Something is wrong. Something is broken and nobody knows how to fix it. College football has turned into something it never was before: a corporation. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s total revenue from 2012 was a cool $871 million. To put that number in perspective, the entire education budget for 2012 by the federal government was about $180 million or approximately 21% of what the NCAA made last year. And yet, the NCAA has a rule expressly forbidding financial gains for players, beyond athletic scholarships. They could finance the education system for the entire country for 5 years, simply from last year’s take, but they want to avoid favoritism toward individual schools, and so simply keep the money for themselves. In fact, they are so rigid regarding this system separating student-athletes from money that they went so far as to erase an entire football program. The result? A successful crippling of an entire athletic program and ruining the competitive atmosphere and the university camaraderie for two decades. Now – there are more and more violations littering the news feed every year, but the latest to hit the front page might be the most troubling of all. To really try and grasp the seriousness of the recently revealed scandal at Oklahoma State University, it is important to look at how the omnipotent NCAA has dealt with past transgressions.
It started because they became too good, too fast. The Southern Methodist University Mustangs were a middling team in a powerhouse conference. They routinely played some of the finest college football programs in the country, and while they could hold their own, no one at SMU was satisfied with mediocrity. They determined that really good players were worth financial investment in order to better their football program. To be fair, many other schools were also, allegedly, doing the same thing. The problem was that SMU was better at it. The result was a recruiting class that would make Nick Saban’s Alabama machine look like division II. (Nick Saban may also be talking to some officials soon, but we’ll discuss that later.) Southern Methodist boosters, coaches, and officials essentially drafted the best high school football players they could find, and promised them payments for attending their university. Two years later they were one of the best teams in the country, and the NCAA was asking questions. When proof of rules violations surfaced, they were placed on probation. Once they were on probation, they continued to pay players and so, in their infinite wisdom, the NCAA held a conference and created a new rule for repeat offenders. The new punishment called for an elimination of the football program entirely.
It was quickly given the very apt moniker of a "death penalty." And when it was used to sanction SMU, people didn’t really know how to react. This was an atom bomb being dropped without ever testing it. As soon as the program was eliminated, nearly all of the highly recruited players left, most of the coaches left, and even once the program was reinstated the team was in shambles. They had one winning season in 20 years, and are only just starting to get a competitive program back. It has been an agonizing period for a very proud university, but unfortunately SMU played the whipping boy as the NCAA tried to show the rest of the country that they were a force with which to be reckoned.
If this tactic had worked, and the violations stopped, it would have been hard to argue against its effectiveness; only it didn’t work. College football is ruled by dollars, even more so now than in SMU’s brief heyday. In recent years, the University of Southern California was found to have also been in violation of the NCAA’s rulebook. This time, several players had received benefits (in the form of houses for relatives and cars for the players) that were in direct violation of the rules. No one is allowed to get stuff. Except of course the NCAA president who made nearly $2 million in 2011. That’s pretty much the rule. If you’re a student, you’re a student and you count yourself lucky that you can have a wonderful "free" education. No extra money for hanging out, no borrowed cars if their family can’t afford it on their own, no trying to provide for your family in the best way you know how. USC was stripped of a national title, banned from playing in postseason bowl games, and required to give up a number of future scholarships, limiting the number of players they could recruit.
It is crucial to note that when these punishments were handed down to the schools, the people who had violated the rules – the people who were actually guilty – were gone. Either at different schools, or moved on to NFL coaching positions, or as players on professional teams. No one was left but students and players who were sad their friends, coaches, and teammates had left. And unfortunately the sanctions really only end hurting the less-recruited athletes who can’t just transfer to another school, and the fans of the university teams who have to watch their program become crippled and fight back to relevance.
Looking at other examples, there are clear similarities in the recent cases of Ohio State and Texas A&M. Both happened within the last 4 years, both involved players being compensated for appearances or memorabilia, and both were prime examples of how ridiculous the NCAA rules are. The main players in question, Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, did not actually receive any compensation for their performance on the field. The violations occurred outside of school grounds and outside of the administration’s purview. Pryor and a few other Ohio State players were caught receiving free and discounted tattoos for jerseys and autographs, whileManziel was allegedly paid for an appearance signing autographs, though no evidence was ever brought forth. The takeaway from this is that the players cannot earn money for playing football, nor can they earn money because they are good at football and people recognize them. It is completely ludicrous to tell an artist in college he cannot make money off of his artwork because it’s "not fair" to the other artists. If someone wants to pay you to be somewhere simply because you’re you, why is that illegal? What possible purpose does that serve, other than inflating the NCAA’s collective ego?
These restrictions on players might appear to be reasonable, at least on the surface, if the NCAA even feigned to show some level of consistency with their sanctions; but that is of course not the case. If players and schools were given a stock punishment for first offenses it would be much more difficult to argue that the NCAA isn’t doing their job correctly. But instead of consistent punishments, the NCAA bases their sanctions on how severe they deem the infractions to be. Handing out the death penalty to SMU was meant as a message to all programs not to get caught twice in quick succession. But that rule, while excessive, was laid out plainly in the NCAA rulebook. The sanctions for first-time violators, however, have varied greatly.
