What is going on South of the Mason-Dixon?

The new wave of ugliness started last year.  Reports out of Memphis alleged that Albert Means had been sold like a piece of property to Alabama.  Kentucky (though just North of the Mason-Dixon) fired their head coach on the eve of national signing day when they were caught buying recruits.  Arkansas is coming to grips with a possible investigation due to reports that Texas businessman Ted Harrod violated NCAA rules with some of their players.  South Carolina has been busy as well, reporting a slew of secondary violations in both 2001 and 2002.  In recent months, LSU discovered their tutoring program appears to have committed NCAA violations with several athletes.  Now, the SEC is dealing with the possibility (and some might say strong likelihood) that the success of Tennessee over the past decade is due in part to academic fraud on a large scale, long-term basis.  Allegations are flying around that star quarterback Tee Martin received money and that the number of grade changes for players on the eligibility bubble could rival the number of shoes in Imelda Marcos' closet.

Just how bad is the situation?  In the last 10-12 years, every single football program in the Southeastern Conference has either been guilty of at least one major violation, been investigated (sometimes on multiple occasions), or has had some embarrassing scandal.  Ole Miss, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi State, Auburn, and Georgia have all been sentenced to multiple year sanctions.  Besides the current scandal, Tennessee has elicited 2 FBI investigations and an aborted NCAA investigation following their national championship.  The only team I have yet to call out for violations is lowly Vanderbilt, and yet even they were embarrassed a couple of years ago when star players were caught receiving improper benefits.  Major sporting publications (ESPN and CNNSI) have printed stories shaming the SEC, calling out this conference that leads all leagues with the most major violations of NCAA rules since 1953 (42 violations to be exact) to clean up its horrendous record.  With every additional team on probation, every additional scandal – the SEC's reputation as a rogue league is merely reinforced.  One might think that after the fall of the Southwest Conference, the other traditional Southern league might take notice – but apparently they have not.  

Right now, many media outlets are focusing on the "what" issue.  I.e. – "What exactly went on at Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, and now possibly Tennessee and LSU?"  What rules were violated and how much can the NCAA prove?  What kind of sanctions will the NCAA levy and will the teams win their appeals? 

Meanwhile, the real question here is going unanswered.  I am wondering when someone will pose the question - WHY?  Why does the SEC seem to be rotten to the very core with cheating?  Why do the universities tolerate it?  Why do these scandals not shame administrators enough that they try and clean up the mess instead of sweeping it under the rug with high dollar lawyers and self-investigations (which "amazingly" always find them innocent of wrongdoing)?  Why don't the alumni from these universities stand up and demand a football program that does not exploit and then toss aside young men who were supposed to be getting an education? 

Well, since I live in the region, have family all over the South, and have spent countless hours in football discussions with fans from literally every team in the conference, I am going to hazard a few guesses to try and help explain some of the situation. 

First off, we need to understand that college football as a whole has a dark underside.  NO TEAM is immune.  This includes Ohio State, Penn State, and others who have traditionally tried to win and "do it the right way."  At the same time, I refuse to buy the pathetic comparative ethics belief that, "Everybody does this sort of thing – we just got caught."  Yes, all teams are vulnerable, but some teams and universities actually encourage this sort of behavior in order to win.  At the very least, some programs turn a blind eye, and their administration refuses to even look into any allegations so as to claim "plausible deniability."  Meanwhile, others try very hard to prevent cheating but are unfortunately unable to watch all of their players and all of their alumni all of the time.

So, WHY is cheating so rampant in the SEC?

1.      Regional pride.

The South still carries a wounded ego regarding the Civil War.  Go to Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, or Mississippi some time and tell them your heroes were Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman…  Just wait and see the reception you receive after such remarks.  You will be lucky if the locals do not decide that the time is once again opportune for public hangings.  My father, raised in the South, tells the story of an Ohioan who actually had the gall to tell some Southerners (while visiting in-laws in deep Alabama decades ago) that the North won the War because of Ohio.  He said, "Ohio had three things the South never did have; We had Grant, Sheridan, and we had Sherman…"  He was lucky (quite literally) that they did not take him outside and beat him like a rented mule.  Very lucky indeed.

