Another season of BCS college football is upon us. This weekend, thousands of fine student-athletes will emerge from the libraries and begin concussing one another in earnest. Then, some two months after the regular season ends, they'll hold a national title game that might actually feature the country's two top teams.
Boy, what an opening few weeks! It's hard to find a big game that doesn't involve a team mired in scandal, or a young head coach making his debut after the previous guy left in disgrace, or some famed program thriving anew after shrugging off probation.
Could the NCAA ask for anything better than LSU-Oregon? Both schools have ties to Willie Lyles, who runs a recruiting service in Houston and is under scrutiny by the NCAA. Oregon running back LaMichael James, a leading Heisman candidate, is the focus of an investigation into a $25,000 payment made by Lyles to the university.
Oregon will also be without Cliff Harris, the star cornerback and return man, who was charged with driving 118 mph with a suspended license. Harris returned four punts for touchdowns last year. The dude is fast. But 118 mph?
LSU has its own problems. Receiver Russell Shepard won't play in the opener because of another case involving the ubiquitous Lyles. We used to call these predators "street agents." Now they shop their influence to colleges with their "recruiting services," which has become a fashionable way to buy recruits without actually breaking rules.
Jordan Jefferson, LSU's star senior quarterback, is among four players who were questioned by Baton Rouge police for their involvement in a bar fight last week. No one has been arrested, but coach Les Miles might sit players against Oregon for missing curfew.
There's an epic clash of reeling programs Sept. 17, when Ohio State travels to Miami. The Buckeyes, of course, are without long-time coach Jim Tressel, who resigned in May after admitting he withheld information about his players trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos.
The tattoo scandals seems trivial when you consider what's been alleged at Miami, where the NCAA is investigating the football program's involvement with Nevin Shapiro, a former Hurricanes booster who is doing a 20-year prison term for what the authorities described as a $930 million Ponzi scheme.
Shapiro claims he gave benefits, including cash and sexual liaisons, to 65 current or former Miami players during their recruitment. Miami president Donna Shalala said it has been "quite painful" to deal with the latest football scandal at the infamous "U".
Oh, there's pain when these programs break the rules. But the money and prestige that come with playing big-time college football tend to comfort the ailing. The big and powerful bounce back eventually. Look at Alabama and USC football, or Kentucky basketball.
There is simply too much at stake in the major college sports of football and basketball, which generate obscene amounts of TV money. They're essentially professional sports. It's naive to suggest otherwise. The expanded Pac-10 (now the Pac-12) has a new $2.7 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox. The SEC has a $2.25 billion contract with ESPN.
Ticket prices and TV ratings for the top college games are on the rise. So are coaching salaries. Tressel was making $3.5 million a year. The bigger the reward, the greater the temptation to cheat, or at least turn your head when an assistant coach bends the rules or your players begin consorting with shady street characters.
The NCAA claims outrage and promises reform. President Mark Emmert led an assembly a few weeks ago to deal with the problem. The NCAA proposed a minimum Academic Progress Rate for teams to qualify for postseason, and a minimum GPA for incoming recruits.
But they continue to ignore calls for tougher sanctions on cheating. The NCAA still has no real strategy for dealing with the street agents who steer so many of the elite recruits to the major programs. The agents, the kids and their parents understand what's going on here.
They know college sports are generating billions of dollars in profits. They know that major college football and basketball serve as de facto minor leagues for the NFL and NBA.
Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, acknowledged as much by honoring the five-game college suspension of former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor when he joined the Raiders in the expansion draft. The NCAA and NFL are in business together.
Pryor was expected to file an appeal. He had a good case. But he decided against it. You don't challenge the monolith. That's why you don't see gifted 19-year-olds sue the NFL or NBA to play right out of high school. They're supposed to pose as college students for awhile, whether they have any interest in higher education or not.
The pro leagues and major colleges are partners in hypocrisy. It would be nice if one BCS school decided it wasn't worth it and dropped big-time football. Good luck with that. It's big business, and more popular than ever with the public.
People seem to accept that the scandal is a necessary part of the bargain. So kick the thing off and let's get on with the show.