In the annals of college football scandals, nothing about the details tying the University of Miami -- which started its season Monday with eight players missing after NCAA sanctions -- and dozens of its student-athletes to a rogue booster turned Ponzi-scheme convict seems all that fresh or uncommon.
If the claims of felon and former Miami superfan Nevin Shapiro and the reporting of sports journalism's itinerant watchdog Yahoo! Sports are to be believed, there were extravagant parties at South Beach nightclubs and on million-dollar yachts, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash handouts, and pimping.
Of course, even the reaction among sports writing's pundit class sounds vaguely familiar, with renewed calls for Miami to drop its football program, tut-tutting about selfish kids, and a continued assault on the ideal of college athletes as amateurs who are students first.
Nothing has changed since at least 1989 when Rick Telander, a former Sports Illustrated contributor and onetime football star at Northwestern University, published "The Hundred Yard Lie," arguing that the sport's black market has been thriving since its origins as a rugby-style game played among a few well-heeled Northeastern colleges. "Under-the-table money given to athletes, ticket-scalping, phony entrance exams, doctored transcripts, clandestine recruiting visits," he wrote, "it is stuff that has been going on since the NCAA formed back in 1906 and will be going on as long as the NCAA exists."
See, there is nothing new about pointing out the corruption and hypocrisy within big-time college athletics. You are neither a genius nor a visionary if you're righteously indignant that Reggie Bush had to return his Heisman or that A.J. Green couldn't keep the money he made selling his game-worn jersey to a fan.
So what is new? Well, that would be the blue-ribbon reporting arm of Yahoo! Sports. Over the past five years, Yahoo has built its sports journalism brand and reputation by unearthing huge scandals in the athletic departments of the University of Southern California (USC), Ohio State, Oregon, North Carolina, and even reigning NCAA basketball champion Connecticut. Yahoo's investigations may have directly led to USC being stripped of its 2004 national championship and saddled with a two-year postseason ban; Bush being pressured to forfeit his Heisman; and the recent resignation of Jim Tressel, Ohio State's most successful coach in 30 years.
Naturally, this has rubbed some the wrong way. Jason Whitlock at Fox Sports, Tommy Craggs at Deadspin and, to a lesser extent, Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald have all taken shots at Yahoo's work in recent weeks. Whitlock, who once referred to Yahoo's reporters as "slavecatchers," wrote that Charles Robinson's Yahoo exposé was "sensationalized" and "unfair." Craggs compared the story to "exposing the folly of our drug laws by exposing every drug violation across the land." LeBatard, while praising Yahoo's effort in other venues, found it all a futile exercise because "we somehow keep trying to police the anarchy instead of the government that keeps creating it."
Their arguments come from a good place: The NCAA's rules legitimize the artifice of amateurism, which promotes cheap labor and empowers and enriches an entire class of administrators and athletics officials. It's been that way since President Theodore Roosevelt called for college football reform in the early 1900s after a number of injuries and deaths, prompting several schools to drop the sport. That reform initiative led to the creation of the organization later known as the NCAA, which soon took control of the game from mostly student-run programs at the nation's top colleges.
Since then, student-athletes have never regained their claim to the revenue they generate, in part because the NCAA and its member institutions created a byzantine rulebook that aims to preserve that inequity. Yahoo's critics complain that because of that, Yahoo's splashy investigations lend credibility to the NCAA's rules, gin up resentment of student-athletes (more of them brown and poor than ever before), and leave a trail of ruined athletic careers in their wake.
"We somehow keep trying to police the anarchy," LeBatard wrote, "instead of the government that keeps creating it." However, they all seem to believe the impetus for meaningful reform to college athletics will come without the hard work of interviewing frauds like Shapiro and digging into thousands of pages of court documents. As if merely yelling about the unfairness of the system is incentive enough for change.
But these entrenched interests at the NCAA and at colleges and universities around the land have little motivation for reform. Why would they? They have concocted a government-backed scheme that profits grotesquely off the unpaid labor of kids from urban jungles, rural backwaters, and all points in between.
If you think a free education and a shot at the NFL is fair compensation, consider a recent NCAA survey showing that players at college football's highest level spend nearly 45 hours a week in practice or games. How do you think you'd fare as a full-time student if you also had a full-time job for which you weren't paid and risked head trauma as part of the daily grind?
That Miami's 2011 season kicked off on Labor Day -- a day meant to honor the contributions of those who fought for protections of workers -- was a delicious bit of irony for those who have long advocated on behalf of the only uncompensated labor force in college athletics. It's the reason that, even back in 1915, The Atlantic Monthly's William T. Foster lamented that "only childlike innocence or willful blindness need prevent American colleges from seeing that the rules which aim to maintain athletics on what is called an 'amateur' basis, by forbidding players to receive pay in money, are worse than useless because, while failing to prevent men from playing for pay, they breed deceit and hypocrisy."
If well-crafted arguments against the NCAA's fierce defense of amateurism were all it took, Miami senior quarterback Jacory Harris and his seven other suspended teammates would have played in the Hurricane's season-opening loss at Maryland on Monday night and then been handed a game check on the way out of the locker room.
That's not how this all works. Our best hope for reform is with dogged reporters like Robinson, who regularly expose this hypocrisy through their work and not merely their voice. Change comes in laborious increments that often don't feel like change in the moment. The victims -- in this case, Harris, Bush, Tressel, Green, and many others -- are the collateral damage of every meaningful victory.
At some point, the penalties will prove only that the NCAA's rules are the problem and not the student-athletes who make fall Saturdays special. It seems inarguable that reigning Heisman winner Cam Newton brings much more value to the sport than ousted college football powerbroker and Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker, who was accused of financial misconduct of a much higher magnitude than Newton's father and yet received a fraction of the coverage.
That Junker was quickly run off -- following a devastating investigation by the local newspaper -- after 30 years of ingratiating himself within college football's bloated bureaucracy suggests that we are on the cusp of real change.
With every new pelt that Yahoo collects, it becomes clear that the current system is untenable. The two schools that played in last year's national championship game -- Auburn and Oregon -- are currently under investigation. And, as The New York Times noted recently, "at least 10 major college football programs -- including those at institutions esteemed for academics, like Michigan, North Carolina and Georgia Tech -- have been investigated or punished by the N.C.A.A. in recent months."
By the time the NCAA and others are done sorting through the mess in Coral Gables, Miami, more schools will probably join the list. Soon there will be no school left to punish, no school eligible for the big bowl money, no programs worth shelling out big TV money for. And no running away from the fact that we should try something different.
Exposing systemic corruption is a strategy Telander might have agreed with.
He finished his thoughtful commentary in a closing fit of frustration: "One of the main reasons I wrote this book with such a sense of high indignation is because I knew from my research that almost everything I was going to say had been said before. And nobody listened. Maybe, I figured, if I screamed louder than anybody else, a few folks would hear me."
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