Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Cost of Doing Bidness


Back in September 1986, when it seemed as if every Southwest Conference football program was under NC2A investigation or already on probation, earnest Ted Koppel and his “Nightline” team thought it wise to seek the sage counsel of one Daniel Jenkins on the matter. Koppel, like many football fans, was outraged at the wild-west climate that had taken hold in the SWC, which boasted eight teams from Texas and the University of Arkansas as its members. Payments to players, a rather laissez-faire approach to academics, and recruiting shenanigans too widespread to detail fully comprised the case against the programs, and that was just how the Christian schools were doing business. Even darker stuff was going on at the state-run institutions.

So, “Nightline” visited chez Jenkins and trained a camera on the white-haired veteran journalist, who just happened to be an alumnus of TCU, an esteemed conference member. Jenkins had made a living chronicling – often in hilarious fashion – the excesses and vanities of the football world, and seemed to understand that people under pressure to succeed will often do just about anything to achieve that goal. Being a Texan, he had a little different view of football than did the England-born, Stanford-educated Koppel. For Jenkins, everything was fine once the ball was in the air, and the chicken-fried steak gravy was suitably thick.

Had Koppel and his research staff done their due diligence, they would have known that the last thing Jenkins was going to do that September night was pillory the SWC. They expected a bobblehead that would validate their fury. What they got was a well-traveled cynic who had created characters like Big Ed Bookman and T.J. Lambert in order to lampoon those who insisted that college athletics be 99 44/100 percent pure. Anyone who knew Jenkins understood that things weren’t going to go Koppel’s way from the moment the writer appeared on the TV screen, wearing his trademark black blazer, with a Winston cooking in the ashtray next to his easy chair. And was that a glass of young scotch iced up next to him?

By the time the interview was over, Jenkins had turned Koppel inside-out, ripping the NC2A for its “stupid rules” and basically letting the folks screaming for SWC blood know that a little bit – or in the case of SMU, a lot – of cheating was merely the cost of doing football business in Texas. Koppel was outraged. Jenkins was amused. And anyone with a sense of humor was entertained.

It may be time for “Nightline” to pay another visit to Jenkins, if they can get him off the golf course, that is. Since Koppel is no longer in the anchor chair, the show can use any of the three anchors it currently employs, since each looks earnest and priggish enough to express the necessary indignation were Jenkins to take a long swig of the youngster and provide some insight into today’s college sports world. It certainly isn’t a scenic vista, but it’s not much different than it was 20-plus (and more) years ago. Still, Tuesday’s news that USC basketball coach Tim Floyd quit doesn’t improve the view. The official reason for Floyd’s resignation was that he “no longer had full enthusiasm for the job.” No, Floyd’s level of interest in coaching the Trojans remains pretty high. It’s his threshold of dealing with the allegations that he had paid a “representative” of O.J. Mayo $1,000 in hundies on a SoCal street corner that had dropped. Of course, at ‘SC these days, unless you’re under investigation for something, you’re not really doing your job. Just ask Pete Carroll about that.

Or, you can check in with Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin, who is piling up “minor” violations in Knoxville the way the Vols have hoarded losses – early and often – of late. Hey, Kiffin’s just being aggressive, like spending 800 large since taking over the program on recruiting, at a time when the school is cutting $11 mil from the books. Why not ask the folks at Memphis about how they can still consider themselves a legitimate institution of higher learning when they granted admission to a basketball player whose second round of SAT scores were more than 500 points lower than his first? Worse, Georgia dropped the kid after the discrepancy, and when you’re taking kids that SEC schools won’t touch, you have problems.

It goes on and on. As college athletics continues its descent into the world of professionalism, Jenkins’ observations more than 20 years ago still stand. Many of the NC2A’s rules are still stupid, and coaches and administrators will do just about anything to win ballgames. Lest you think this is something new, keep in mind that football in the first couple decades of the 20th century featured eligibility tomfoolery that made today’s academic and transfer transgressions seem minor by comparison. And remember Bud Wilkinson, whose Oklahoma teams tore off 47 in a row without a loss during the ‘50s? Well, if you believe Jim Dent’s book, “The Undefeated,” the Great White Father had a predilection for acquiring talent in creative – and sometimes expensive – ways and for stewardesses.

