Commentary

Scandals damaging game's reputation

Originally Published: June 13, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The 2010 BCS champion is under NCAA investigation.

The BCS ordered its 2004 champion, found guilty of NCAA violations, to give back its crystal football.

The bowl that hosted the BCS title game in January revealed that its executives went to a strip club and took a golf junket to Pebble Beach on the nonprofit's American Express.

The U.S. Department of Justice wants answers from the BCS about possible antitrust violations.

[+] EnlargePryor/Tressel
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteNeither QB Terrelle Pryor nor coach Jim Tressel will be back with the Buckeyes after the scandal at Ohio State.

The head coach of the dominant football program in the Big Ten resigned after lying and covering up NCAA violations. The program's best player, alleged to have sold memorabilia for tattoos and autographs for money, left school -- presumably in a new car -- last week rather than remain for the second half of his senior season. He already had been suspended for the first five games.

The head coach of the Big East co-champion resigned under pressure last week after reports that he had sabotaged the appointed successor he didn't want.

And that's just football. The NCAA has suspended the coach of the men's basketball champion for the first three games next season, but one scandal-ridden sport at a time. If you're looking for problems that range from money to politics, from the Pacific Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains, college football lives there.

Judging by the money that networks have pledged over the last year for television rights, college football has never been more popular. And judging by the headlines, the sport is up to its headgear in ethical quicksand.

Once Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, a man who wore his rectitude on his sweater vest, admitted he had misled the NCAA, Diogenes put down his Lantern (the lamp, not the Ohio State student newspaper) and gave up on searching college football for an honest man.

OK, it's not that bad. But even Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, a coach and an athletic administrator who has fueled a 50-year career on natural optimism, said he is concerned.

"There are some things that went wrong," Dodds said. "They are very public and that's what people focus on. … The positive side is like 98 percent. The negative side is like 2 percent. But right now we're swimming in the 2 percent."

Others are not so optimistic. They see the scandals breaking with the natural rhythm of waves at the shoreline.

"It is very understandable that an element of skepticism, of cynicism, has become part of the current thought process," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. "I think [NCAA president] Mark Emmert put it well. We may have lost the benefit of the doubt at the moment with the public."

There is no common theme to the violations, alleged or proven, listed above. Current BCS champ Auburn remains under the cloud of NCAA investigation. Tennessee has recruiting issues. The BCS vacated USC's 2004 title. Ohio State came under NCAA scrutiny about players, including now-departed QB Terrelle Pryor, receiving extra benefits. The BCS kept the Fiesta Bowl in its championship rotation, but fined the bowl $1 million for its transgressions. Bill Stewart is out as West Virginia's coach, replaced by Dana Holgorsen. Ohio State and Tennessee coaches admitted to misleading or lying to the NCAA.

There's something for everybody. But what, when taken together? Is this a case of the pendulum of human nature swinging back toward the bad old days? Many of today's coaches are too young to remember the lawless 1980s. Dodds is the last athletic director in place from the late Southwest Conference, which cheated its way into oblivion.

"Oh, not even close," Dodds said. "The '80s were worse. The '80s were as bad as they could get. This pales to what was going on in the '80s."

[+] EnlargeMike Slive
Darrell Walker/Icon SMISEC commissioner Mike Slive thinks the sport needs a thorough self-examination.

NCAA vice president David Berst, the lead investigator in the SMU death-penalty case a quarter-century ago, doesn't suspect that history is repeating itself, either. Berst said that the electronic trail of evidence left behind by most violators has made the NCAA's job easier. He-said/he-said cases are rarer today. More likely are he-emailed/he-responded cases. That is what tripped up Tressel.

"I would tell you it would be very difficult for me to catch those things," Berst said. "The agent issues in my day were private and secret. With the advent of social media and instant messaging and the ability to learn so much so fast … I just think probably today it's more likely that you can uncover [a violation] and treat it in a public way than I was ever able to do. There may be more. There either is more or it's being uncovered more frequently than I've ever been able to do."

Slive is not quite that sanguine. He called the rash of recent cases an anomaly. But he isn't saying, "This, too, shall pass." He called for the industry to perform a thorough self-examination. He pointed to legislation that the SEC passed at its 2010 spring meetings that gave the commissioner power to levy suspensions.

Slive suspended Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl for the Volunteers' first eight SEC games in the 2010-11 season for knowingly violating NCAA rules regarding contact with prospects and lying to NCAA investigators about it. The university fired him after the season. Given that SEC schools have a long, persistent history with the NCAA enforcement process, Slive believes his police powers represent the change of heart that he hopes all of intercollegiate athletics will go through.

"Some of the things you've lumped together that's created this thing," Slive said, "has to do with how people behave. We need to hold them accountable. … Part of what all of our folks wanted was to accept our history and be proactive in dealing with it."

Slive wants to re-establish the public trust that he believes intercollegiate athletics has squandered. What he referred to as the benefit of the doubt is really the veneer of respectability attached to the sometimes sordid and entirely human desire to win at all costs. The benefit of the doubt keeps alive the belief that college sports are different than the pros. It is all the other sports that help produce the doctors and lawyers and teachers who make up the cast of those NCAA commercials we mute before running into the kitchen for a beer and a sandwich.

Those aren't the sports that generate the revenue. Those also aren't the sports that generate the headlines or, of late, the headaches. It may be, as Slive put it, an anomaly. But it is also reality.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com