Friday, April 1, 2011

Dr. Saturday Pleads for Reason

Matt Hinton, Dr. Saturday of Yahoo Sports, writes today that the NCAA may have to explore paying college football players.  "It may also have no other choice," he says.

With HBO and ESPN aggressively reporting multiple  possible violations at a host of top schools, the push for widespread reform and a new deal is growing.  Currently there are inquiries underway at Auburn (allegations of a pay-for-play scandal and booster handouts to players), Ohio State (free tattoos, and Jim Tressel's coverup), Mississippi State (where the trail of odiferousness began in the Cam Newton recruitment), Oklahoma State (Dez Bryant reportedly "borrowed" $600,000 in jewelry, sports tickets and cash), and North Carolina (agent payouts).  A former Texas A&M coach says Will Lyles shopped Jim Thorpe Award winner Patrick Peterson for $80,000 four years ago (wow, the price of top college football players is going up faster than gas). 

Lyles, of course, is the name that got Oregon mixed up in this mess.

The crux of Hinton's argument is stated forcefully:

That's the reality for the most well-trained, well-staffed, well-funded institutions of law enforcement in the world. The NCAA is not one of these institutions. It does not have a squadron of investigators. It does not have subpoena power. It can't tap phone lines or obtain search warrants. In fact, the swiss-cheese barrier between the people willing to pay to satisfy the demand for first-class athletes and the athletes themselves wouldn't exist at all if it wasn't persistently manned by the media, or didn't occasionally intersect with real law enforcement. The virtues of "amateurism" are debatable enough as a hypothetical ideal; as a practical matter in the age of replica jerseys, luxury boxes and billion-dollar television deals, they're absurd, as the never-ending tide of headlines and shocking exposés continues to make abundantly clear.

It's clear to NCAA president Mark Emmert, too. Which is why his new pledge to lead a serious discussion about increasing the athletes' cut of the pie at next month's NCAA meetings is less the cry of a crusader than the last gasp of a man throwing his hands up in futility...

In short, the desire to win is fanatical, the supply of elite athletes is limited, and enforcement is lax and inept.  Everybody cheats, or operates in the gray areas.  The allegations and whistle-blowing have become so frequent and so shrill that it's difficult to maintain a facade of shock and outrage.

College football needs to stop the hysteria and rework the gentlemen's agreement that governed the sport for a hundred years.  Keep the opportunistic and slimy middle men out of it.  Keep the agents and their runners off campus.  Pay players in the way top schools always have, but have some discretion and sense.  $600,000 in jewelry, apparel and tickets?  Reggie Bush's family in a 2.5 million dollar house?  This is the age of Outside the Lines and Sports by Brooks.  The boosters have to police themselves.  Coaches and athletic departments have to maintain some order and organization.

College football is a beautiful game.  It has history and tradition, passion, color and glorious enthusiasm.  But lately the NCAA, the schools, the bowl organizations, the players and their handlers have been like sharks with a few buckets of chum in the water, thrashing in circles, biting off each other's tails.

Emmert needs to show some real leadership, and guide the sport to a workable, understandable, orderly compromise.  College football can't afford to squander momentum right now.  With the NFL in labor chaos, it's a perfect time to capitalize, but that's only possible if the NCAA can keep the focus on the game.

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