If we move past our normal callousness and indifference toward the shadier aspects of college athletics that we're all familiar with but choose to ignore, Wednesday's HBO Real Sports wherein they alleged a pay for play scheme at Auburn (supported by four former Auburn players) was... well... shocking. To be honest, I'm not sure what to call it. In so many ways it was confirmation of what we already know about the larger world of college football. Still, there it was. Right there in our face, waving at us like that weirdo we don't want to talk to as we stare down at our shoes hoping, praying, he didn't see us. But he did, and on Wednesday he was yelling his HELLLLLOOO right into our face. Just like Wednesday's special, you have no choice but to stand there, look him straight in the eye, force a smile, and hope that the experience is short and final.
Regardless of how hard we try to avoid walking into this deranged soul, he always seems to find us. We go to great lengths to pretend he doesn't exist, to shield ourselves from accidentally running into him. Yet we always do. And we pretend to be surprised that it happened. It's never a pleasant experience because we never deal with it head on. We always slink from the responsibility of addressing things directly, and so it happens again and again, and each time it gets worse. Wednesday's special was as bad as it's been in a long, long time. And it's bad, bad news for anyone associated with or mentioned in it.
Sadly, this isn't the first or only set of horrific allegations we've seen since the crystal ball was handed out in early January. We've seen four different Auburn players arrested and charged with burglary. There've been athletes across the country beating the hell out of civilians. There's Tatgate or Tresselgate or whatever you want to call the burgeoning disaster that is exploding in Columbus. Then there is the Fiesta Bowl sandal which not only has the potential to kill off a BCS bowl game, but to land a lot of people in federal prison. Now we get with two new scandals in a single day.
Lost in the response to the HBO special was ESPN's story that they had uncovered that Willie Lyles, the "street agent" who is tied to the pending recruiting disaster at Oregon, was shopping LSU's Patrick Petersen around to college teams, at least and specifically including Texas A&M, for $80,000. The Auburn pay for play scandal has been examined at length by a number of people, but the impact of this explosion of allegations isn't limited to the War Eagles. The collateral damage is significant.
Stanley McClover (a former Auburn player) told Andrea Kremer that unknown persons at LSU and Michigan State engaged in the infamous "cash handshake" while McClover attended their camps as a high school student in an attempt to persuade him to attend their school. Then McClover dropped a bomb on Ohio State that no Buckeye fan or father of a female student at Ohio State ever, ever, ever wants to hear (text courtesy 11W).
Andrea Kremer to Stanley McClover: "What did you say to the guy when he hands you five hundred dollars?"
McClover: "Thank you and I’m seriously thinking about coming to LSU."
Kremer voiceover: "But McClover says there were money handshakes from boosters at other football camps too. At Auburn for a couple hundred dollars and at Michigan State. All the schools denied any wrongdoing. And things really started heating up a few months later when he went to Ohio State for an official visit where schools get a chance for one weekend to host prospective athletes. McClover says there were money handshakes from alumni there too. About a thousand dollars. And something else to entice him."
McClover: "They send girls my way. I partied. When I got there I met up with a couple guys from the team. We went to a party and they asked me to pick any girl I wanted."
Kremer: "Did she offer sexual services?"
Kremer: "Did you take them?"
Kremer: "McClover committed to Ohio State right after that weekend. The recruiter at Ohio State who says he dealt with McClover that weekend denied the school was involved in any wrongdoing."
I'm not sure when things started to fall apart. I'm really not. Though I probably should be. This isn't anything new and it's nothing we haven't seen before. It wasn't too long ago that we saw Charles Thompson in an orange jumpsuit being stuffed into a police car and thought to ourselves "How did this get so out of hand?" We smiled silently to ourselves that the bad man had been caught and that decent society could live again, ignoring the blood on our hands and the money we'd spent feeding the beast we perceived was being led away in handcuffs. Then we went back to our daily routine pretending that everything was right with the world again. But the beast hadn't been taken away. He'd walked away with us the moment we averted our eyes and settled into our homes as if it was a part of our furniture. We didn't want the beast taken away, after all. We just wanted it to be a little less obvious.
We all know what's happening but comfort ourselves by saying we really don't knowit for certain. A handshake here, a car payment there, money for pizza or a jersey. It only happens in the abstract. Until it happens for real. We attempt to limit our involvement and our association with this beast with caveats, excuses and feigned lack of knowledge. We distance ourselves from it by shaking our head and asking a rhetorical "why"?
We sympathize with the actors in this drama because we wish we were them. Talented 19 year-olds with a free ride and the libido of a prize race horse out to stud. We see the money they generate and say "That's just not fair" as if it means something to anyone else. Maybe we say it to sound sympathetic, inspired, or visionary about the "abuse" we see before our eyes. Maybe we say it to cleanse ourselves of our role in feeding the beast that happily consumes our money, weekends and free moments in exchange providing an escapism that only a clear September Saturday can provide. So the cycle of violation, outrage, punishment, and self-cleansing renews with every spring.
