In many ways, it’s an old story, the story of college football players being paid cash and given no-show jobs, athletes taking phony classes, the use of drugs and sex to reel in recruits on campus visits. But what’s new about Sports Illustrated’s revelations about football at Oklahoma State is that all of these seamy activities were going on at once.
During the 2000-2009 period examined by the magazine, the Oklahoma State Cowboys appear to have been the national champions of college sports sleaze. And that is a hard title to win.
Sports Illustrated, its editors and the two reporters of the five-part series, George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans, deserve high praise for their 10-month investigation. Unlike many journalistic reports on college sports corruption, this one went directly to former players. The writers interviewed more than 60 of them and quoted many by name. Some appear in videos that accompany the story online.
What matters about what the former players revealed isn’t just that Oklahoma State was a funhouse with NCAA rules violations popping out around every corner, but that it’s clear such a situation doesn’t grow in isolation. OK State might have been an extreme example, but its flagrancy makes plain the abuses that schools elsewhere go to great lengths to obscure.
The Sports Illustrated revelations resonate in the Triangle, where the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is wrestling with cases of academic fraud and players’ receiving cash payments, though at UNC the money allegedly came from a sports agent, not boosters or coaches.
It would be interesting to hear what might come out of interviews with 60 former UNC football players. If administrators really wanted to know what went amiss with the program and how far back it goes, they would do just that. But the approach at UNC-CH has been the opposite, with reluctant disclosures and reviews that whitewash more than they reveal.
Now there is the added complication of two UNC football coaches who were at OK State during the period examined by SI. Head coach Larry Fedora served as an assistant coach there from 2005 through 2007 and Gunter Brewer, UNC’s wide receivers coach, worked on Oklahoma State’s staff from 2005 through 2010.
Both Fedora and Brewer were at the school during a period that Sports Illustrated says was rife with academic fraud, cash handouts and players using drugs. There is no evidence that either coach participated in or even knew of the wrongful activities. Fedora said of SI’s report, “It was shocking to me.” Nonetheless, UNC administrators need to explore thoroughly what the coaches knew. UNC can’t afford more controversy related to its football program.
Sports Illustrated found so much at Oklahoma State because former players were willing to talk. Often a combination of regret and school pride keeps former players from discussing what they did wrong or saw as wrong during their playing days. But some players had been used in such a mercenary manner that they developed a mercenary’s loyalty.
One of the biggest values of the SI report is that it explores what happened to players after their playing days. The difficulties faced by those who left campus ill-used and ill-educated expose the falseness of the claim that players receive valuable socialization, education and character-building in return for lending their talents to a school. As one former insider in the Oklahoma State program said, “The sad part was after the coaches were done, they threw the players away.”
But the players’ memories couldn’t be thrown away. They’ve spoken. Now perhaps big college football programs that abuse rules and their players will be made to answer.