To paraphrase what a famously crooked alderman once said about politics in Chicago, "College football ain't ready for reform."
But it could be in short order.
Like a fugitive on the run, the game and its handlers can't catch their breath and don't dare quit peeking over their shoulders. If the nearly dozen scandals uncovered in just the past season or so failed to remind us how widespread corruption is, well, soon come the games themselves. Those begin in earnest with Oregon vs. LSU in Cowboys Stadium, a Sept. 3 contest in which local prosecutors reviewing arrest reports could have a bigger say about who lines up for either side than the coaches. Two weeks later, Ohio State is at Miami, a matchup so tarnished that NCAA investigators probably will enjoy it more than fans. Considering the history of college football reform, all could be forgiven by season's end and fans' anger trained once more on the sideshow that is the Bowl Championship Series.
But for the moment, it's the cops and not the robbers who have momentum on their side.
Granted, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is not going to be mistaken for Eliot Ness. But his decision to make disgraced former OSU star Terrelle Pryor sit out five games — the same penalty the NCAA imposed, but was powerless to enforce once he jumped to the pros — was a promising first step. The college game has been the NFL's de facto minor league since the days of Red Grange, so if nothing else, Goodell's willingness to discipline NFL job entrants for violations committed at State U. acknowledges there is a relationship. The commish can't go after Cam Newton, or Reggie Bush for that matter, but at least now there's a precedent. As they used to say about voting in Chicago, he should take advantage of the privilege early and often.
Simply punishing players, though, is picking on the weakest link and barely begins to address a systemic problem. It's comical every time the NCAA threatens or levies a "lack of institutional control" charge against any school, since it's an institution that can't control its own members. College presidents took over running the NCAA a dozen years ago, but their idea of policing themselves amounted to little more than a plea to hold down the room-service tabs at the organization's retreat in Indianapolis a few weeks ago. The attendees insisted on a higher grade-point average for their teams and a few other cosmetic changes and tried to pass them off as real reforms. The ink was still drying on those when Miami got embarrassed, which should have embarrassed all those presidents even more, since the scold they put in charge of NCAA enforcement, Paul Dee, just happened to be the athletic director at the U while all those fabulous yacht parties and strip-club soirees were taking place.
Who was it that said "high-profile athletes demand high-profile compliance" when the Southern California dynasty that Bush helped build turned up in the dock? Right, the same Paul Dee.
Desperate to prove the presidents are serious this time, or perhaps to hold onto what little credibility hasn't been shredded, NCAA boss Mark Emmert let it be known this weekend that the "death penalty" was still on the table for flagrant cheaters. But he quickly made clear he didn't have the Miami case in mind. No need, since there's little chance of anybody calling his bluff. SMU football was a casualty the last time the NCAA handed out the death penalty — barring a program from competing in a sport — and more than two decades later, the Mustangs are barely competitive. Having seen what it cost once, the presidents hardly have the stomach to punish one of their own. Besides, in the current big-dollar environment, just unwinding the TV contracts already in place amounts to setting the table for the networks' lawyers.
So how about an intermediate step. Under a provision the NCAA has already green-lighted, coaches — as well as schools — will effectively have report cards that reflect the academic progress of the players during their tenure, so that future employers will have a better measure of what kind of programs they run. The measure makes coaches more accountable for their charges, but let's not stop there. Former Florida coach and current TV commentator Urban Meyer proposed that coaches who get caught knowingly breaking rules get suspended, the same way their players do. It's only one more deterrent. But let Goodell sign on just as he did in the Pryor case, and we might have a reform movement with legs.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke.