As the College Football World TurnsPosted on by wade evanson (wadevanson)
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What do Barry Bonds and Ohio State football have in common? Both cheated when they didn't have to. The world of college football is in the midst of being turned upside down, inside out, and any other superlative description for tearing away at the innards of an entity in question. Since February of this year, media outlets abound have taken their cuts at a sport seemingly on the fast track to the top of the American sports heap. With the NBA and NFL either currently in the thick of or on the brink of potentially catastrophic work stoppages, college football finds itself superbly positioned to make a run at two significant slices of Americana. Yet, while the college game has its sights set on the elite of American sports, the NCAA is waging war on its own...with a little help from those who cover it.
Since December of last year, a myriad of college football's "finest" have found themselves squarely in the crosshairs of muckrakers nationwide. From Yahoo to ESPN, CBS Sportsline to Sports Illustrated, and bloggers such as Sports By Brooks and the Bleacher Report, journalists coast to coast have and are taking it upon themselves to police a game which for years has been neglected by its authority.
For decades the NCAA has routinely been laughed at by fans, media, and even the institutions for which it governs, but times they are a changin'. At the close of spring practice, we're left with a plethora of story lines which, when combined, resemble something close to a daytime drama.
Ohio State's Jim Tressel, once thought to be a beacon of integrity, is neck deep in a filthy scandal consisting of tattoos, questionable car deals, and a web of lies big enough to cover the campus, Columbus, and maybe even the entire state of Ohio.
The Oregon Ducks were fingered by Yahoo Sports and repeatedly slandered with regurgitated allegations by Sports By Brooks regarding an "above average" payment to a recruiting service involved in the recruitment of now red shirt freshman Lache Seastrunk. The recruiting service in question's owner Will Lyles was connected to a number of different universities, including LSU and Texas A&M, and was accused by some of providing asking prices for players such as former LSU safety Patrick Peterson. Lyles denies such allegations and maintains his services were entirely legit.
Boise State - everyone's darling in recent years - was recently slapped by the NCAA with numerous violations involving a number of different sports including football, and is awaiting punishment which will likely be a slap on the wrist relative to the sizable hammer the NCAA has swung and most likely will swing again.
The 2011 BCS Champion Auburn Tigers have put down roots on the NCAA's radar screen, primarily due to the never-ending Cam Newton dilemma. While seemingly cleared prior to last season's title game, word is that time is the only thing standing between Auburn and a full-blown investigation. After all, the "big game" is over and one needn't look farther than Ohio State (see the 2011 Fiesta Bowl) to see how college football's ruling body likes to operate.
HBO recently ran an episode of its investigative sports show Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel in which it fingered a number of universities, including Auburn and Ohio State, for offering and paying potential recruits for signing on the dotted line. While merely hearsay at this point, the piece offered testimony from various ex-players who chronicled in detail the money which they were offered and, in some cases, how it was delivered.
The aforementioned are potential targets of what some are calling the "new NCAA," and in regards to such, there's a new sheriff in town. More than a year ago Mark Emmert was named as the successor to ex-president Myles Brand and has pledged to stiffen penalties "in a way that provides some sort of constructive fear." What does that mean? Likely little good for Ohio State and others who have or will cross the lines set forth by Emmert and his NCAA.
As it should be.
While college football has always tested the limits, it's recently been straying further and further from home. As the sport has grown, so too has the money, thus resulting in players and programs nationwide exploring innovative methods of circumventing the rules. Recent developments regarding "street agents" the likes of Will Lyles and activities such as 7-on-7 camps have allowed third party opportunists to prey on unsuspecting prospects, and programs a shortcut through the gauntlet of college recruiting. What was once a process consisting of a player and his family, high school coach, and the prospective college recruiter has become a tornado of corruption...and the rules have yet to catch up to the game.
Much like steroids in the world of big-time sports, the criminals are a step ahead of the cops. If there are ways around the rules, programs and "friends" of such will find those ways. Yet, what strikes me as odd is that powers the likes of Ohio State are looking for advantages they don't necessarily need.
I liken this to Barry Bonds, who prior to his alleged steroid use was on the fast track to the Hall of Fame. Bonds didn't need performance enhancing drugs to perform amongst the elite, but chose to use them for fear of those with lesser talent catching or surpassing him in spite of lesser ability. Some have speculated that it was the McGwire/Sosa "homerathon" of 1998 and his ego's inability to deal with such which spurred Bonds to take the step he felt others around him already had.
The same thought process could be applied to perennial powers such as Ohio State, Texas, and Alabama. Certainly the aforementioned football programs need little help in the world of recruiting, primarily due to decade's worth of history and tradition of winning, but the pressure to stay on top coupled with the sound of footsteps from lesser-known but fast-charging programs like Oregon, Boise State, and TCU have pressured such traditional powers into toeing or crossing lines which they arguably needn't approach.
Pundits nationwide have asserted that it may have been Jim Tressel's thought that his 2010 Buckeyes were BCS title-bound which led him to knowingly put aside wrongdoing by four of his star players, and ultimately lie to the NCAA about what he did or didn't know. It's also been suggested that members of the University of Texas' coaching staff are the driving force behind the negative publicity surrounding recruiting services and 7-on-7 camps, due to the ever-increasing threat of outside "players" such as Oregon coming into the state of Texas and successfully pulling a number of "their" potential recruits.
Does Texas really need to worry about Oregon in regards to their talent pool? Is Ohio State's perch above the rest of the Big Ten Conference really on such shaky ground that they feel the need to risk the 3-5 year setback already imposed upon college football behemoth USC, and quite possibly around the corner for a Buckeye program mired in controversy? Probably not, but in today's landscape of college football - the landscape of scholarship restrictions, coast-to-coast television coverage and spread offense - the gap between haves and have-nots has been and is narrowing at a rapid pace. And it's that narrowing gap which has the Ohio States and Texases of the world taking risks in regards to the rules and pointing fingers at, and tattling on threatening "littles" nipping at their heels.
It's always been said that life isn't fair, so why should the world of college football be any different? Simply because in the world of collegiate athletics - much like any other sporting contest - the rules of the game are meant to create an even playing field, but the game itself decides who wins. It's Texas' job to sell their program, coach their program, and conduct their program in the best way they know how and under the guidelines set forth to do so, much like it is for Ohio State, Oregon, and Alabama. It's also the NCAA's job to enforce those guidelines. Much like the game on the field, the game off the field is ever-evolving. On the field you've got the spread offense, off the field you have recruiting services. On the field you've got instant replay, off the field you've got 7-on-7's. And on the field you've got referees in charge of monitoring and enforcing the rules of the game, while off it you've got the individual institutions, the NCAA, and local, regional, and national media overseeing a system with the best intentions, but failing to meet the necessary requirements to rein it in.
As long as there are rules, there are going to be those willing to either break them or at least explore possibilities of doing so. Everyone's looking for an edge, and without adequate means of enforcement there will remain a fine line between cheating and not. While college football is healthier than ever, it also lives at the intersection of timeless crossroads which offer both legitimate and illegitimate roads to success. It's the "littles" job to find the way to that success, while the "big boys'" job is to keep them from it, and how they both go about it is entirely up to them. The NCAA's job is to police that pursuit.