In December, Ohio State University suspended five of its football players for violating the rules governing intercollegiate athletics by exchanging their Buckeye memorabilia for various forms of payment, including the handiwork of a local Columbus tattoo parlor. Over the next few months, the digging of media outlets near and far pried open a capacious vault of misdeeds: the “gear scheme,” as it came to be called, involved not just a few players during a single season, but dozens of players over the better part of a decade; in that time, a number of scholarship athletes had also received sweetheart deals at a local auto outlet; and head coach Jim Tressel had hidden incriminating evidence of these transgressions from his superiors for more than eight months.
Punishment ensued. Ohio State, a perennial power in college football for more than half a century, forfeited its entire 2010 Sugar Bowl championship season; Tressel, regarded by many as a paragon of coaching integrity, was forced to resign; and Terrelle Pryor, the team’s star quarterback who was at the center of the scandal, abruptly left school to try his luck in the National Football League.
In many ways, the chaos in Columbus is just the latest in a seemingly endless series of scandals in big-time college sports. Over the last three decades, investigative sports reporters have excavated dozens of episodes of rule-breaking in football and men’s basketball programs, from Southern Methodist University’s “Ponygate” affair in the 1980s to the pay-for-play shenanigans at the University of Washington in the 1990s to agent tampering at the University of Southern California in the aughts. As this issue went to press, Yahoo Sports blew the lid off the latest installment, at the University of Miami, which, based on initial reports, may eclipse all other scandals in terms of scale and audacity. Off-field trouble, once a side project of the beat, has become the defining story of college athletics. Anyone who doubts it need only scan the header of espn.com’s homepage, which on many days reads like the abstract of a criminal indictment.
The cumulative reportage of a relatively small group of sports journalists on what might be called the Scandal Beat constitutes a compelling case for the unenforceability of the NCAA’s bylaws. In the process of building that case, these reporters have delivered an impressive perp walk of bogeymen: scurrilous agents, meddling boosters, selfish teenage athletes, badly behaved coaches. In many ways it has been a wildly successful display of watchdog journalism, and it helped establish the idea that sports is something that can and should be subjected to the same journalistic scrutiny as other institutions in our society—and that the sports desk could be more than just the “Toy Department,” as it had been derisively tagged by newsroom colleagues.
But the success of this work also belies a deeper problem with the coverage of college sports. The Scandal Beat exists as a kind of closed loop: a report of rules violations, an investigation, sanctions, dismissals, vows to do better, and then on to the next case of corruption where the cycle is repeated. The reporting, intentionally or not, promotes the idea that the corruption that plagues the NCAA is the problem, rather than merely a symptom of a system that is fundamentally broken. The Scandal Beat, with its drama and spectacular falls from grace, is much less adept at managing the next step: a robust discussion, prominently and persistently conducted, of why these scandals keep happening and what can be done to prevent them.
Despite its familiar feel, the OSU implosion seemed to represent a significant milepost in the national conversation about big-time college sports—if not a moment of truth, then at least a moment for truth. The fact that the conflagration had claimed a member of college football royalty, combined with the contemporaneous cascade of other scandals—including those that currently smolder at Auburn, Oregon, Boise State, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—appears to have opened the door to the possibility of finally starting that deeper discussion. In August, a summit of university leaders, convened by NCAA President Mark Emmert, agreed to raise educational standards for incoming freshmen and streamline the association’s bloated rule book. Summit participants vowed to address in the coming months the issue of athletes’ financial needs, but Emmert reiterated his opposition to paying students. Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit filed against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, which challenges the non-compensation of college athletes, is slated to go to trial in early 2013.