The NC2A has recently created an “ethics panel” in men’s college hoops, the better to provide guidance and structure to coaches who live in the gray area of recruiting rules. Its goal is to clean up the image of coaches, who are generally cast as masters in the art of deception when it comes to selling their programs to talented high school players. Good luck with that, fellas, because for every 50 guys who do it right, there is a Tim Floyd, and everybody wants to know about him. Worse, the cesspool of “grass-roots” basketball is filled with conniving, greedy sleazebags who care little about the players they pimp and only about what finds its way into their pockets. In that sewer, rules mean nothing. If you want some kid who has been flown to AAU games since he was 11 and has more gear than most college equipment rooms, you had better be ready to get some dirt under your fingernails. Otherwise, it’s the NIT for you, buddy.

The Floyd imbroglio is the latest headline torn from a long list of ugly stories about college athletics dating back more than a century. As long as there is money to be made and victories to be chased, there will be rules “violations” and unethical behavior. Those who express outrage should ask whether they are ready for the only true solution: an end to the big-time sports model and a nationwide embrace of the Ivy League mentality. If they’re not, then stop worrying about who’s paying whom and enjoy the game.

That’s how Jenkins does it.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: America continues to be held hostage by the ridiculous Brett Favre saga. The latest bit of hilarity is the report that members of Cowboy Quarterback’s gang booked 30 hotel rooms in Green Bay the weekend of the Vikings-Packers game. Let’s hope we find out what they order from room service. All of this over a washed-up QB who played like a rookie free agent during the last month of the ’08 season. Stunning, even by espn’s standards…Here’s hoping Phil Mickelson’s return to the links is successful. But Lefty would probably choose to miss the cut in every tournament for the rest of the year if his wife will conquer cancer…The United States is considering visiting Iran for a soccer “friendly” this fall. Winner gets a trophy and a metric ton of yellowcake uranium. Negotiations are expected to be tough, since Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants the game played in Great Satan Stadium. That could be a problem…Joe Montana’s son, Nick, has committed to play football in 2010 at the University of Washington. The good news is that the quarterback has no pressure on him, since it’s not like his father accomplished anything on the football field.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? On the one hand, it’s easy to feel sorry for Phillies’ leftfielder Raul Ibanez, who this week was accused by a blogger of fueling his fantastic start with products from the BALCO Bonds line. Ibanez has never failed a drug test and has volunteered to provide any type of bodily fluid or output (no, thank you) to defend his honor. On the other hand, Ibanez is part of a union that has fought drug testing at every turn and continues to refuse to provide blood samples so that Majoke League Baseball can test for HGH. Like it or not, every player whose numbers inflate beyond previous performance levels is liable to be suspected of cheating, simply because the past 10-plus years have featured so much chicanery, obfuscation and outright lying. Ibanez may be completely innocent, but the company he keeps – MLB ballplayers – makes him vulnerable to speculation and accusation. It may not be “fair” to him, but after everything that baseball and its union have allowed since the mid-1990s, it’s a fact of life. If Ibanez and others want to eliminate the finger-pointing, they should agitate for an iron-clad drug-testing program that conforms to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s highest standards. Otherwise, great accomplishments will continue to trigger speculation.

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AND ANOTHER THING: If the ipecacuanha plant ever disappears from the earth, and its dried rhizome and roots are no longer available to create the well-known emetic, parents will still be able to induce vomiting among children who swallow household cleaning products by letting them watch tapes of coverage of the ’09 NBA Finals. The absolute obsession with Kobe Bryant’s quest for a fourth title has set new standards for overdramatizing athletics. Bryant has been no help and has gone so far as to create a new sneer for the occasion, a ridiculous reverse-overbite that emerges at crucial times, as if on cue by espn/abc directors looking for a symbol of his intensity. In the world of television sports, it matters little whether a team wins, or a game is great. There must be a compelling storyline, and this year’s is Bryant and his “obsession” with winning another title. We are reminded repeatedly about how much “he wants it,” what it means for “his legacy” and how “it will cement his greatness.” If this isn’t enough to make you root for the Magic, then consider yourself gone from the ranks of sports fans who care about the competition and get ready for NBA on Broadway.

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ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: El Hombre y la familia will spend a week at the Nygard Cay Beach Resort in the Bahamas, so the next dose of truth and justice will be administered June 25. Have a happy Father’s Day.


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