A slew of irate Alabama fans have called attention to a mistake in last week’s sports column about the sorry state of big-time collegiate sports. Since the Scene is an alternative newspaper, I’d like to follow an alternative approach by running a correction prominently, instead of simply burying it.
I stated that Alabama coaches had funneled $200,000 to a high school coach to deliver a blue-chip player. This was sloppy and inaccurate.
Here’s my best stab at explaining the whole story accuratelywhich may help illuminate the intricate web among athletes, coaches and boosters, and provide a glimpse of why the NCAA itself finds getting to the truth problematic.
It was widely reported in 2000 that an Alabama booster (not Alabama coaches) offered $200,000 to the head coach at Memphis’ Trezevant High School, who agreed to steer lineman Albert Means to the Tide. Subsequently, the plea-bargain testimony of an assistant coach at Trezevant corroborated the reports.
Meanwhile, an NCAA investigation led to a formal allegation that at least one Alabama assistant coach, while providing no money himself, knew of the deal between the booster and Means’ coach. The NCAA ultimately withdrew this charge.
Alabama and the NCAA agree that, in a new twist on an old theme, Means’ coaches attempted to shop him to the highest bidder. The accused booster, a Memphian, denies the whole thing. So does Means’ head coach.
Alabama, meanwhile, claimed to the NCAA that its own delving could not verify whether any payments had actually taken place. And if they had occurredthough they aren’t saying they did, mind youit’s impossible to determine their source.
Alabama does concede that its representatives improperly provided travel money for Means and his coaches when they visited the Tuscaloosa campus. The school also admits that an assistant coach received an improper loan from the same booster accused of the payola scheme with Means’ coachwhich leaves you wondering about the relationships between these parties.
About the only detail upon which all parties agree is that Means, who played for the Tide in 2000, knew nothing of these intrigues. He left Alabama and now plays for Memphis.
Alabama’s official reply to the NCAA also agrees with a number of chargesseveral of them involving payments and/or other benefits (including exotic dancers) provided to prospects.
Some of the charges are very serious. In the NCAA’s inimitable fashion, some of themsuch as the charge that a coach allowed an ill player to sleep at his house for a few hoursare downright moronic.
There’s one other area of last week’s column that merits clarification, since at least one e-mail writer suggested that the figurative term “nuclear doodoo bomb” was too severe to describe the penalties awaiting Alabama. In a pre-emptive strike, the Tide has already dropped the bomb of self-imposed sanctions on itself. The school will reduce its football scholarships by 15 over the next three years, and cut 44 official visits by prospects over that same period.
The severity of these voluntary penalties offers an indication of the official whuppin’ Alabama soon expects to receive. Betting among the Media Geniuses seems to be that the NCAA will tack on additional punishments, such as loss of bowl or TV eligibility, though it may simply accept Alabama’s measures. Because the school was placed on probation in 1995, the NCAA could impose its “death penalty.” Most observers don’t expect that scenario, since Alabama is prudently cooperating with the NCAA.
Meanwhile, you may wonder whether the NCAA’s continuing viability depends largely on the forbearance of its least shameless members. Alabama’s cooperation shows that it doesn’t fit that description. But the day may come when some football powerhouse sues the NCAA, claiming that rules on eligibility or payments unfairly restrain that school’s athletic business.
The NCAA is a voluntary organization, but a rebel school could argue that it functions as an illegal monopoly. In court, the school just might win. And if it does, that might not be a bad thing. At least we’d no longer live with the pretense, which the NCAA itself helps foster, that big-time college football is about amateur athletics.