In the past several months we have heard startling admissions of corruption from two highly acclaimed college athletes -- Tulane's John (Hot Rod) Williams and TCU's Kenneth Davis. In the course of a larger investigation into alleged point shaving, Williams disclosed that he had been paid $10,000 to play at Tulane. In the course of a larger, quasi-revivalistic cleansing of local boosterism, Davis confirmed that he had been paid in cash, clothing and other goods worth a total of $38,000 while playing for TCU. (Incidentally, neither Williams nor Davis saw anything wrong -- either legally or morally -- with these payments.)
We are repeatedly told that college athletes are being regularly paid -- under the table, of course -- by coaches, alumni, and other interested boosters. So much money sometimes that you wonder: If the athlete makes the pros, will he have to take a pay cut?
Now we are told by Lefty Driesell -- and easily confirmed by his peers -- that this chain of corruption has added a new link: high school coaches, looking to sell their players. "I've had coaches ask me for money," Driesell said.
We've got athletes getting money, and coaches getting money. And we've got coaches giving money, alumni giving money, boosters giving money. In "Cabaret," what was it Joel Grey said to Liza Minelli? "Money, money, money, money, money, money, money. Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round."
And so in the face of all this, in the shameful face of Williams and Davis, and the football programs of Florida and Clemson and SMU -- to name just a few -- and the scandal-ridden recruiting of Tito Horford, in the face of all this carnage, what do we get from the NCAA?
American University was docked a week of practice for technically violating certain rules against formal preseason practice.
The NCAA randomly spot-checked some 50 member institutions and at least 30, including AU, were reprimanded for violating what most coaches consider Mickey Mouse rules.
Clearly, considering the profound, rampant corruption in college athletics, this is a public relations nightmare for the NCAA.
Driesell called the NCAA "a laughingstock" for thus far failing to address its most visible and threatening issues.
"It is confronted with the bubonic plague, and it spends its time treating head colds," Bob Frailey, AU's athletic director, said sardonically.
Granted, rules are rules, regardless how petty they seem, and any violation of the rules -- duly written by member schools -- should, and must, carry punishment. So the NCAA has made a righteous, if insignificant bust.
The problem here is one of public perception. The NCAA enforcement division is charged to prosecute any and all violations that it uncovers -- from jaywalking to murder. But people see the NCAA enforcing these rules at this time, and they wonder: Just what are the priorities of the NCAA?
What kind of signal is the NCAA sending when their investigators spot-check practice at a school that has won 15 of its last 56 games and can use all the practice it can get, inadvertently illegal or otherwise; meanwhile, blue-chip athletes from houses with dirt floors are driving brand new foreign sports cars and consulting with their stockbrokers?
Spot-checking practice! Is this institutional peeking through keyholes what the NCAA's enforcement division is all about?
"It's not solely what we're about or solely what we're doing, but it's part of the program," the NCAA's Dale Smith said yesterday, acknowledging that these violations are less serious certainly than the enforcement division's top priorities, which are chasing down academic irregularities and major material inducements.
"We ought to vote them more money and give them more power," John Thompson said of the NCAA's policemen.
This is a crucial point: The NCAA's enforcement division derives its power from those it governs. If you attack the NCAA's weakness, if you blame the NCAA for pettiness, you are only shooting the messenger.
The NCAA is only as strong or as weak as its members want it to be, and the contemporary social climate will exert the major influence on which direction the members go.
"I think you have to see this in context," said Digger Phelps, the Notre Dame basketball coach. "The NCAA is looking to get tough on all offenders across the board. People want action. Coaches, presidents, the public. Now, finally, some action is being taken. I think you'll see severe penalties as people grow increasingly tired of corruption. The documentation is coming. The dust hasn't settled yet. When it does, we'll have credibility."
"I'm not sure," the NCAA's Smith said, "why you would assume that nothing is being done on major matters."
Good. Let's hope big things are being done on major matters. Let's hope the NCAA has skilled investigators who can acquire the documentation necessary to make the prosecutions stand up in civil court if necessary. And let's hope we are through with parking fines in Dodge City.