The bizarre case of Baylor player Patrick Dennehy is not an example of what can go wrong with an NCAA basketball program. But the rest of the pitiful mess surrounding it is an altogether different story. The murder, allegedley committed by Dennehy’s former roommate and teammate, really isn’t even a sports story. It’s a crime story in a sports environment. And the goings-on within the Baylor sports environment were a crime, as sordid in their own way as the murder. They should have been as shocking, too. But while we’re not used to seeing college athletes murdered, especially by a teammate, nothing much about the behavior of coaches, boosters and athletic directors can surprise us anymore.
The Baylor folks came pretty close, though. (Perhaps they were making up for shortcomings on the football field and basketball court by overachieving in corruption.) An internal investigation turned up that someone had whipped out the cash to pay Dennehy’s tuition at the private school during the year he was required to sit out after transferring from New Mexicoand Baylor coach Dave Bliss knew about it. On top of that, when the results of player drug tests came back positive, someone on the athletic staff simply elected not to report them. Violations like that would draw respectful ooohs and ahhs even from the Alabama folks.
Now it turns out that Bliss had figured to go even these high crimes one better. As attention began to shift from the murder investigation to charges of impropriety within the basketball program, Bliss hatched a Nixonesque scheme to blame everything on Dennehy. The coach developed a script so his assistants and players could present matching stories. Dennehy, according to the party line, was a drug dealer. That’s how he paid his tuition and managed to drive around in a cushy SUV. Some of the players had seen him indiscreetly toting around a tray containing cocaine and a wad of Benjamins. Never mind that none of it was true. If everyone stuck to the script, the only person who could prove that the story was a whopper conveniently happened to be dead. But just as the tapes did Nixon in, a Baylor assistant coach recorded Bliss’ instructions about defaming Dennehy and delivered the damning cassette to the school’s dumbstruck investigators.
The tapes also reveal that Bliss, whatever coaching abilities he possessed, had a powerful talent for rationalization. He gave the players a reason to go along with the lie. It wasn’t their fault, after all, that one player shot another. Why should they all suffer just because of a little cheating that would have never come to light in the first place had Dennehy not gotten himself shot? The tape shows that Bliss should never have been a basketball coach, though he had the right stuff to be president.
The tapes provided a dramatically appropriate ending to the whole freaky story. Bliss, who initially had denied any wrongdoing, hastily resigned, as did athletic director Tom Stanton. But perhaps in deepest denial of all was the administration of the Baptist university. Apparently, the folks in the president’s office were shockedshocked!that a well groomed, grandfatherly fellow such as Bliss would condone such things. But only someone who was willfully blind could have overlooked Bliss’ history. During his coaching stint at SMU, just up the road from Waco, the shady dealings in the basketball program were about as well kept a secret as Liberace’s gayness. Nor were Bliss’ other two other career coaching stops, New Mexico and Oklahoma, ever exactly known as paragons of basketball integrity. Considering that the Baylor basketball program had been on probation in the ’90s, you’d think the administration would pass on a coaching candidate with any hint of scandal in his past. This is a school, after all, that asks applicants for professorial posts to explain how their understanding of the Christian faith would be reflected in their teaching. More than anyone, an athletic director is responsible for hiring coaches and overseeing their actions. So it wasn’t only appropriate but essential that Baylor’s AD, who failed miserably, fall on his sword.
Ultimate responsibility for what happens within a university, though, rests with university presidents. That’s why many of them have begun efforts to reassert control over athletic programs, which frequently operate as semi-autonomous provinces. Baylor’s president, Robert Sloan, didn’t exactly inspire confidence that those efforts by his colleagues would succeed. Though he professed the requisite feelings of horror and sadness, the two-year probation he self-imposed upon Baylor’s basketball program wasn’t exactly draconian, considering the crimes. The NCAA is likely to go much further.
The immoral of the story is that college presidents may prove no better than corrupt coaches and ADs. Especially beware the pious ones. Not that the Baylor people are particularly heinous, by the standards of college athletics. Many programs couldn’t withstand this degree of scrutiny. Ask around in Columbus, Ohio, where special players like Heisman front-runner Maurice Clarett apparently receive special treatment in the classroom, at the car dealership and Lord knows where else. Some faculty at Ohio State claim there’s an unwritten rule that the interests of the athletic department come before all others. Oh, some of them will stand on their soapboxes and preach about running clean programs. In the end, though, the college presidents come to the same realization as their athletic directors: It’s all about the money.
That’s why the presidents of the ACC schools voted to poach Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East. For them, showing that athletic programs should remain the servant of academic missions is good. But the financial windfall was even better. Not everybody tries to cover up corruption brought to light by murder, but a more banal corruption is practically everywhere in big-time college athletics. The Census Bureau doesn’t measure these things, but I suspect that if you impounded the car of every NCAA scholarship athlete that was obtained through flouting, stretching or subjecting NCAA rules to electroshock torture, you’d have a lot more SUVs and Beamers to auction off than the Feds get from meth and smack dealers. That’s why the ruling powers, whether presidents or ADs, want little scrutiny of their vast sports entertainment businesses. They’re all right if you’re only scrutinizing someone else’s business, but if you widen the angle of your lens, you’ve done gone to meddlin’.
I’m reading a book by Elizabeth Drew, The Corruption of American Politics. Drew chronicles the hearings, chaired by Fred Thompson, into an amazing cesspool of financial contributions and influence peddling orchestrated by the Clinton administration. The Tennessee senator found credible evidence that the Chinese government had attempted to affect the 1996 presidential election. Thompson wanted to broaden his investigation to look at Republican fund-raising practices, too. But the bosses of his own party shut him down. I have a feeling the reform of college athletics will wind up dead in the same ditch. University presidents will keep hiring guys like Dave Bliss, and keep looking the other way as long as they can, until money and winning are no longer important or hell freezes over, whichever comes first.