Commentary

The charm of the college sports sham

What would reform do to the NCAA and the BCS? Make them less popular, for openers.

Originally Published: April 2, 2011
By Bomani Jones | Special to ESPN.com

This week was a bad one for big-time college sports. An internal review found several examples of financial irresponsibility behind the Fiesta Bowl, including some of the suits who run the game showering strip clubs with company cash. PBS' "Frontline" explored Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit against the NCAA, an attempt to break the organization's perpetual ownership of its players' likenesses. HBO's "Real Sports" featured four former Auburn football players who claim to have received improper benefits from a number of schools during the recruiting process. And ESPN's Kelly Naqi uncovered allegations that a "trainer" might have solicited monetary bids for the right to sign current LSU star Patrick Peterson to a letter of intent several years ago.

Ed O'bannon
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenFormer UCLA star Ed O'Bannon has issued a legal challenge to the NCAA system.

The particulars of each scandal are shocking, but in truth, the charges are nothing new in the world of big-time intercollegiate athletics. Who, at this point, could be unaware that the institution of amateur college sports is a farce?

That the sham has continued so long says one thing: People care enough to read the stories and watch the reports, but they prefer the lie to the truth.

Some are frustrated with what, at times, looks like an unwillingness on the part of the NCAA and the BCS to come to grips with apparent transgressions of the laws of decency, economics and common sense. Others are optimistic that the bright lights of these and other scandals will bring about a new day. Even NCAA president Mark Emmert lent some credence to that optimism, saying his group will consider providing additional money to players to cover the gap between their scholarships and the true cost of school.

But don't hold your breath. Over the years, lots of folks in positions of authority have discussed a playoff for the Football Bowl Subdivision, too.

This recent spate of bad publicity comes after a nine-month, scandal-ridden period that has seen everything from free tattoos (see: Ohio State) and sold game-worn jerseys (see: A.J. Green) to outright, flagrant dishonesty with the NCAA from one of its most respected coaches (See: Ohio State again). And here's the best one: A self-appointed whistleblower of yesteryear is staring down the barrel of a show-cause finding from the Committee on Infractions because he lied to investigators about something totally inconsequential (see: Bruce Pearl).

Yet nothing of substance will change.

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
AP Photo/Terry GilliamOhio State coach Jim Tressel might not have told the whole truth about what he knew and when he knew it.

We've known the NCAA's idealism is just a sales pitch since SMU boasted "the best team money could buy" back in the mid-'80s and since those photos surfaced in 1991 of UNLV's Anderson Hunt, Moses Scurry and David Butler in a hot tub with Richie "The Fixer" Perry. We've known it since Bob Huggins, an academic All-American as a player at West Virginia, coached teams that had graduation rates of zero at Cincinnati.

And back before "we" were around, they probably knew it when Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma Sooners went on probation in 1956 for some of the same kinds of offenses those former Auburn Tigers alleged this week.

There are many reasons people don't want college athletes to be paid, but the most compelling argument against it might be this: The public has never shown an overwhelming interest in semi-professional sports. Minor league baseball is hardly a television draw, and the United Football League is not likely to replace the locked-out NFL in the hearts and minds of football fans this fall. And should the NBA find itself in a work stoppage next season, the NBA D-League will not ever be a satisfactory alternative.

Millions and millions of Americans, however, will watch college football and basketball, even as the UFL and NBADL feature better players from top to bottom -- the college stars of yesteryear.

Why? Because the NCAA's charade helps, not hurts, our enjoyment of the games. The concept of "amateurism" still carries enough cachet to strike a chord with man's internal desire to overcome what's in front of him, and doing so in the name of something larger than him. In the myth of the NCAA, the ideal college athlete gives everything for dear ol' alma mater, putting him or her on the same plane as those in the stands who cry after losses. They give fans pride and purpose. They are stars on Earth, too humble for the sky.

In this day and age, it's a fairy tale, but it feels good. Or, at the very least, it feels better than watching the news.

Minor League baseball
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainWe don't exactly turn out in droves for the minor leagues. Do we really want to think about college football and basketball like that?

The top tiers of college football and basketball are essentially minor leagues, but not even the most hardened cynic wants to experience it like that. We would all love to believe that somehow schools find dozens of kids with 99th-percentile athletic ability, the brains to earn degrees and the time-management wizardry to pursue a legitimate course of study. That notion is as phony as the WWE, but grown people attend "WrestleMania" for the same reason 100,000-plus file into Michigan Stadium on home Saturdays: pretending costs them nothing.

Beyond the ethics of it, the right and wrong, why does anyone care if big-time college sports are founded on a make-believe premise? The only truly aggrieved parties in this game are the players who take on the physical risks and are asked to play along for the sake of others. They're voiceless, unable to mobilize and turn their numbers into power, and too often they're dependent on their ability to play to save them from the lives they left behind. Changing their lot in life would require either an institutional emphasis on improving their education or an NCAA decision to pay the labor a fair wage in currency rather than services.

The former means college athletes who are less dedicated to sports. The latter could make a school such as Ohio State no different than, say, the Triple-A Columbus Clippers.

No one wants either of those options. We all want what we already have. And if we don't want that, why hasn't anything changed?

Bomani Jones contributes to the Page 2 blog and hosts "The Morning Jones" from 7 to 10 a.m. on Sirius 98, The Score Satellite Radio.

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Bomani Jones is a contributor to ESPN.com.