Today’s guest columnist is Gerald S. Gurney, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma.
I retired this month from a 41-year career in university teaching and athletics administration at four different Division I universities, most recently Oklahoma, where I was senior associate athletic director for academic affairs for 13 years and taught such courses as Ethics in Intercollegiate Athletics; Pay for Play: College Sports at its Precipice; and Introduction to Athletics and Higher Education.
From 1984-1987 I served as the assistant athletic director for academics at Southern Methodist University, where I had my baptism into the ethics of big-time sport, specifically big-time Texas football. I witnessed the NCAA inflict the Death Penalty on SMU—suspending its football program for a year in 1987—for the crime of providing extra benefits to its players. Part of my job was helping 53 SMU players transfer to other big-time programs before classes began. That was difficult, and unprecedented, but I see similarities in what administrators are dealing with today, given the complexities of the transfer portal, NIL and interactions with agents. Today, almost every internal and external level of athletic administration has shifted its emphasis toward the marketplace and marketability of the athlete rather than the quality of education delivered to these students. The rigor of courses for athletes are being questioned everywhere, and second-class degree programs seem satisfactory for 3-star, 4-star and 5-star athletes.
The SMU scandal began when a highly recruited football player with drug issues was dismissed and cut from the football payroll. In front of TV cameras, he produced an envelope from the SMU football operations coordinator for $750 per month and piqued the NCAA’s interest. It was the beginning of the end for a nationally prominent university football program.
Boosters often participated in recruiting and retaining player personnel at many big-time programs through various clubs and support groups. At SMU in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a loss to the University of Texas inspired immediate action by boosters to identify and attempt to buy the finest running backs, or whatever positions were needed to beat Texas the next year. Wealthy boosters worked in tandem with assistant football coaches to identify the specific targets for the team. This symbiosis was openly practiced throughout the South during that decade and continues today. What I found outrageous about SMU boosters was that there appeared to be an arrogant competition among individual wealthy alums to bag prize recruits. Boosters wanted the privilege of bragging rights for the services of the most talented college athletes. Recruiting had gone wild, but not just at SMU. Buying players was commonplace. And the death penalty didn’t so much as tap the brakes on the practice; after the NCAA sanctions came down, an SMU transfer meat market was operating publicly right under the nose of NCAA enforcement.
As I facilitated the transfer of those 53 athletes in the winter of 1987, I sat atop Ownby Stadium in our new academic center, learning the eligibility rules of athletic conferences around the nation and advising my former players about their academic status at each university and conference they were exploring. I worked with assistant and head coach recruiters across the country to help carefully place each athlete. Below, in the stadium parking lot, athletes congregated to hear the pitches of more than 100 recruiters looking to acquire much needed talent. Several of my athletes, without being prompted, shared their recruiting experiences of what was being offered in the meat market.
They consistently stated that nearly every university in the Southwest Conference offered cash and other inducements. Larger programs offered the most cash, they told me, but wealthy alumni from other universities participated as well. The scale of cheating in the Southwest Conference was larger than I ever imagined. SMU’s cheating was not the most widespread. SMU boosters just couldn’t cheat quietly.
The market went two ways: Division I caliber high school athletes in Dallas and Texas expected to receive cash, cars, jobs for parents, and relied on other items of value to get their attention. To be part of the game, football programs needed to participate in the bidding. The market in the parking lot was presided over by a Who’s Who of well-known celebrity coaches and major football dynasties vying for the attention of our best players.
In Dallas and around the nation, where the SMU players chose to transfer was big news. What I found most amusing was that obvious flagrant cheating and purchasing of players occurred daily, right in front of the NCAA, and it was ignored. If the NCAA’s purpose was to strike a blow against extra benefits, this was a dismal failure. For example, a player of mine who was dirt poor received a new car titled to his grandmother from a Southeastern Conference institution.
After all of that, it has been bizarre to observe the recent evolution of NCAA rules, from the advent of the transfer portal and the routine NIL enticements waiting for recruits to jump ship for the latest endorsement deal. Texas A&M announced an LLC to provide funding to entice future recruits to enhance their No. 1 recruiting status. Just last month, a group of SMU alumni pledged $1 million to endow a program called “PonyUp” to provide NIL money for football players. The PonyUp program, and others like it, flirt dangerously close to violating rules on extra benefits and impermissible inducements, as well as the Title IX law. Meanwhile, with the NCAA role in shambles, our college presidents sit on their hands refusing to act.
In 1906, the NCAA was founded to protect the health and safety of students, with uniform rules to ensure safety in the games. However, today’s inconsistent enforcement of rules and lack of emphasis on athlete health and welfare has led to wondering how SMU might have managed if the Death Penalty had been applied evenly. The obvious widespread recruiting cheating by the pickpockets might have been avoided without the hanging of SMU if college presidents had focused on reasonable compensation solutions rather than invoking a draconian penalty.
Gurney, who holds a Ph.D. in higher education administration, is the co-author (with Donna Lopiano and Andrew Zimbalist) of Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong With College Sports and How to Fix It.