Hamsterdam: Clean up college football? Not a chance!
ESPN is running an online poll right now about college football: is it corrupt? If so, where does the corruption lie, how do fans feel about it, and can a program compete for a championship without cheating? Here are my answers.
Yes, everywhere. Most don’t care, and not if every other program is.
Enough with the obvious! Ask yourself this: can college football be cleaned up, and if it could, would you want it to be?
If you watched the HBO series The Wire, you know about “Hamsterdam,” a secret policy of permission to commit crimes. Unable to control drug-related violence, Major Colvin let dealers and users have their way as long as they confined their business to a few uninhabited city blocks. It wasn’t going to rid the city of drugs or violence– just corral it.
Hamsterdam is an apt analogy for college football. If the corruption permeating every level of the sport seems insurmountable, that’s because the powers-that-be either tacitly or actively decided that it’s in their best interest that you think it is. It's impossible to say exactly when it happened, but it’s obvious that at some point attempts to clean up college football were abandoned in favor of using and often encouraging corruption to woo players and win championships.
In 1989, sports columnist Rick Telander published a book, The Hundred Yard Lie, an “uncompromising” and “hard-hitting indictment” that “is to football what the Surgeon General's book was to smoking.”
That was 22 years ago, but no one wanted to hear about it then, and nobody wants to hear about it now. ESPN reports the mood in Columbus, Ohio, is “funereal,” and that crowds outside Jim Tressel’s home are holding signs saying, “We Support You, Jim!” and "We Love You, Coach Tressel.”
When it comes to cleaning up college football, it’s the initiative that’s lacking, not the means. Why can’t state governments, which grant them non-profit status and shower them with tax dollars, assign monitors and auditors to universities?
Shouldn’t the NCAA, which receives money from its member schools, place multiple compliance officers at those schools and publish their findings annually? It would be harder to stop boosters and agents from using runners to put cash or car keys in a player’s hands, but it could be done. It all could be done.
But if a school can offer nothing more than itself when recruiting players, what happens to college football?
If a school says, "You're a student first and an athlete second, and by the way, we have an honor code– but you have to meet our admission requirements first," and tells coaches and everyone affiliated with the sport, "We will be on your butt every day of your tenure here to make sure you're as honorable as you say"– what happens to college football?
There’s no initiative to clean up college football because if it were free of corruption, there would be no more college football, at least not as we know it today. And if there’s anything Americans love more than Doritos Elmo and “Amazing Grace," it's college football.
If anything, the trappings of corruption make the sport more beloved, not less. The stardom, the pomp, the intense rivalries, the obscene payday– everything that makes college football a national obsession depends on the sport’s remaining corrupt.
But unlike The Wire’s Hamsterdam, there's nothing secret about college football’s policy of permission. The NCAA, state governments, universities, students, fans, and boosters– they all have one open philosophy: if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
So I ask again, if college football could be cleaned up, would you want it to be?
Juanita lives on a farm in Charlotte County with her husband, son, and many dogs.