The gridiron and the classroom

For those who have been ranting and raving about this subject for about four decades this ought to amount to some sort of moment of redemption.

The lid is off. The truth is beyond dispute. No one with sense enough to come in out of the rain will stoop to argue the point. The pathetic hypocrisies and abject double standards that have sustained the system's runaway corruption are at last fully exposed. Not even the silliest yahoos to whom the gridiron glories of good old Winsocki are dearer than life itself will defend the nuttiness of the business any longer.

Big time college football as practiced by the roughly five score schools of alleged higher learning that have sold their academic souls for a shot at the Orange Bowl stinks. It is that simple.

No need to stop the presses. This is hardly "news" nor is it productive to pretend otherwise. Colleges and universities -- including the nation's most prestigious -- have been deploying academically ill-qualified "ringers" to beef up football programs since the game was first taking shape on the campuses of what are now ranked the swankiest schools in the land. It's been an inside joke for a century; one that provided satirical fodder for such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, and Philip Roth along the way.

But then in the 1960s television officially devoured the game. Subsequently, tons of money became available to programs willing to produce zesty gridiron entertainment. Coaches and athletic directors adept at bending the rules inevitably followed abetted by a generation of supine college and university presidents only too willing to shuffle their responsibility for policing the domain over to a guild of charlatans called the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The joke was complete with the widespread embrace of the preposterous thesis that the road to a certain academic eminence runs through the Gator Bowl. Old grads flocked aboard the bandwagon while the popular media cheered the giddy spectacle, every inch of the way.

And that, in the proverbial nutshell my friends, describes how what one learned observer has called ..."the sleaziest ethical lapse" to afflict higher learning in the last half century so casually came about.

The scandal of course is not confined to football. Other games -- most notably and profoundly basketball -- have also been tainted. But none is as big as football; none played in stadia seating upwards to a 110,000 people; none obliges the maintaining of at least 80 full "scholarships" every year; none commands the extended support system of whole regions, entire states. College football is an industry in this country and when you consider its role as the virtual farm system of pro-football it is a mighty powerful industry.

All of which makes the avalanche of scandal that has lately buried the game the more stunning. Could it be the system -- so honeycombed with decay and deceit -- is at last crumbling? It is hard not to cheer.

The capper is the outrageous case of Nevin Shapiro, the rogue super-fly of a Miami University booster who all by himself managed to befoul the Hurricane's football program all of the 21st century.

Now in jail for running a $900 million Ponzi scheme, Shapiro was a swaggering U-Miami donor. He funded a student lounge and amenities for the basketball program to the tune of $200 grand. Via such largesse, he easily ingratiated himself with the football program becoming a dominant presence. He's believed to have corrupted at least 72 Miami players -- all regulars and many stars -- with gifts of sex, cars, drugs, and assorted booty. Eight key players on this year's squad are now suspended and Miami's program, one of the richest and most potent in college football history, may soon be too.

The Miami mess is a classic case, if a bit extreme. Shapiro was an obvious "nut," though did he fool everybody. Ex-Miami Coach Randy Shannon saw through him, terming him "poison" and banning him from any connection with the team while warning his assistants that consorting with him would be a firing offense. Shannon himself was fired last November because his team won "only" four games. Perhaps Miami's president -- a former cabinet officer in the Clinton Administration -- might like to reconsider that particular move.

More importantly, just how a major and some would say "great" university could get into such a ridiculous mess is a question that deserves to be studied deeply and carefully. For it's hardly just a sports story.

On its own, the Miami fiasco would have rocked the boat. But it climaxes a string of sordid revelations of monumental abuses in the college game coming over a period of mere weeks. The collective weight of it all could yet prove crushing. Or at least, one so hopes.

There was the cheap fiasco concerning rampant improprieties at Ohio State, historically even a mightier program than Miami's, leading to the ruin of OSU's vaunted coach, Jim Tressel. Which came on the heels of equally mighty USC being stripped of a national championship, an unprecedented punishment. Which included the defrocking of the Heisman honors of Reggie Bush, one of the most celebrated sporting heroes of his generation. The flood becomes a torrent.

Along the way 10 more major programs are tapped for investigation by the so long rather passive NCAA. Among them are three esteemed programs long regarded as paragons; North Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Michigan. We are no longer just talking about renegade rascals like the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, boys.

It's a bumper crop of problems and the drumbeat is ceaseless. Last week, the University of Central Florida -- a fast rising power -- got called on the carpet. The next day two stars (including the QB) of highly rated LSU got arrested for a bar room brawl. The day after that, a record-smashing Tulsa receiver considered a near certain first-rounder in next spring's NFL draft is arrested for grand larceny. The drumbeat is daily and only gets louder.

There are other issues; the conference-jumping of major teams, the billion dollar television deals the big conferences are commanding, the continuing furor over all TV money. What all of this has to do with the aims and principles of higher education is the one question no one wishes to deal with.

How to cope with the mess? Well, we still have those astounding stumble-bums of the NCAA, so gifted at survival. They claim to have reformed themselves again and recently conducted a summit of the presidents of 50 major football-power universities, allegedly seeking answers. Critics of the NCAA are unmoved. They suggest if you wish to guarantee the inmates remain in charge of the asylum, empower the NCAA to clean up the mess which they've largely been responsible for creating.

There's no better authority on the subject than the Washington Post's John Feinstein, a devoted student of the issue and apostle of reform. Feinstein writes:

"For once, Government needs to intervene. College football and men's basketball are multi-billion dollar businesses being run as an illegal cartel. So don't say Congress or the President shouldn't be wasting time on sports. If Congress and the President make it clear to university presidents that the system is completely unacceptable and they'll lose all the tax breaks they currently enjoy if they don't do a complete tear-down that will force action!" Amen!

In the meantime, we need to remember that roughly 80 percent of the colleges and universities that field football programs at some level of play are not "big-time," don't commit the infractions the "big-timers" revel in, sincerely represent their schools, and play a wonderfully spirited game every Saturday in splendid Autumn. You should check it out. For the best and brightest of them perform right here in New England.

May I suggest you start with the annual Holy Cross-Harvard tilt the third Saturday of September and close with the eternal grudge match of Williams and Amherst the second week in November. Tickets will be available and you are guaranteed to see college football played as it was originally intended that yet remains ... genuine.

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