For using one academically ineligible player, one of the five best high-school football teams in the Washington area was forced last week to forfeit four of its games; after being convicted of nearly five-dozen crimes that included spying and paying a prospect $400 for signing a scholarship, one of the seven best college teams in the country was forced last night to eat its cake without the icing.
Sporting justice got blindsided again.
Shed no Gator tears for Florida. Poor fellows can't play in the Sugar Bowl, the Southeastern Conference's executive committee ruled. Period, though maybe not end of sentence, for that spineless body postponed a decision on stripping the Gators of the SEC title.
Already, Florida has gotten more than 100 alleged NCAA violations whittled to less than 60; maybe its sharp lawyers can chop that number much closer to zero during a January appeal. But nearly everybody with a mind senses that Charley Pell and several pals cheated their cleats off to make the Gators great.
And they are great. A couple of freakish plays in the final seconds against Miami from being unbeaten. Better than top-ranked Brigham Young, a few pro scouts insist. Pell at least knew who to buy. Many cheaters also are stupid. Considering the enormous economics involved, he got a thousands-plus return on what amounted to an investment of pennies.
Think not? Here are some of the alleged sins, in the final NCAA bill of particulars: $50 to a prospect to help wash a car; $41.80 to a prospect for personal expenses during a recruiting trip to the university; lodging for relatives of players at relatively inexpensive hotels.
Pell was charged with operating a slush fund. That connotes Nixonian hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed for major clandestine payoffs. According to the NCAA, Pell's was more a droplet fund, $4,000 in all. Even clean programs might spend that much some months on phone calls.
Many of the violations involved buying complimentary tickets from players. The specifics suggest that inflation even hit banditry, for in 1980, four season tickets fetched $600. Four the next year brought "approximately" $800; four the next brought "approximately" $1,000.
This is as about as serious as cheating gets. Players generating millions for their schools nearly always can be bought for a few hundred. Pell may not necessarily have been paying top dollar.
Whatever, the NCAA penalty Florida is fighting calls for three years of probation that might be reduced to two for good behavior. No television appearances while in jock jail; a reduction in yearly and total scholarships. Clemson suffered about the same punishment after it bought the national championship three years ago.
But Clemson's peers in the Atlantic Coast Conference were tougher than the NCAA. They added a year of no bowling and sharing television revenue. All the SEC did was what it absolutely had to. Took an assault-and-battery case and imposed a jaywalking sanction. Only in the SEC is a record of charges the length of your arm the same as 4-6-1.
Tell me if this makes sense: the SEC judges Florida guilty enough not to reap the reward for having the best record in the conference but may yet let it be the champion. Doesn't one penalty demand the other? Seems as though it's like a judge telling Frank and Jesse they can keep the loot for a while but must not attend the big square dance.
If ever a case demanded forfeits, Clemson's and this one did. In a space of a few hours, Florida's record should have gone from 8-1-1 to 0-10. Same as H. D. Woodson's went from 9-0 overall and 5-0 in the Interhigh to 5-4 and 1-4 for using just one naughty player.
But then half the 10 schools in the SEC have been on some form of NCAA probation in the last seven years. The league has a history of talking tough and then slapping wrists. When will school presidents grab hold of the athletic bits?
The last time I preached a similar sermon, an astute reader, John T. O'Brien, commented: "Presidents are creatures of their constituencies, but you don't address the desires of these constituencies . . . fans, as well as the college crowd -- students, alums -- want the warm glow of a winning team that preserves the fiction of amateurism and regional loyalty with the savage attack and skill of a pro team."
What he's saying is that nobody probably would much mind if schools gave their athletes quite a lot more than a free education.
Neither would I.
The Florida situation comes during a moral tug-of-war in college sports. Many would like far stiffer penalties for what the Gators are alleged to have done; others would like to have athletes paid a bit more, over the table, than Pell offered.
Can both sides be mollified?
Can the colleges have it both ways?
They can establish more lenient rules, modest amounts of cash and transportation perks, say. But enforce those rules more rigidly. Cancel schedules for a year or so; fire guilty coaches, and also punish players on the take. Pay athletes decently for services rendered.
I offer a modest proposal. Use much of what it took Clemson and Florida to lure those splendid players and make that the guideline for a new maximum wage scale. Consider also some of what the NCAA, in its heart, knew was transacted but couldn't prove. If such a bandwagon ever gets built, I'm not sure whether the SEC will volunteer to pull it or plop down in front of the wheels.