WHEN THE first installment of SI's five-part series appeared last week Jimmie Tramel, a sportswriter for the Tulsa World, offered this assessment of the reaction in Stillwater: "Oklahoma State feels like they won the anti-lottery." The implication: Everyone is doing it. That is, this unflattering portrait of big-time college football could just as easily have been painted with the school colors of innumerable other programs.
When our team of writers and editors conceived of this project nearly a year ago, the goal was straightforward. We weren't interested in scolding players—and more than 60 of them spoke on the record, independently, and on tape—or casting them as the sole agents of corruption. (The Dirty Game is so much bigger than that.) We weren't interested in following what one colleague calls the "NCAA scandal train." (In the last month alone, it has made stops in Tuscaloosa, Chapel Hill, Knoxville and College Station.)
But as the need for reform in college sports becomes increasingly urgent, we thought it was essential to ground the discussion in detail by taking a deeper, longitudinal look at a BCS program. How does it all go down? How do the corrupt practices—which many fans accept with fatigued indifference—play out? What are the incentives not to cheat? And after they're done running through the tunnel and onto the field on fall Saturdays, what toll has the system taken on the players?
Consider the educational experience of many who don't become stars. Come to our school—we think you're terrific! Be part of our family! Here's a few hundred bucks; we both know it's against the rules, but take it anyway. You're struggling with classes? Don't worry, we'll find you easy majors, friendly faculty and even write your papers. You're battling a substance-abuse problem? We may not have effective counseling, but we do have ways of keeping you on the field. And what's this? You're injured or underperforming? Well, we can't really help you anymore, and we sure can use that scholarship. Thanks for coming, and welcome to young adulthood!
Why did we write about the Cowboys? In barely a decade they had transformed themselves from a Big 12 laughingstock into one of the country's most successful and profitable programs. Senior writer Thayer Evans, a native Oklahoman, had begun hearing from sources that the turnaround in Stillwater had been aided by illicit practices, and his early reporting supported those claims. Former OSU players and assistant coaches spoke candidly about what they had experienced and witnessed. Their accounts were remarkably consistent. Senior writer George Dohrmann, one of our veteran investigative reporters, was brought in and reinterviewed several sources and independently interviewed others.
On whichever side of the ideological aisle you stand, whether you came away from our series believing Oklahoma State to be Gomorrah U or Pro Forma U, the stories reflect BCS football programs as they really are today. If "everyone" isn't doing it, plenty are. And why wouldn't they?
College sports may be exempt from taxes, but they are not exempt from economic forces, and that's at the heart of the problem. In 1995, Walter Byers, the NCAA's executive director from 1951 to '87, wrote that "college amateurism is not a moral issue; it is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice." He was right, but at one time the trade-off was a relatively fair one: A college athlete (labor) received a full scholarship (capital), and the university (firm or government) used his services to fill the stands on Saturdays. But as schools have turned their athletic departments into mini-industrial complexes—with their own licensing deals, conference television networks and enough money sloshing through the coffers that the annual salaries of assistant coaches can top $1 million—the labor market in college sports has become distorted. Even using the most charitable math, star athletes are grossly undercompensated relative to the value they create.
We've seen how this plays out in other contexts. When markets don't work freely, there are "corrections"—from black markets to tax loopholes to financial innovations on Wall Street. They're all attempts to get around restrictions. Players will find a way to get paid, and schools will devise creative ways to pay them and to keep them on the field.
There are differences, though, between a distorted market for blue jeans and a distorted market for college sports. For starters, there is the human cost. Stephen Colbert once called college football "an internship with concussions." The reality is that despite single-handedly subsidizing the athletic department, football players often have the lowest graduation rates of any team on campus. (The rate is disturbingly low among African-Americans.) The perception is that college athletes are awarded four-year scholarships, but very few schools extend this offer; the rest continue to give four one-year scholarships, renewable at the school's discretion. At OSU, for instance, during the program's ascent only slightly more than half of its players graduated. Suddenly discarded and without the support system and the marketable skills, many returned to their hometowns feeling exploited and emotionally dented.
College football is also different from other markets because an entire culture is built around it. Teams represent our tribe, our region, our school ... us. And discussion—to say nothing of an investigation—can promote painful self-examination.
BCS FOOTBALL programs do many wonderful things for athletes, but we call them factories for a reason. Maybe, in the wake of the findings detailed in this series, what can be said about coaches Les Miles and Mike Gundy is that they understand the realpolitik of their professions, that they, in fact, are highly compensated CEOs of a multimillion-dollar business who are paid seven figures to seek every competitive advantage.
The winds are, unmistakably, shifting. The Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, which could result in billions of dollars in payouts to current and former athletes, is the sword of Damocles hanging over the NCAA. The revelation that the NCAA had been trying to profit on Johnny Football's uniform likeness even as it pondered sanctions against the Texas A&M quarterback for allegedly accepting money for his autograph at least lent a banana-peel humor to the more serious questions of hypocrisy and greed. We only need to walk down eight flights in our building to find another publication—TIME—last week declaring on its cover IT'S TIME TO PAY COLLEGE ATHLETES. Yet polls show that a majority of Americans favor preserving their college athletes' amateur status. For all the many fans who believe that the NCAA needs to be dismantled or at least reinvented, others contend that the college presidents effectively running the place need to strengthen the organization.
Then there are those who are scandal-desensitized; everyone is doing it! Six-figure crowds are a curious form of protest if the system is so broken, which is to say that plenty of people like their college football just the way it is, thank you. But the NCAA is more than a large brick building of faceless bureaucrats in central Indiana. It is the schools themselves, the presidents, the athletic directors, the coaches who willingly and enthusiastically accept millions of dollars of taxpayer money to fund their programs. It is no less a form of corporate welfare than the stadium subsidies that elicit far more rancor, and far less apathy, among the public.
Maybe we start by agreeing on this: College sports may be flush with cash, but the culture is, in too many ways, bankrupt. The only way to effect change is by first understanding the way the Dirty Game gets played.
If "everyone" isn't doing it, plenty are. And why wouldn't they?
CHARLIE NEIBERGALL/AP; PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI PREMEDIA