The sad part of the Clemson story is that we've heard it before and we'll hear it again. Big-time college athletics today is a professional enterprise generating billions of dollars. Yet the colleges make rules, as administered by the NCAA, to operate their athletic programs on an amateur standard that makes it a crime to give a kid a T-shirt.
From the 69 charges levied against Clemson in a bill of particulars that lists more than 150 violations, there emerges a picture of a big-time operation running out of control. It seems every Clemson football player had a hand out, and if a booster didn't come across with money, then a coach did.
Follow the orange Tiger paws on the roads outside Clemson, S.C., and they lead to tall piles of cash. The NCAA said there was cash for signing up with the school, cash for cars, cash for clothes, cash for TV sets, cash for being "Specialty Teams Player of the Week," cash for phone calls and dental bills and airline trips. The head coach, Danny Ford, promised a prospect he'd find a job for the boy's mother. Someone promised scholarships to a prospect's two sisters.
These are not T-shirt crimes, though Clemson also committed those (giving away shirts, jerseys, sweaters, photographs). These violations strike at the heart of the NCAA idea that college athletics is an amateur enterprise that is part of the educational process. These are violations that occur only with approval from the highest levels of an athletic program -- approval by conscious assent, or approval by a convenient turn of the head.
By the standards of, say, the Redskins, whatever cash Clemson used for cheating is probably a trifle. The NCAA is never specific about amounts of cash, saying only that some sums are "substantial." That's probably over $1,000.
But if college football wants to be part of education, even a trifle is too much. To condone Clemson's misdeeds is to say the colleges simply ought to turn pro and pay the players a fair share of the money they bring in. We at least would be rid of the hypocrisy of a professional game posing as amateur. Until colleges turn pro, though, the NCAA is right to throw them in probation jail.
Clemson's cheating went on, according to the NCAA, from 1977 to 1982, a period in which Clemson rose from mediocrity to the '81 national championship. Each year, when it came time for Clemson's coaches to sign a paper saying they followed all the NCAA rules, they signed that paper "with full knowledge" (the NCAA said) of the cheating.
The laundry list of violations includes the frivolous as well as the serious. We learn that some good-hearted soul at Clemson gave a prospect's father a ride to the campus. That's a no-no. Clemson's philanthropists also mailed a pair of basketball shoes to a prospect. Fully 15 violations dealt with the use of automobiles, suggesting that the NCAA's punishments ought to include revocation of driver's licenses.
Will Rogers once said it is tough for congressmen to be honest. "They keep company with crooks and low-lifes, many of them in the same party." It isn't much better in college sports these days. Of the top 17 teams in this week's Associated Press football ratings, six are serving time in the NCAA doghouse: Georgia, Southern Methodist, Clemson, Arizona State, Southern Cal and Texas.
Clemson's punishment is the harshest. It can't go to a bowl game this season or next. It can't appear on television. These prohibitions will cost the university, by a conservative estimate, $2 million. Beyond that, Clemson's football scholarships have been cut from 30 to 20 a year the next two seasons. That, along with the taint of scandal and no bowl or TV appearances, may hurt Clemson's recruiting so much that the program will suffer for a decade.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, of which Clemson agreed to be a rules-abiding member, came down heavily on the Tigers. The ACC added a year to the NCAA punishments, saying Clemson cannot play in a bowl game or share in TV revenues in 1984, either. So a high school senior thinking of going to Clemson today now knows he would play in relative anonymity until his junior season.
Clearly the university has gone too far. The pattern of misbehavior seems so widespread, in fact, that one must assume the NCAA list is only part of the whole story. Of all the supposed crimes that caused Bobby Kennedy to pursue Jimmy Hoffa, he brought him to trial only for perjury.
The NCAA investigators list only violations for which they have substantial evidence. The process is administrative, not legal, and charges are not held to the legal burden of proof beyond doubt. The schools so charged are given a chance to answer allegations, after which the NCAA committee on violations makes its determination of guilt or innocence.
At a press conference yesterday in Clemson, university President Bill Atchley said nothing of appealing the NCAA decision. "Clemson's credibility was completely restored after our presentation to the NCAA committee," Atchley said. This was done, Atchley suggested, by "innovations and positive steps we plan to take to correct our problems."
Most important, he created a job for an associate athletic director charged with responsibility for seeing that Clemson obeys the NCAA rules from now on. He slapped some coaches' wrists with reprimands, probations, salary freezes and salary reductions. He removed some coaches from the football program and took others off recruiting assignments. The president also ordered five boosters to stay away from the athletic program for periods from two to five years.
"The time has come," Atchley said, "for college presidents to take greater responsibility for athletics on their campuses."
He's right about presidents needing to pay more attention to the way a school's most visible entity works.
He's wrong when he says the time has come.
The time came long, long ago.