sports system is flimsy and more or less guarantees that people are going to try to cheat. And a lot of people are going to get away with that cheating. Let's be honest: For all the talk, there really isn't much enforcement going on. For all the rips, the arm of the NCAA law isn't really very long.

But, even in this environment, some are going to get caught. Maybe the cheaters are not as good at covering up their cheating. Maybe they were unlucky -- their getaway car sputtered. Or maybe they were just cheating harder than everyone else. In the Kansas case, people got caught because the FBI and IRS got involved. The scandal grew that big.

So, sure, maybe everybody else does it. Maybe not. Either way, this Kansas ticket thing is probably a whole lot worse than any place else. I can't help but think about one of my mother's favorite jokes. A police officer pulls over a guy for speeding on the highway. Guy says, "You think I was going fast, you should have seen all the cars I passed."