In the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, savior-turned-pariah Maurice Clarett, the starting running back on Ohio State University’s 2002 national championship football team, describes a culture of rampant academic corruption and illegal benefits at one of the nation’s most prominent football schools. He alleges, among other things, that head coach Jim Tressel helped star players obtain loaner luxury cars; that assistant coach Dick Tressel lined up phony landscaping and construction jobs for which players could receive about $3,000 per week of non-work; that “academic advisors” ensured that Clarett and teammates maintained their academic eligibility with such demanding courseloads as Officiating Tennis, Power Volleyball, Coaching Football and, of course, Playing Football; and that he received “thousands of dollars” from boosters as bonuses for good games.
Granted, Mr. Clarett is not the most trustworthy of sources; when interviewed by the NCAA he reached Clinton-esque heights of evasion. But a number of former Buckeyes have corroborated some or all of his allegations. Robert Smith, a Clarett precursor at running back, a former NFL Pro Bowler and, most importantly, a fairly reputable source, admits that he often heard stories of “hundred-dollar handshakes,” and claims he nearly incited a donnybrook with an assistant coach for having the gall to place him in high level courses. Sammy Maldonado was a high school All-American recruited to Ohio State by Mr. Tressel’s predecessor John Cooper but passed over by the new regime; he attempted to transfer to the University of Maryland only to be told that just 17 of the 57 credits he had accumulated at Ohio State were legitimate. Former players Marco Cooper, Curtis Crosby, LeAndre Boone, Fred Sturrup and B.J. Barre have also contributed tales of boosters providing high-paying, no-work jobs, fancy meals, and even furniture, and contended that the school itself was nothing more than an “eligibility mill”.
It doesn’t take much of an education (indeed, perhaps an Ohio State education would suffice) to discern a number of troubling things going on here, assuming, of course, that these allegations are eventually borne out. First and foremost, if the accusations are true, the Ohio State administration’s repeated denials of wrongdoing evince the greatest institutionalized lack of ethics in collegiate athletics since . . . well, last year, when Tammany Hall of Famer Dave Bliss of Baylor set out to absolve himself of responsibility in basketball player Patrick Dennehy’s tragic murder by sullying Dennehy’s reputation. Then there is the disquieting silence of many former Buckeyes and current NFLers. If Clarett and a cast of unknowns received benefits, can one genuinely believe that Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, Outland Trophy winner Orlando Pace and Biletnikoff winner Terry Glenn were not even tempted by the same?
(On a brighter note, at least these allegations should force a moratorium on the eternal lauding of Chicago Bears quarterback and OSU graduate Craig Krenzel. Commentators who rightly shred his on-field play invariably feel morally compelled to mention his molecular genetics degree and 3.91 GPA. Given what we now know thanks to Clarett and friends, I am thinking commentators will realize his course of study probably went something like this – Freshman Year: Officiating Softball; Sophomore Year: Spelling Mendeleev; Junior Year: The Difference Between Recessive Traits and Receding Hairlines; Senior Year: Probability and the Art of Rhetoric: Faking Your Way Through the MCATS and Medical School Interviews – and respectfully abstain from mentioning his degree altogether.)
And then there is the NCAA’s involvement in all of this. The NCAA, perhaps the most intrusive Big Brother this side of the British paparazzi, managed to suspend Clarett after a lengthy investigation and yet remain completely ignorant of the endemic problems his case suggests. Tellingly, Clarett was suspended for a year for receiving benefits as a high schooler, and for “not giving forthright answers.” Yet according to Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger, when asked by NCAA officials where he had obtained vast amounts of money for clothing, food, gas, and cars, and whether others on the team had received similar benefits, Clarett stonewalled his inquisitors seventeen times with such brilliantly devious aperçus including, “I don’t know” and “I magically got [cash from my mother].” Did the NCAA really see nothing nefarious but high school illegalities and obfuscatory answers?
Finally, on a more minor note, there is Clarett’s suggestion – equal parts idyllic and idiotic – that speaking out against Ohio State will improve his image among the NFL general managers he hopes will employ him next April. Contrary to what he has evidently been told, turning his back on his university, exposing his teammates and Ohio State alumni, and revealing his true lack of morality instead of leaving it as a relative mystery will not immediately shut the door on concerns over his character. (Nor will it compensate for a subpar 40 time.)
A larger, yet under-discussed, issue underlies all the genuine indignation and facetious insults engendered by Clarett’s comments: the exploitation of the big-time college athlete. Universities like Ohio State regularly fill stadiums with more than 75,000 paying customers, sell merchandise year-round, receive television revenue during the season, and play high-profile bowl games with payouts into the millions of dollars. Ostensibly, the revenue accrued by a high-profile football program keeps afloat less prominent athletic teams and pumps substantial funds back into the school itself. But in accordance with NCAA rules, players receive not a penny. Should they?
The traditional argument against paying players usually involves the evocation of that romantic illusion, the prototypical student-athlete, and the explanation that they do receive payment, in the form of a scholarship. Unfortunately, the notions of scholarship-as-payment and student-athlete are exceedingly antiquated. It is clear from Clarett’s case and others that the scholarship is often more burden than reward, and from the actions of Ohio State administrators and those at other universities that student-athletes are considered athletes more than students. Even for college players who do value their free education (they might exist), the worth of a scholarship is tiny in comparison to the money reaped by the university as a whole. An in-state scholarship at Ohio State like the one Clarett received is valued at around $14,000 a year. Even with future earnings accounted for, such a sum pales in comparison to the $14 million assured to any Fiesta Bowl participant (the bowl game Ohio State played in during Clarett’s only season) – a payout that is itself a small portion of the school’s total annual revenue from football. It seems only logical that athletes at big-time programs should be compensated with a portion of the earnings received by their school; otherwise, they remain pawns to be exploited and discarded as needed.
Such cosmic shift in practice (not to mention ideology – paid collegiate athletes?!) is currently impossible, in large part because of the slippery slope it places college athletics upon: Where should payment end? Which schools ought to pay their athletes? Clearly this would not be a problem at Princeton, given its massive endowment and the fairly secure probability that no Ivy League athlete earns his or her school more than $41,000 a year. But what about smaller Division I programs, where all the money comes from football or basketball? Should these athletes receive payments at the expense of other programs (athletic and academic) at the school? Should athletes be forced to repay part of their scholarships if their sport does not turn a profit? Who exactly receives the payments? Moreover, if athletes take these payments, what is to happen with the educational system? Will athletes even receive scholarships? Are the athletes then simply free agents? Will college athletics simply become the glorified minor leagues? Payment of the student-athlete is the white elephant of college sports, and perhaps Clarett’s comments will force it to be confronted. Which, incidentally, would probably be the first time Clarett has ever generated an intellectual discussion.