9/9: College Football: The Legacy of the “Death Penalty”

By John Sparks

It really doesn’t matter what college or university you may have attended, when it comes to football these days, your school’s color is green — green as in dollars, cash, filthy lucre.  It hasn’t been win one for The Gipper in forever.

The name of the game is money.  Today’s college football is about multi-million dollar television contracts, large stadiums, high dollar coaches and athletic directors, and don’t forget the huge gambling industry where, each season, billions are bet on the games.

College football is big business.  University presidents cannot ignore it.  Potential gifts from alumni are dependent upon a winning season and bowl game receipts.  The old saying about having a university the football team can be proud of is no longer a joke.  Our values and priorities have clearly gotten out of whack.

Is winning everything?  It’s one thing for Vince Lombardi to have said that about his professional Green Bay Packers, but we’re talking amateur athletics.  Or, are we?

Today’s sports pages are filled with stories about recruiting violations, overzealous alums, agents paying off Heisman Trophy winners, and coaches who must have their heads in the sand when it comes to knowledge of NCAA rules violations.

25 years ago the NCAA handed down its first (and only) Death Penalty against Southern Methodist University in Dallas largely because of a television news story produced by yours truly for the ABC affiliate in Dallas.  A disgruntled linebacker, David Stanley, told me in an interview that he received $25,000 to sign a letter of intent with SMU and that he and his parents were mailed monthly payments totaling $750 for the next two years until a cocaine habit got the best of him, and he was cut from the squad.  We confronted the SMU athletic director, head football coach, and recruiting coordinator with the evidence, and the NCAA reacted by banning intercollegiate football at SMU for one season.

True to its name, the Death Penalty, indeed, just about killed off the entire football program.

The university has never fully recovered.  The university president, athletic director, head football coach, and recruiting director all resigned in disgrace.  The bishops of the Methodist Church held their own investigation.  The governance of the entire university was restructured.  It turned out the governor of Texas, Bill Clements, knew about the cash payments, but when he was asked about it at his weekly news conference, he said, “It wasn’t like inauguration day when we had our hand on the Bible.”  Clements had been Chairman of the Board of Governors at SMU, and when he wasn’t wearing that hat, he served two terms as governor of the entire State of Texas.

Football is and has always been a huge deal in Texas.  It starts out at an early age.  In small west Texas towns, the high school football team often carries the reputation of the entire community on its shoulders.  The father of a good player who can run, pass, and catch has often been lured to another town where he’s been given a job so his son can help the local school to win a state football championship.  Many Texas high schools have stadiums that are nicer than some colleges.  The stakes get even higher when the lad is ready to go to college.

Over the years, money has corrupted football just as it has in just about every other aspect of life in these United States.  The big boys have swallowed up the little guys whether it’s food, automobiles, or even colleges and universities — you name it– big has become better, and only the large survive.

The most recent revelations in college football have concerned the University of Miami where a booster has been singing about getting hookers, cash, and a yacht for sex parties for players — all against the rules.  It seems Nevin Shapiro became righteously indignant when the kids he did these favors for did not return them and help him out with some cash when he was convicted on charges of running a Ponzi scheme.  Shapiro now receives his mail behind bars at a federal prison — his home for the next 20 years.

The stories Shapiro is telling were bound to happen.  After SMU was given the Death Penalty and the world saw what it could do to a football program, the conventional wisdom was that never again would the NCAA assess its Death Penalty…ever.  It was just too devastating.  And yet, when you think about it, what better environment for those who would push the envelope to operate in?

When it comes to sanctions, the NCAA has punished schools, coaches, and athletic department staffers.  It has banned boosters for life.  Now, some are saying let’s punish the players for accepting improper payments.  Really now?  Of all the folks who benefit from this multi-million dollar industry, the ones who carry the load and make it all possible are the players,  and they are allowed to be paid ZERO, zilch — absolutely nothing.  That doesn’t seem quite fair in our capitalistic society.  I was under the impression that those who do the work should reap the reward for their efforts.  I also thought Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in 1863.  Except for the lucky few who receive scholarships, college football players are provided room and board and little else other than long days of practice, classes, study halls, not to mention the time away from school on the road during the season.

Some believe college players deserve more and have suggested they unionize.  Former academic all-American Dick Devenzio proposed this in the mid 1980’s and urged players to strike the Rose Bowl.  It didn’t work.  No kid wanted to miss out on the opportunity to play in the granddaddy of all bowl games.

The purists (and, I count myself among them believe it or not) say wait a minute.  This is amateur sports.  You’re supposed to play for the fun of it.

Yeah?  They used to say the same thing about our Olympic teams.  I recall in the 1950‘s when we would talk about how the Soviet athletes were paid to compete — it was, after all, their full-time job to be an athlete.  On the other hand, American athletes were true amateurs.  That hypocrisy finally went out the window.

Yet, the hypocrisy still remains for the college football players.  We hold on to a fantasy, yet many will tell you that paying college players under the table goes on just about everywhere.

So what’s the answer?  Isn’t it time we quit fooling ourselves and just openly pay them.  A great many are really just majoring in football anyhow.

Well, what would that do to the NFL?  What if we didn’t limit players to 4 years eligibility since we’re paying them?  Would the popularity of college ball eat away at the profits of the NFL and put an end to what has amounted to a free farm system for NFL teams?

These are questions fans and those who make their living off of college football continue to wrestle with.  The solution isn’t easy, but it’s clear that something needs to be done if for no other reason than the fact that the NCAA doesn’t have the resources to hire enough gumshoes to effectively police and enforce all the infractions that are being committed.

At least it’s not the FBI trying to keep up with all the terrorist cells.