Work in Sports
Nothing but trouble
Coaches yesterday, today find scandal part of daily life
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
The stories come fast and furious. They never seem to end.
They involve gambling. Players in serious trouble with the law. Academic fraud, recruiting violations and overzealous boosters. Cover-ups.
They are decades old, these stories, as old as college football itself. And they are as fresh as the dewy morning newspaper on your lawn, or the flash of light coming from the computer in the new age of the World Wide Web.
Scandals -- from the death of players in the brutal beginnings of the sport to Internet gambling that some see as a sort of a college football Apocalypse -- have always been a part of the game. And as college football enters a new millenium, it faces more challenges that threaten the integrity, maybe even the seemingly unbridled popularity, of one of America's deepest-rooted sports institutions.
"We got our hands full, there's no doubt about it," says Bobby Bowden, the soon-to-be 71-year-old coach of Florida State, the 1999 college football national champions. "And it won't change, in my opinion, until the morality of this nation goes back to what it used to be."
It's easy to rip into present-day college football and to blame all its problems on present-day society. But the fact is, the game has been on shaky ground almost since its inception. Eighteen players died in 1905 when the game featured mass collisions of bodies. In 1909, even as rules changes were being instituted, 33 more died.
As the rules taking the deadly brutality out of the game took effect, the popularity grew and forces off the field began to worm their way in, sometimes causing full-blown scandals. Once eligibility rules were established, ineligible players became a problem. Powerful boosters and alumni and all the problems they can bring have been a thorn for decades.
How bad has it been? The enforcement arm of the National Collegiate Athletics Association, the governing body of college sports in America, has been around for nearly half a century. Designed to investigate allegations of rules violations, it was formed in 1952.
Now, the NCAA and others must deal with unscrupulous sports agents who prey on young athletes. And gambling.
Whether it be by players or those outside the game, gambling has become the latest, perhaps most insidious, threat to the sport.
"Gambling -- with the ever-expanding riverboat casino industry and Internet gambling -- is becoming an everyday accepted activity in areas of America that have never before had this easy access," William Saum, the director of agent and gambling activities for the NCAA, said in 1998. "And with that popularity, people are also becoming less sensitive to the perils of gambling. Many people see sports wagering simply as an activity in which there are no victims. The NCAA knows there are victims. The real victims are former teammates, colleges, parents, friends and intercollegiate athletics as a whole."
As the popularity of the sport grows, fueled by billions of dollars from television deals and 100,000-seat stadiums that are packed every autumn weekend, it seems clear that the problems will not be solved easily.
Schools have done a better job of getting boosters and alumni under control, for instance. But rarely a day goes by when some athlete does not find himself in some sort of legal trouble.
Member institutions and the NCAA harp on educating coaches, administrators and athletes on rules, but allegations of academic fraud, for instance -- and, indeed, a blatant disregard for academics -- hit the sports pages regularly.
Players, looking for the riches of professional football are chucking scholarships to leave school early and cash in on professional football, a problem that could grow if leagues like the fledgling XFL take hold.
"They [the professional ranks] are going to need players. And they have to come from somewhere," says the College Football Hall of Fame's Kent Stephens. "I can see that becoming a problem. As a fan, you'd like to see [a player] play four years. But it certainly could be a restraint of trade if you say a guy can't go."
And then there are the unscrupulous sports agents, who have become a real problem. In search of a lucrative payday that comes with landing a big professional contract, some agents lure players into breaking rules with cash payments, cars, shopping sprees and the like.
"The agents are driving us nuts. Slipping the boy a car, flying him out to Los Angeles, doing all these things behind the back," Bowden says. "That's driving us crazy. Thirty years ago we didn't have agents."
Allegations of illegal recruiting, coaches who are vilified for a lack of discipline ... college football can be an ugly world, and you don't even have to look that closely to see it.
Florida State, under Bowden, may be a perfect example. Last season, for instance, Bowden threatened to suspend anyone who broke team curfew. But when valuable place-kicker Sebastian Janikowski did so before the national championship game, Bowden played him anyway.
It became a scandal throughout college football, though Janikowski did nothing -- at least in this instance -- except break a team rule. Yet Bowden insists he is as tough on his players as most of his peers.
"But I think we have to save them, too. Just throwing them to the wolves, that's our problem now. Everybody's out on the streets," he says. "I'm embarrassed about it, but what I still don't want to do is let public opinion coach me into how to discipline my kids."
Disciplining players who get out of hand, of course, is only a part of an equation that goes far beyond simply the athletes. The challenge remains getting a handle on agents, bookies, boosters, coaches and administrators The challenge is making sure everyone involved knows the rules, and that the rules are followed.
"You can't let up one minute," Bowden says. "You have got to be diligent in every way you can."
From its roots, college football has been a tremendously popular game and, with plans for more bowl games and perhaps a national championship tournament on the horizon, it promises to get more popular.
That not only draws the attention of people looking to cash in, it also draws the attention of the media. So any misstep by a player, a coach, a team or anyone involved in the sport can turn into scandal.
"When I started coaching -- I first started coaching in 1953 -- back in those days, coaching was probably 95 percent coaching and 5 percent worrying about a problem," Bowden says. "Now, it's the other way around. Now, 10 percent, maybe 5 [is coaching] and the other 95 percent is having to handle the problems."
That's college football in the new millenium.