Don't dress down Barnett by himself

Updated: May 19, 2004, 5:53 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

The commission tossed the line out there almost casually in the middle of its 50-page report on the University of Colorado football scandal, really as a preface to a larger point rather than a statement in itself.

"There is widespread agreement," the report stated, "that sex and alcohol have long been staples of recruiting activities here and nationwide."

Really? Nationwide? Widespread agreement?

Or would this fall into that vague general sporting category of a nationwide, widespread nudge and wink?

Understand what is happening in Boulder as it relates to the world of Division I elite college athletics: The curtain is being pulled back on the don't-ask, don't-tell mindset that infects the NCAA all over the place. What is being revealed is not "widespread agreement," but rather the deeply ingrained jock culture of secrecy and subsequent denial.

This particular case, that is, is about what happened within the Colorado football program. But don't forget about the nudge and the wink.

No, the nudge and the wink suggest something at once both quite grander and quite stunningly more sleazy. They suggest, as the Colorado commission's own report clearly implies, that procuring sex and alcohol (drugs, too, though the report provides no specifics) for high-school recruits -- or, by golly, at least being absolutely sure that the potential for self-procurement is there -- is something that is occurring more or less continuously across the country's major NCAA programs.

And you'd say that was merely Colorado's cheap attempt at diffusing the blame, except that the rest of the commission's report does place blame squarely within the Buffs' program. It points at the athletic director, Dick Tharp, and university chancellor Richard Byyny, for adopting the classic Ostrich Position with regard to the sleazy side of the football operation; Tharp is particularly ridiculed as a man heard often to speak of the need for "plausible deniability" among top athletic department officials when it comes to the out-of-control behavior of their own scholarship athletes.

It minimizes coach Gary Barnett's pious ongoing position that he's essentially blameless in the deal, pointing out that Barnett and his staff didn't supervise their recruits' visits closely enough and that the coach adopted an "unproductive, defensive attitude" when recruiting changes were suggested to him.

Mostly, though, the Colorado report could serve as the blueprint for scores of other investigations into top programs around the country. It makes clear not so much what needs to be done as what already has been committed in the way of transgression and high-level covering up.

And it very strongly suggests that (insert your favorite D-I powerhouse here) stands just a lawsuit or two away from being held up to the same harsh light currently being cast upon Boulder. A couple of people stepping forward, maybe, is all it takes.

Frankly, that last bit has the ring of truth. There's no point in spending another moment on the Colorado scandal if it's going to be taken as a shocking exception to the rule.

I can think of few more futile exercises than a national sporting referendum on the Buffs if it serves no purpose beyond making other D-I programs feel either superior or relieved. They should feel neither. There are no unique circumstances in Colorado, none. The very most that one can argue is that Barnett's program (or, to be specific, the program Barnett inherited and then controlled) was approaching an extreme of a systemic misbehavior. No one -- no one! -- can argue the case in a vacuum.

For all the high-mindedness inherent in the NCAA's decade-old shift toward more proactive involvement by university presidents in their athletic departments, the cynical truth is that the money still carries the day. Athletic departments at the highest levels are still judged by the games they win and the revenue they produce. The pressure to sign the top high-school recruits in the moneymaking sports hasn't lessened a bit, not one bit. And when it comes right down to it, coaches like Gary Barnett will generally be much happier not to know every sordid detail of the good time had by their No. 1 wide-receiver prospects in for a weekend visit.

The coaches don't want to know. The AD's, generally speaking (and there are of course exceptions to every generality), don't want to know. In the Colorado case, even university president Elizabeth Hoffman falls into the hole, criticized by the commission for failing to act on the growing recruiting scandal until pressured to do so by the governor of Colorado and other leglislators.

It's the nudge and the wink that the NCAA's executives have to realize they're fighting here, not some above-board "widespread agreement." The only widespread agreement in high-stakes college recruiting is that the world at large is better off not knowing about it -- that fans and administrators don't really want to see how the sausage is made.

Unless that mindset is eradicated, either from the inside or the outside, Colorado's will be merely the program that happens to be in the headline right now. The headline itself will stand.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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