For every Charles Thompson who was disciplined there is always another who will take up his cause. Nice condos. Sweet rides. Handshakes of incomparable value. It hasn't changed. Yet each time we gasp as if we've witness a person shot in cold blood right infront of us. The horror! The humanity. The TV guide, please.
Now the men we entrusted our young men to appear no different than the two bit peddler hawking his wares by the 7-11, yet we continue to ask more of them and expect more of them than they can possibly deliver. Humorously, it is us, not them, who made the rules. We demanded a 90,000 seat stadium filled to the brim to watch a winning football team, goddammit. Your stars aren't high enough, why is that? 7-5 will get you fired. I don't care what the other guy is doing, you're supposed to win. By the way, you're responsible for everything in and out of your control at this program. Got it? Great. If you'll excuse me, my blinders are ready for pickup.
Now comes the time where we point fingers and tell those who will listen "I knew that was going on." Of course we knew. How could we miss it. It was all over TMZ, deadspin, HBO, Maury, Judge Judy, or the internets. But for every accusatory look and wag of the finger we say a silent prayer, to no deity in particular, thanking them for not punishing our school and offering whatever sacrifice we can think of to curry their favor. God forbid the light of day should shine brightly on our school. We don't want that. That we know for certain. We want to watch the game be played and let the rest sort itself out behind the closed door or in the shadows, or somewhere where we can't see where the steak before us is coming from. But that steak better be perfect. The beast is hungry.
No one is clean in this little play. The rulemakers turn a blind eye to the violations that occur directly in front of them, lest they be forced to act to stem the fountain of money pouring out of the veins of the networks, bowls, and consumers. Our coaches shrink from their responsibilities, prodded by our win at all costs desires, yet aware that they have crossed a river they can never cross again. The players take what is offered be it sex, drugs, or money because, well, they can; who cares if they know it's wrong. Then there is us. Our tickets, our sweatshirts, our boosterism, our desire to know and see all that occurs with 19 year old kids. We want to know them, to be their friends, because they are the people we'd trade places with instantly if the opportunity arose.
Where did it all go wrong? But wait... looking back, when was it ever right? When were these good ole' days of yore we remember so fondly? What about all those National Championships and wins in the big game. Wasn't it working then, wasn't it right? Maybe... but no... no it wasn't. Before television and even after it, the college game was a segregated as the rest of the world, and in some places moreso. But slowly that seemed to change as more and more money poored into the beast. Once the game became important enough to bring in real money, it wasn't a game anymore. It was television. Entertainment. It became shoes, books, lithographs, glasswear, showtime, and it was all there waiting for our consumption which we greedily inhaled.
Certainly it wasn't that bad in the 70's we think to ourselves, things only got out of control recently. Welll, no. The 70's brought us the pay for play scandal at Oklahoma State. The 80's? SMU's "Pony Express", South Carolina's steroid episodes, and Oklahoma's "Sorrid Story." These were just abnormalities right? No. They were precursors of things to come. The out of control Miami teams of the 90's, the USC Bush teams of the 00's, and now this the slate of allegations that have dropped from the sky. When did it all go so wrong?
Maybe the answer to our query is the obvious. It was never right to begin with. It was a fallacy that we allowed to grow into a beast because it gave us more of what we wanted. It was a sham, a house of cards, a decpetion from the beginning. It was a kid's project made out of popscicle sticks, glue and duct tape that we happily masqueraded as the statue of David. And there it is at auction, reeling in millions in bids at auction despite the obviousness of its falsity. But no one wants to admit what it is. So long as everyone shares the same willful delusion, we can go on.
Still, what we have seen is bad. The offenders must be punished. They must be brought to justice. Justice is what the beast desires. Justice will bring everything back to equilibrium and our game will go on as before. The beast remains. Satiated momentarily. But it will grow hungry again, and the cycle will resume.
Somewhere the system is broken. The ills are readily apparent but the cures are not. We argue over what truly causes the problem in the first place, how it really affects our patient, and find fault in others' determinations just as they find fault in ours.
There isn't a simple cure to this, just as there is no guarantee that it will ever stop happening under the system we've put in place and done everything in our power to maintain. Regardless of this, kids will still be kids. They will make bad choices and they will influence others among them to do the same. Even the most viliglant of coaches can't watch his players 24 hours a day. They are, after all, college kids. They go out, they drink, they spend money, they call home for more so that they can continue to do so. In some cases this is the first time they've been able to do these things, and the freedom acts like a drug whose need for they will never be able to fill.
Cash hand shakes, girls, shady street agents, coaches doing what we pray they wouldn't; all these things continue to happen with regularity irrespective of our outrage or the punishment doled out to the offenders. But what is the punishment? Suspensions for multi-millionaire coaches and sanctions for schools rather than the players who committed the "crimes."
The system is broken. And soon it, like the schools named on the HBO special or in print for their various offenses, will come tumbling down.