For example, Oregon was found to be in violation of the NCAA’s bylaws for distributing monetary incentives to players. Apparently you can’t pay your players but you are still allowed to take $68 million from Nike to build a brand new, state-of-the-art practice facility. These incentives were not, in the grand scheme of things, any more or less worse than what was going on at USC. But instead of losing a title, and being suspended from bowl games for 3 years, and losing a large percentage of athletic scholarships, Oregon essentially received a slap on the wrist. A couple scholarships lost, and not much else. No suspensions from bowl games, no losses of Rose Bowl, Pac-12, or national title appearances. Oregon has lost almost none of its momentum as a college football powerhouse, while USC is still reeling from the blow the NCAA struck almost 5 years ago.
All of this has led to the recent allegations swirling around Oklahoma State University. The NCAA wanted to prevent the larger, more financially successful programs from recruiting players using bribes that were financial in nature. So instead of bribing players to attend their school with cash, they turned to the one thing they assumed every high school male would find appealing: no-hassle sex with a pretty girl. The "Orange Pride" program was a group of good-looking women who were selected as hostesses for potential recruits. The evidence does not show that coaches or assistants forced the girls to copulate with recruits, but many former players have said that the coaches were aware that recruits were having sex with these women. And there is some suggestion that coaches who heard the recruits did not have sex during their visit would express disappointment in the players and hostesses who were put in charge of showing these high-schoolers around. In some cases, this disappointment would result in the player who "failed" during their time as host being blacklisted and not allowed to host again.
The most unsettling thing about these allegations, at least personally, is the complete lack of surprise. Every program wants a leg-up on the competition. Everyone wants to get the players that they covet, regardless of the cost. Which means that whatever a coach can do, or thinks he can get away with, he’ll allow to happen. Whether or not he is privy to the information and details, if the program is thriving he would have no incentive to investigate, as long as that pesky conscience can be put aside.
In addition to the prostitu- excuse me, the "Orange Pride" program, Oklahoma State has also been accused of paying players cash bonuses following every game. These bonuses would be distributed by various team personnel and boosters in unmarked envelopes while players were still in the locker room. Players assumed this was fine, since everyone seemed to be getting something. Offense, defense, special teams, it made no difference. If you had a big play, your envelope was fatter. If you had a bad game, maybe your envelope was a little light that day.
Obviously the NCAA can’t simply fold and allow teams to pay their student-athletes, but something has to be done. Some action must be taken before (and I suspect it may already be too late) another school is found to have a "Blue Passion" or "Yellow Fan" program distributing the same erm… benefits… to the recruits of other schools. What’s worse, the schools that hadn’t thought of it before might already be scratching their heads trying to come up with some "foolproof" plan to begin a similar program that won’t get caught. There must be a clear message sent out. But that message should not make the schools themselves suffer. Metaphorically speaking, they can’t just keep cutting down trees if the entire ecosystem is polluted.
As was mentioned earlier, most of the sanctions handed out in the past decade have been punishments directly to the schools and football programs that were found guilty. But the actual guilty parties – the coaches, and players, and boosters – are generally free to simply leave the now crippled program and begin anew somewhere else. This leaves the football program, and all of the fans and, most importantly, the students of that university, to watch in agony as their team is left gutted and broken in front of them. What is fair about that? How, exactly, can the NCAA call that justice? Sure, Johnny Maziel was suspended for half a game, and Terrelle Pryor had to leave college a year early and declare for the draft (thus earning millions of dollars for himself, though admittedly less than he could have made sans allegations), but how is that justified when the entire population at SMU had to stand by and watch a once proud football program torn to shreds? (It’s bullshit is the answer I was looking for.)
So the NCAA can’t ignore the problem, but they also can’t simply penalize the football programs without addressing the actual guilty parties. And technically there is nothing unlawful, according to the constitution or any state’s laws, which prohibits the schools and players from doing what they want, so getting the law involved to reprimand the offending individuals is off the table. If nothing else, the farcical hunt for steroids in baseball involving Congress should be reason enough to show that a legislative avenue is probably a poor choice. With its nearly unending power over our institutions of higher learning, there has to be a way for the NCAA to come up with a real and logical solution. They might be able to work with the NFL to come up with some kind of suspension/fine program for past transgressions, as long as they occurred within a certain time frame. Or they could prohibit the guilty players from declaring early for the draft. And yet not even that would be realistic as many players and coaches leave before the sanctions are ever investigated. They know they are guilty so they simply disappear before the shit hits the fan, leaving the spray from that proverbial shit to cover the university they’ve left behind.
This is to say nothing of the allegations that have been revealed simply during the writing of this article. DJ Fluker, currently of the San Diego Chargers, admitted to taking money while he was enrolled at Alabama. Arian Foster, running back for the Houston Texans, has admitted he took money while playing for Tennessee. All of which says nothing about the academic violations that have taken place where players have had schoolwork completed for them and grades changed so that those players could remain eligible. The whole system is broken, and the powers-that-be ruling higher education have been content to stack their money and slap wrists whenever someone tries to reach a little too far. Something has got to give, and soon, because it shouldn’t take the "death" of another school’s athletic program to prove to the fans that what the NCAA is doing is, for lack of a better term, idiotic.