Cheating was so much easier to understand in the '80s   

Updated: June 6, 2008, 2:47 PM ET

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In the spring of 1988, someone affiliated with the University of Kentucky's basketball program performed a remarkable act: He or she tucked $1,000 in cash into an Emery shipping envelope, sealed it and mailed it off to the father of a Los Angeles recruit named Chris Mills. It turned out, in retrospect, to be an incredibly stupid act as well, since the package fell open in transit, landing Kentucky on probation for two years and temporarily ending the coaching career of Eddie Sutton.

The 1980s vs. Today
Was the sports world better back in the 1980s? Or are we better off today? Page 2 has the answers, specifically looking at …

Weinreb: Comparing/contrasting cheating in the '80s versus today

The ballpark experience
The sports media
The SI swimsuit issue
Sports video games
Superstar athletes
Dynasties
Fantasy games
Uniforms
Endorsements
Activism
Lakers vs. Celtics

Of course, the aftermath brought a customary round of weak denials. The assistant coach whose name was on the return address, Dwayne Casey, insisted he had not sent it, and then filed a lawsuit against Emery (and wound up with a healthy settlement). But the evidence was so stupefyingly obvious, Kentucky would later admit that the envelope had left the office with the money intact (despite the claims of some Kentucky loyalists, who still attribute this to an elaborate plot hatched by a cabal of UCLA fans with deep connections within the overnight-packaging industry). By accepting blame, the university was essentially copping to the sort of unprecedented and virtually unchecked corruption that threatened to ruin major college athletics in the 1980s.

And yet today, when I think about the contents of that envelope making their way across the country, I feel strangely nostalgic. Perhaps you might classify my nostalgia for such an obvious moral injustice as "absurd." I will not entirely disagree. I will also admit that for those of us who came of age in the 1980s, nostalgia is perhaps the most powerful emotion we know. It was the driving force of our youth; it permits us to justify the continued relevance of some truly awful things -- "Top Gun," Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet" album, Jose Canseco -- that might have otherwise been forgotten.

Eddie Sutton

AP Photo

Cheating was so much simpler
in the '80s, when Kentucky basketball got busted on Eddie Sutton's watch.

But of course, this is what made the '80s the '80s in the first place: The sheer ostentatious tackiness of it all, the needless flaunting of disposable income in Manhattan bathrooms and the notion, most notably advanced by one Gordon Gekko, that only idiots -- whether on Wall Street, in Washington or on the sidelines of Rupp Arena -- abided by something as archaic as "the letter of the law." Everyone cheated, and everyone knew everyone cheated, and those who didn't cheat were generally viewed as Communist-sympathizing terrorists.

Now, it is true that there has always been corruption in sports, and that there always will be corruption in sports. But what made the '80s the "greatest" time for cheating was not just the volume (was there a Southwest Conference school -- other than Rice -- that didn't land on probation in 1985?), but the sheer simplicity of it. The moral lines were always so clear. It was easy for us to generate the proper amount of outrage at the proper people.

And this is why, when I think back to that envelope, I wonder when something as simple as cheating got to be so unbelievably convoluted.

Recently, the latest modern-day recruiting scandal broke, involving USC basketball player O.J. Mayo, who might (or might not) have been funneled money through Los Angeles events promoter Rodney Guillory, who might (or might not) have accepted the money from a sports agency and then might (or might not) have funneled it through a sickle-cell anemia charity, which might (or might not) in fact be bogus. A few years earlier, also at USC, Reggie Bush was alleged to have received six-figure financial benefits from agents, in a complex series of events that allegedly involves a house, a car, Marshall Faulk and an Indian tribe.

It is all so confusing nowadays. It is like trying to follow the timeline of a mafia money-laundering case in Mandarin Chinese. And it is all couched in that lawyerly thicket of denial we became familiar with during the past two decades, through O.J. and Monica and Pete Rose and Marion Jones and Barry Bonds, designed explicitly to generate sympathy and make our heads spin until we are so nauseous that we've forgotten the question we were asking in the first place.

It wasn't like that in the 1980s. We could see through the denials; we knew that even if Casey did not explicitly drop that package in the mailbox, Sutton must have known that someone was doing it. Everyone flaunted the rules, and no one tried particularly hard to get away with it. At North Carolina State, Chris Washburn was stealing stereos and flunking classes he didn't even know he was taking. At Tulane, they were shaving points for fun and profit. At Memphis State, William Bedford tooled around town in a Jaguar borrowed from a booster.

"College sports is an embarrassment to those of us involved," Digger Phelps, then basketball coach at Notre Dame, said in 1985.

But I would ask Digger, what have college sports become? At least in the '80s, there was a notion that, because this cheating was so close to the surface, so stupidly courageous, it seemed possible to eradicate it. At least we could talk like we still believed in the ideals of amateurism, and that this period of moral relativism was just a product of a misguided era.

We are, of course, far past that now. We still know that everyone cheats, but we can't even figure out how anymore. There are too many middlemen, too many dummy corporations. Cheating is so deeply ingrained in the system, so subtle and involved, that we have trouble even seeing it, let alone decrying it. And because all the best players in college basketball -- including O.J. Mayo -- now have no good reason to attend class for more than a semester, there is no point in even bothering to decry it anymore.

At least back then, we could pretend like our outrage mattered. Maybe it sounds wrong to say cheating was "better" in the '80s. But it was simpler, in the same way that a stack of fifties stuffed into an overnight envelope is easier to understand than a year's salary laundered through a benevolent organization that might not even exist.

Michael Weinreb's book "Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team" has been released in paperback by Gotham Books. He is currently working on a book about sports in the 1980s. He can be reached at michaelweinreb.com.


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