A few months ago, I had an angry but illuminating exchange on Facebook with Charles Robinson, author of Tuesday's big Yahoo hoo-hah about the Miami Hurricanes. The topic then was Jim Tressel, but it might as well have been Miami or Reggie Bush or any of the many subjects of big Yahoo hoo-hahs over the years. I'd written that Robinson and some of his colleagues had turned themselves into "mall cops for the NCAA"—the de facto enforcement arm for an organization whose rules aren't worth enforcing to begin with.
Robinson took exception. I was, he wrote, "the curbside preacher" who was "complaining that everyone else is missing the point, but never offering a realistic or well-thought solution." I told him his quest to show the NCAA's structural flaws by ferreting out individual violations was "akin to demonstrating the futility of marijuana laws by exposing every dude who packs a bowl on Friday night," and that "running through the streets like a screeching pack of Carrie Nations, holding up the NCAA bylaws like a King James Bible," wasn't going to change anything.
He suggested my only idea was "letting total anarchy off the leash and then hoping for the best." I told him he needed a blowjob. He told me I was a "self-fellating dickwad." The whole exchange can be found here, and I offer it to you fully aware that I come off like something of a prick. But it is a glimpse into the ingenuous logic of an investigative reporter covering a disingenuous institution like college football. Before things quite finished going downhill, Robinson explained why he does what he does:
Our coverage has largely orbited around larger systemic problems beyond just the kids (coaches, institutional failings, conference powerbrokers, etc.) - and yes, you're right...we don't agree on the NCAA...I think despite its obvious problems that it is better that it exists than having no governing body at all.
I should say here that I bear Charles no ill will and that I think he's one of the best reporters in the country. But as our exchange shows, he also makes for the weirdest of crusaders: a righteous, high-minded reformer who wants nothing more than the status quo, give or take.
What's the moral of Robinson's Miami story, anyway? At one point, he writes:
Now feeling outcast, the booster said his goal is to rip away the façade of ‘The U', and reveal an ugly truth about one of the country's most celebrated college football programs.
But this is Miami. The U. The school that once made SI break out the Esquire-goes-to-'Nam cover. The façade is the ugly truth. What Robinson's story really documents, between the lines, is the messy aftermath to a scandal very much like the one he just exposed. The key passage:
"Here's the thing: Luther Campbell was the first uncle who took care of players before I got going," [Nevin] Shapiro said, referring to the entertainer notorious for supplying cash to Miami players in the 1980s and 1990s. "His role was diminished by the NCAA and the school, and someone needed to pick up that mantle. That someone was me. He was 'Uncle Luke', and I became 'Little Luke.'"
We first learned the extent of Luther Campbell's involvement in the Miami program from a blowout report similar in spirit if not in scope to Robinson's. That story, written in 1994 by Ken Rodriguez and Dan Le Batard, revealed that Campbell "had a pay scale for big games: $50 for a caused fumble or a fumble recovery, $100 for a sack, a block that flattens an opponent, an interception or a touchdown, and $200 for an interception returned for a touchdown." (To this day, Campbell disputes their account.)
The whole thing played out the way these scandals always play out. Cheating was exposed. An investigation was launched. Rules were enforced. Punishment was levied. A coach blew town. The System asserted itself. God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world. And then, because nothing whatsoever had changed about the bad underlying incentives of a labor market in which the "amateurs" who do the work are denied any percentage of the revenue they generate, the cheating was merely sent further underground—low enough that an oily, burrowing hustler like Nevin Shapiro could grab some of the action. The rules create the sin, and the enforcement only deepens it. That's not the story Robinson tells, however. That story seems to unfold entirely behind his back. Like all big Yahoo hoo-hahs, the story he does tell is great college-football porno—yachts and bounties and lapdancers wriggling all up and down the NCAA bylaws—but in the end his reporting only further sanctifies the rules that give us someone like Shapiro in the first place. The Nevin Shapiros of the world don't exist despite college football's governing body. They exist because of it.