Even for the NCAA, this one is a little hard to believe: The University of Southern California and the University of Washington are investigating whether an assistant football coach helped a potential recruit pay for private tutoring and some online classes. The coach's alleged transgressions are laid out in the Los Angeles Times, which seems to be under the impression that it has uncovered a major scandal.
The story is a bit convoluted—hey, Watergate was pretty complicated, too—but here's the short version: Last year, Tosh Lupoi, the defensive line coach at Washington, was recruiting a high school lineman named Andrew Basham. Unfortunately, Basham's academic record wasn't quite up to snuff, so Lupoi volunteered to help him. Not, say, by bribing someone to raise his scores, or by hiring someone to take his tests for him, but by covering the costs of his SAT tutoring.
Basham's track coach, Mike Davis, evidently served as the go-between between Lupoi and Basham. According to the Times, Lupoi tucked a brown bag full of cash into a restaurant booth for Davis. The money went straight into Davis's bank account to cover a $2,999 credit-card charge to, yes, Kaplan Test Prep. Busted!
NCAA rules, of course, prohibit such corruption: Facilitating an athlete's efforts to gain admission to college by the same means used routinely by upper-middle-class students is an egregious breach of the NCAA's standard exploitation.
We'll see what the investigations yield, but if Lupoi is "guilty"—not of breaking laws, mind you, but of violating the NCAA's ironclad recruiting rules—you can count on the NCAA to pull no punches. Excess education will simply not be tolerated in college sports. Just ask the University of Nebraska, which was punished a few years ago for giving athletes $28,000 worth of textbooks and other school supplies.
The Lupoi "scandal" is especially rich because it's breaking during the same week in which a number of college presidents, athletic directors and conference chairmen filed declarations in O'Bannon v. NCAA. These are some pretty hilarious documents, provided you find hypocrisy amusing. Their presumed purpose is to enumerate the ways in which paying student-athletes would be detrimental to universities. What they mainly do is make their authors sound ridiculous.
One of my favorites is from Ken Starr, the president of Baylor University. Apparently, President Bill Clinton's former tormenter is now some kind of radical egalitarian:
"Based on my experience in higher education and my observation and knowledge of educational institutions in the conduct of their athletic-decision making and competitive activities, paying student-athletes in men's basketball and football would have a corrosive effect on University culture at Baylor and elsewhere, would be demoralizing to numerous other students, and would create an elitist group of paid athletes whose separateness from other students could interfere with their relationships with other students and faculty."
In other words, rewarding the work of people with special skills "demoralizes" those who lack such skills.
How about this from Mike Slive, chairman of the Southeastern Conference:
"In my opinion, it would be unfair and inappropriate to take a portion of this funding away from other sports in order to pay football and men's basketball players for participating in televised games just because they happen to participate in a sport in American culture that audiences are willing to pay more to watch and that broadcasters will pay more to broadcast."
Okay, Mike, if that's the case, why don't you share some of the $1.6 million in salary you made last year—courtesy of the SEC's powerful appeal to broadcasters—with the commissioner of the Great West Conference?
Stanford's athletic director, Bernard Muir, had this to say:
"In my opinion, support and camaraderie fostered in the Stanford culture greatly enhance the student-athlete experience and this culture will be dealt a serious blow if football and men's basketball student-athletes are paid. I believe it would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the type of cross-sport support and camaraderie with the type of caste system that would be created if some student athletes are paid."
The only way to avoid this horrific caste system, clearly, is for Stanford to keep all the football and basketball revenue for itself.
"Consequently, the field hockey, fencing or water polo teams contribute to the overall success of the Stanford Athletics in different, but no less important ways than football and basketball. And, these sports provide opportunities to student-athletes from much more diverse economic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds than the revenue generating sports."
I'm not sure you've looked at a photograph of your fencing or water polo teams recently, Bernie, but, at a glance, they don't appear to be more "diverse" than Stanford's football or basketball teams.
A recurring theme of these declarations is that the universities are committed, foremost, to educating their student-athletes. Really? Then why on earth is it against the rules to help a high school football player get into college? You've heard of destroying a village in order to save it. I guess the NCAA is punishing efforts to educate athletes in order to educate them.
Jonathan Mahler is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.
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