Sports Illustrated v. Oklahoma State University and Big Time College Sports

What has exactly happened with Oklahoma State University’s football team is officially unknown. Unofficially, Sports Illustrated’s first part story has revealed a series of wrong doings—at least wrong when it comes to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s code/rule–that include charges of boosters paying players, grade changing, drug usages, players getting sexual favors while the school was attempting to woo them as high school “student athletes” to come to the school and play football.

The magazine’s charges are just that charges. The real test of whether Oklahoma State University is interested in answering the allegations will come in the following weeks.

Apparently the public school is ready to look into the allegations and has hired Charles Smrt to lead the investigation.

The real question is whether or not Smrt will conduct a legitimate investigation or he will issue some sort of report such as the one Louis Freeh did for Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky revelations became public and charges will be answered in a way that preserved the football program?  Charles Smrt was the NCAA Director of Enforcement and worked for the organization for 18 years. He presently has his own company that specializes in NCAA compliance.

There have been the obligatory statements from both the school and Smrt has the aftermath of the Sports Illustrated investigation unfolded in Stillwater, OK with the school president Burns Hargis saying, ““While the articles do not implicate any current coaches or players to have direct involvement in any alleged misconduct, we have a responsibility to confront these disturbing reports head on and with complete transparency.” Smrt added, “He (Hargis) has asked me to pursue the facts wherever they may lead. I assured him that I will do so, and that I will conduct the review with care and urgency.”

Charles Smrt may indeed be a very honest man filled with integrity but it has come to the point in the college sports world that an NCAA insider, which Smrt is, should stay far away from any investigation and that a true probe of the allegations at Oklahoma State should be done by someone with no ties to the business of college sports.

Oklahoma State University alumni are already in the at least for public consumption denial stage. T. Boone Pickens, who has donated about a half billion to the school and whose name is on the football stadium, unloaded on Sports Illustrated last week in a statement released to USA Today.

“There’s one word I have for the Sports Illustrated reporting on Oklahoma State University: Disappointing. This series is not reflective of Oklahoma State University today. Many of their sensational allegations go back a decade ago.

“There have been wholesale changes at the school in recent years in leadership and facilities. During that time, I have given more than $500 million to OSU, for athletics and academics. Have I gotten my money’s worth? You bet. We have a football program that has a commitment to principled sportsmanship. They understand the expectations we, as fans and supporters, have for the program. We have an incredible and growing fan base, and a loyal group of alums that believe in the character of our players, coaches and administrators.

“But I do welcome this scrutiny. If people take the time, it’s an opportunity to better understand where Oklahoma State is today, not a decade ago. It’s a different university today. It’s a better university. If there are areas where we need to improve, we’ll do it.

“Which leads me back to my disappointment with Sports Illustrated, and their failure to ask the most important question of all: What’s happening at OSU today?”

Pickens apparently has admitted something was wrong at his school, but that happened a long time ago. All is squeaky clean today.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said the magazine allegations were ”disturbing and disappointing”.

Oklahoma State has been caught doing something by a magazine. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that a big time college sports program has been accused of wrongdoing. The industry is under pressure from television networks, school presidents, chancellors, provosts, board of regents, boosters, well-heeled alumni who write massive checks for the school and the sports program, marketing partners, those who buy luxury boxes and club seats to produce winning programs.

Winning brings in more money. There also seems to be a mantra that if a school has a winning football or basketball program that will create more interest among high school students in applying to a school because the school wins in football and basketball. That means more high school students will apply to the school and that could impact enrollment. But there is a flaw in that thinking. A school is limited in the amount of new students that attend every year. The only thing that increased applications to a school does is bring in more money from applications fees. It does not necessarily bring in more students or students with higher high school grades or higher SAT or ACT test scores.

But anything is on the table to justify going all out and getting the best football or basketball team available.

The scholarship that an athlete receives can be considered some sort of Faustian deal. The athlete going to a big time football or basketball factory will get the opportunity to show off his skills (and in some cases her skills) in front of professional scouts and may be invited to go to the next level on the sports rung—the pros—in exchange for a scholarship which pays most but all not school expenses. The athlete agrees to some draconian measures by accepting a scholarship. An athlete is limited in working a job outside of the school and can make just $2,000 annually (the NCAA is worried about star players and others getting no show jobs and being paid good money for their services which would cause a tilting of the playing field and allow schools with big time boosters to create jobs that schools with not as well heeled alum could not provide). An athlete could take advantage of the scholarship but most are too busy playing sports and are simply too tired to properly focus on studies. A few players do manage to do both.

A scholarship can be revoked after a year, two years or three years depending on the circumstances. An athlete cannot pick up and leave to go to another school without paying a penalty—sitting out a year—while his or her coach can break a contract and move to another school generally with no problems.

The culture of big time sports on some college campuses has an exaggerated importance yet it seems at some institutions that the sports program controls the school. There are a few benefits from big time college sports to a school, sometimes a lab or a library gets built from the proceeds of a college football bowl game. By the way, schools don’t have to pay taxes on their earnings from bowl games.

Smrt now goes to work to prove that either Sports Illustrated or T. Bonne Pickens is right. In the magazine’s case, everything they wrote is correct and in Pickens’ case, the stuff did happen but that was long ago and no one should pay attention to write the writers of the Sports Illustrated series said.

College sports has a wonderful way in solving problems. Sweep them under the rug, have the television partners talk up sports and how great the student life is on a campus because of big time sports and have sportswriters depending on the sports programs for their livelihoods pump out the narrative and not ask questions.

That’s why a real independent investigator, not one with NCAA ties is needed to sort out the Oklahoma State allegations. But the NCAA will decide if Oklahoma State needs to be punished and that begs another question. Can the NCAA be trusted to watch the hen house?

Evan Weiner can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at Amazon.com and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/americas-passion-how-coal/id595575002?mt=11),  From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/from-peach-baskets-to-dance/id636914196?mt=11)  and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/business-and-politics-of-sports-evan-weiner/1101715508?ean=2940044505094) are available at www.smashwords.com , iTunes, nook, versent books, kobo, Sony reader and Diesel and in India, flipkart.

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