We read about it all the time. How the deep drive to succeed in college football and to share in the vast riches that come with it, have caused many gridiron programs to take extreme measures to secure a winning season. Spanking new stadiums; state-of-the-art training facilities; under-the-table payments to players; cutting corners on academics; condoning player misbehavior. You name it. There is not much that seems to be off-limits these days in the multi-billion dollar business that college football has become. But in at least one school’s crusade to turn its struggling team into a national powerhouse, the wobbly line of “fair play” in college football has seriously been crossed.
That school is Oklahoma State University. And according to a ten-month investigation by Sports Illustrated (SI), the OSU Cowboys, under the stewardship of former coach Les Miles and current coach Mike Gundy, stopped at nothing to join the college football elite. Prior to 2002, OSU had 11 losing seasons in 12 years. Since then, the school has had 10 winning seasons, earned its first Big 12 title and went to its first BCS bowl. In 2011, the team went 12-1 and ended the season ranked third in the nation. It was the highest ranking in the program’s 111 year history. SI interviewed more than a hundred former players and OSU staffers to uncover the reasons for this magical turnaround. The findings are not pretty.
According to the SI report, OSU acted on two fronts to build a winning program. In the open, the school with the help of billionaire alumnus T. Boone Pickens poured millions of dollars into the program — new stadium, upgraded athletic facilities, higher salaries for the coaches, nicer hotels and meals for the players. The school apparently spent $26.2 million on the program for the 2011-12 season alone, the most of any Big 12 school. But it is on the other front, the one outside the public view, where the school seems to have acted way out of bounds in its efforts recruit top players and maintain their eligibility to play ball.
The SI report breaks down the litany of OSU transgressions into five basic buckets — Money, Academics, Drugs, Sex and the Fallout of players whose services were no longer needed. For those who follow big-time college sports, much of what the report uncovers is probably not all that surprising. It certainly was not surprising for those who have been on the inside of the OSU system. As one former assistant coach readily conceded when told about the report, “I knew this day was coming . . . . It was just a matter of time.”
Here is a sum up of the report’s key findings:
- Money. The school facilitated illicit payments to its top players. There are three principal ways through which these payments were made: (i) a de facto bonus system based on how well the players performed on the field; (ii) direct payments by boosters and coaches independent of performance; and (iii) no show and sham jobs, many of which involved the major renovation of Boone Pickens Stadium. Payments for some of the real standouts reportedly exceeded $25,000. “It was crazy,” said one former player of the payouts to some of the most prominent players. “They were getting money like out of control. It was as clear as day.”
- Academics. The school made sure that academics did not get in the way of player eligibility or practice. Players were steered to easy classes and the least demanding majors. Their coursework was routinely completed by tutors or university staff. They were provided with answers to exams before taking them. And they received passing grades despite doing little or no work. Some of the players were reportedly functionally illiterate even after attending the school for several years. “The goal was not to educate but to get them the passing grades they needed to keep playing,” said a former player. “That’s the only thing it was about.”
- Drugs. The school tolerated and reportedly even enabled recreational drug use, primarily through a sham counseling program that allowed players to continue using drugs while avoiding any punishment. Thirty former players who were interviewed admitted using marijuana on the team with a majority of them saying they used the drug daily. Several players even engaged in drug dealing without any negative repercussions. According to former players, the coaching staff did little to deter drug use. “As long as you were performing on the field, [the coach] could care less what you did off the field.”
- Sex. The school’s Orange Pride hostess program played a prominent role in OSU’s recruiting efforts. The group was comprised of attractive and outgoing coeds tasked with socializing with recruits when they visited the school. It more than tripled in size during the tenure of Coach Miles, and the coaching staff played a central role in vetting who was accepted into the program. Apparently, even Head Coaches Miles and Gundy personally interviewed candidates. Numerous players reported that the program not only grew under Miles and Gundy, but that it went through a total change of culture — “there was a small group within that group that could be counted on to ‘take care of’ prospects.”
- The Fallout. The school’s treatment of its players apparently changed quite dramatically when they were found no longer useful to the program. Many were cast aside, stripped of their scholarships and forced to return to the troubled life and future they had hoped to escape. Between 2002 and 2010, almost half the players on the team did not graduate, “a staggering churn rate” according to SI even for big-time college football where shaky graduation rates are pervasive. As one former assistant under Coach Gundy put it, the players are “basically being used. Once they’re no longer of any use, they’re gone.”
It is this final chapter in the OSU story which is clearly the most disconcerting. Somewhere along the way, OSU seems to have lost sight of what its ultimate mission is as an institution of higher learning. Not to win football games, or rake in millions of dollars on ticket sales, merchandizing and broadcast rights. And it is certainly not about exploiting the so-called “student-athletes” as a virtually free labor source in complete disregard of their health and well-being.
As reprehensible as the OSU saga appears to be, the ultimate take-away from the SI report reaches well beyond this one wayward school. It goes to the win-at-all-costs approach that now taints all of big-time college ball. As SI readily recognized, its “unflattering portrait” of OSU “could just as easily have been painted with the school colors of innumerable other programs.” The pressure is too great. The money too big. The rules and oversight too lax. Hopefully, this dreadful tale will be a wake-up call to other schools that have likewise lost their way. May it also serve as a reminder of where the NCAA should really be spending its massive energies and resources. That is, safeguarding the safety and welfare of the players and ensuring that they are treated as students first and athletes a distant second.
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