How cheating has changed.
Illustration by Mike Benny

It’s not often that I have acid flashbacks to the old Southwest Conference—that shady enterprise about which our own Gary Cartwright once wrote “one of its member schools was usually on probation and the majority of its players free on bond.” But this summer, while savoring the latest bit of college-football chicanery, I found myself at a loss for words. The University of Oklahoma—which itself has an illustrious history of cheating—was hauled before the NCAA. As had been revealed last year, three Sooners players—including starting quarterback Rhett Bomar—had accepted money from a Norman car dealership for work they hadn’t performed. The dealership, the felicitously named Big Red Sports and Imports, was owned by one of the school’s boosters. This was a big no-no, and though OU’s punishment was hardly as draconian as some of the sentences handed out in the old SWC days (the Sooners lost a few scholarships and forfeited all of their 2005 wins), it provided no shortage of satisfaction for the schools in the lower half of the Big 12 peninsula. For it had been made official: The Sooners, the reigning conference football champs, were cheaters.

It’s been some time since a Texan could look northward with such intense schadenfreude (actually, about a year, when the Sooners basketball team was hauled before the NCAA for recruiting violations). And there’s good reason for that: The essential nature of cheating in college football has changed. Once you would shudder that a school’s boosters were lining the pockets of eighteen-year-old high school recruits to get them to play for State U. There were rumors of envelopes bulging with $100 bills, new cars parked next to off-campus apartments, unworked summer “jobs” of the Norman variety—and many of the rumors were true. But OU’s recent transgressions aside, college football has moved away from the classic style of cheating and into a different kind of money culture. And it’s worth asking: What does cheating mean these days, anyway?

This being a family magazine, we needn’t get too deep into the sordid history of the Southwest Conference, other than to note that with each passing year the sum total, if not the brashness, of the cheating is staggering. In short: In the eighties, seven of the conference’s nine teams were put on some kind of probation, most memorably Southern Methodist University, which received the so-called death penalty (no football program for one year, no home games the next). In 1987 Bill Clements, a former member of SMU’s board of governors who had just been elected Texas governor, publicly confessed to approving the creation of a $61,000 slush fund to benefit Mustang athletes. Clements insisted that the improper payments would not be stopped but “phased out” over a period of years. Only in the Southwest Conference could one appeal to morality and insist that a defensive end keep receiving his ill-gotten recruiting money.

But the landscape has changed quite a bit since then, and not just because the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1996. The NCAA, too, has changed. The NCAA has become convinced it doesn’t have the legal power (it can’t issue subpoenas) or the manpower to review every single transaction that goes on between athlete and booster. It now primarily relies on institutions to police themselves and self-report their own infractions. This is a Faustian bargain many fans have scoffed at. They point out that when violations are unearthed at a major program, like Oklahoma or Southern California, the NCAA hands out only a meager penalty, if any. Moreover, when it does act, the NCAA is concerned mostly with niggling infractions—exactly when a coach can meet with a recruit, exactly when a coach can call a recruit, or, lately, regulating coach-to-recruit text-messaging. More and more, the NCAA seems like a paper tiger.

This would seem like an invitation to return to the free-for-all eighties but for two bigger changes. The first is what we might call the U.S. News & World Report effect, or the influence of academic rankings. While college presidents of old might have entertained a bit of trickery at the cost of the university’s prestige, the new breed will not. Robert Gates, the former Texas A&M University president who is now the U.S. Secretary

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