This probably hasn’t been the best week to be hanging around NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. At a time when the folks in charge should be patting themselves on the back for the thoroughly entertaining men’s basketball tournament they’ve put on, they’re instead going into bunker mode. Once again, those at the top of the pyramid are being asked how they justify eating fillet mignon through the hard work of those left to eat ground round.
Jim Tressel’s redefinition of confidentiality and John Junker’s use of bowl money to fund his own Fiesta have reinforced the notion amongst observers that the grownups are mostly looking out for themselves. And that was before Stanley McClover mentioned the “money handshake”.
The former Auburn defensive linemen – along with several other former Auburn players – told HBO’s Real Sports, in a report that first aired on Wednesday night, that they were paid to play and in some instances paid in an effort to recruit them to the school. All of the athletes told similar stories about shaking hands with boosters and finding hundreds of dollars in their palms or having envelopes or even backpacks full of money delivered to them.
With the NCAA already sniffing around Auburn’s program because of the pay-for-play accusations surrounding Cam Newton and his father, HBO’s story now gives them a new list of questions to ask. But unless McClover and the rest of the athletes interviewed decide to name names, does anyone believe change is really at hand?
The issue is bigger than Auburn. This story is just one more to stack in the frustrated fan’s ever-growing “everybody’s doing it” file. Even if the school were found guilty of some wrongdoing, punishing them is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It does nothing to stop the same thing from happening elsewhere.
Meanwhile, we try to use the money handshakes as reason why college athletes should get paid. Kids will be less likely to take money, the theory goes, if they could get a little extra to take care of expenses or go on a date on Saturday night. As nice as it sounds, some people will always cheat. More importantly, it doesn’t solve the issue of money in recruiting. Does paying college athletes make it less likely that we read about Willie Lyles allegedly asking Texas A&M for $80,000 to deliver a kid?
In a twisted way, under-the-table payments make it harder for athletes to be compensated legally. It is, in a way, a form of union-busting. The only real way to affect change is for the athletes themselves to take a united stand. It’s difficult enough to do when student populations completely recycle themselves every four years while administrators remain for decades. It’s even more difficult when you’re trying to rally 17- and 18-year old kids. It becomes supremely difficult when some of those kids are self-satisfied because they’ve got more in their wallets and bellies than many of their counterparts.
Part of the reason we haven’t seen change is because there’s currently no incentive to. Part of the reason is because there are no easy solutions. But eventually college sports will change. Either because they will collapse under the weight of their own absurd business models or because fans will grow tired of having undercover professionalism sold to them as amateurism. Sadly, the former will likely happen before the latter (school spirit still sells tickets, ya know). But if you think this Auburn story could be a tipping point, well…I’ve got something else to sell you.