Sex, drugs, and cheating. Sounds a lot like a Tom Wolfe novel, right? Only this story isn’t fiction. This is a story about Oklahoma State football in the decade staring in the late 1990’s, where the marginal football program evolved into a national power that finished consistently in the nation’s top ten. The story is pure non-fiction, in fact, at least as reported by Sports Illustrated over the past several days, after a year of in-depth reporting and interviews with dozens of formers players and coaches and program associates, of which there seem to be way too many. Oklahoma State has already done its best to debunk SI’s reporting as myth, which will be about a simple as disproving the moon landing. Even if reporters overstepped here and there, the narrative is fairly indestructible.
According to SI, the list of offenses includes widespread academic fraud in the football program, with players doing less school work than students at Ridgemont High. It includes systematic and systemic pay for play, athletes taking recreational drugs under the knowing eyes of coaches, and it includes handpicked female student ambassadors convincing star recruits to sign up with the Cowboys, which includes sleeping with high school students during campus visits. If it were a movie script, you wouldn’t believe it.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this tale, even if the details change ever so slightly. In the 80’s it was SMU, then pretty much every other school in Texas. There was the University of Miami on the East Coast and USC out west. Even that other school in Oklahoma, the Sooners, is no stranger to the NCAA rule book. So while the facts of this particular case may be, shall we say, salacious, it’s certainly nothing new.
There’s no telling how the NCAA might come down on this. I’d guess it’s much harder than they did on Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, which suffered no more than a hand slap for their signing for cash incident, allegedly at least. Then again, Selena Roberts painted a fairly graphic picture of the recent state of Auburn football, and that warranted barely a second glance. As arcane and illogical as the NCAA rulebook is, it’s surprising even more arbitrary in its application.
So there are really two questions about Oklahoma State, besides those that might be too hot to print. And that’s first, who’s to blame? Pretty much all guilty parties, from former head coach Les Miles to current head and former assistant Mike Gundy have been less conciliatory than my three year old after he wrote on the wall. Mega-booster T. Boone Pickens, who feels right off the set of the TV show Dallas, has been far more swagger than solace. Really, if there’s anyone who’s sorry about this whole affair, which by the way resulted in graduation rates that could almost be measured in fingers and toes, they’re not seemingly available for comment. Which really says one thing. They’re all guilty. And any discourse about the system is mere avoidance. The people at Oklahoma State had choices to make, and they did just that. And at least for a decade or so, it worked out pretty well, at least if you didn’t have the misfortune of failing out of school with no job and a bad back, which seems the fate of far too many former Cowboy recruits.
The second question, the one that hasn’t been answered, is what should we do about it. If punishing one school could fix this mess, then college football would have turned the corner in the late 80’s after Southern Methodist endured a two year death penalty for football. That didn’t work then, and it’s probably neither effective nor even enforceable now.
Really, perhaps the only answer, if there is one, is the final, official, and inevitable end of the NCAA. If Oklahoma State wants to run something out of North Dallas Forty, perhaps it’s time we let them do just that. Then we can stop pretending they’re in the same boat as the hundreds of smaller colleges that want to do sports and school at the same time. And Texas A&M, and USC, and all those other pro teams with college names can go along with them and start their own new world order, leaving everyone else, all those schools that actually lose money on sports, to figure out what college sports should be about. I’m guessing, unlike Oklahoma State, it’s not sex, drugs, and cheating.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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