The South took a tremendous hit in the Civil War, and the North was not exactly rushing down there to help rebuild after it was all over.  Nope.  Quite the opposite occurred.  The North allowed smarmy businessmen to travel South (carpetbaggers) and exploit the families who had been burned out of their homes, lost children, and maybe even seen their mother/bride/sister assaulted by the rabble following in the wake of Sherman's army...  Don't be fooled.  The Deep South still bears little love for any region but its own – and in many respects I do not blame them.  Those sorts of wounds do not easily heal, and Sherman might have been a great deal gentler in his pacification of the populace had he cared to do so.  Thus, the entire South wants to win for its pride.  If it has to cheat in order to accomplish this goal?  So be it.  In some respects, it is considered the lesser of the two evils: "cheat" OR "lose to those hated Yankees AGAIN"...  Given a choice, the former will win every single time.  When an SEC team plays a Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, etc. – it is not just a game but a chance to redeem pride and take (not just win but TAKE) the victory while pummeling that "Yankee" team.  Fans want to be able to say, "The South may have lost the war, but they sure can whip everyone in football…"

2.      The lack of Professional teams

The professional teams of the South have been their college football teams.  Name me a Southern professional sports team from the early 1950's…  Can't think of any?  There are none that competed at the national level.  The Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins, Devil Rays, Miami Dolphins, etc., etc., etc. are relatively recent additions to the region.  While the Packers, Bears, Browns, Steelers, Red Sox, Tigers, Yankees, etc. date back to the 40's, 30's, 20's, and beyond - even the proud Dallas Cowboys have only been around since 1960. 

Besides the local universities, no other baseball, basketball, or football teams played a national schedule.  The wins and losses are therefore magnified because there is NOBODY else for which to root.  If you lived in Chicago in the 1950's, you could pull for the Cubs or the White Sox in the spring and summer - the Bears and the Illini (or Notre Dame or Northwestern) in the fall and winter.  If you were a sports fanatic in the South in the 1950's – say East Tennessee or Alabama, you had only Alabama, Auburn, or Tennessee.  If your team had a poor baseball and football team, then you were pretty much sunk.  You never heard the end of it from your buddies, and you never felt the "thrill of victory" vicariously.  Losses are especially painful in such a situation, and desperation can set in to the point where the fans and alumni do not care how they win so long as they win.  Graduation and NCAA regulations becomes non-issues because the bottom line is that this team HAS to win.  Winning is EVERYTHING because it is the ONLY team you root onward.  If it does not win, then (like a professional team) you either need to up the amount you are paying your talent to be more competitive on the "free agent market" – OR you need to fire your coach.    

3.      The College/University versus the Academic Institution.

The Big Ten and Pac Ten are comprised of academic institutions of higher learning.  They have long, prestigious histories in education and research that overshadow the sports teams.  Ask a prospective engineer, medical, science, etc. student where the best school for their major is and in most (not all) cases – the Big Ten and Pac Ten win out over the likes of the SEC and Big Twelve (both comprised of traditional Southern football powers).  Stanford, Northwestern, UCLA, USC, Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State all have national names in multiple fields of research and education.  This means that the success of the coaches and athletic programs are important, but are not critical for the overall image of the school.  These schools will routinely make local, national, and even international headlines because of research and/or books penned by their faculty and students.  As such, if a sport begins to embarrass the institution as a whole, the institution will rid itself of the coach and kick off any offending players.  When violations occur, an institution will often (not always) even go so far as to self-penalize to ensure the public recognizes that they are not just a "football or basketball school" that is willing to sell its integrity and academic soul for a few wins in athletic endeavors.

Meanwhile, the South has not enjoyed the financial or people resources of the Midwest and far West institutions (with the exception of the state of Texas).  In the SEC, only Tennessee, LSU, and Florida have the large enrollment of a typical Big Ten or Pac Ten university.  Further, in a recent rating of schools by US News and World Report (http://education.yahoo.com/college/essentials/index.html), 9 Big Ten or Pac Ten schools placed in the top 50 best schools while only Vanderbilt represented the SEC.  The picture is just as bleak for the SEC (and bright for the Big Ten and Pac Ten) when it comes to highly rated graduate schools.  The Big Ten and Pac Ten completely outnumbered the SEC and Big 12 in every category:

-         Medical research and Medical Primary care top 50 (of each) – 16 (Big Ten/Pac Ten – 6 (SEC or Big Twelve)

-         Law School top 50 à 13- 6 (with Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida all sneaking in tied at 49).

-         Business 16 - 4

-         Education 15 – 6

-         Engineering (top ten only) 5-0

-         The picture is truly embarrassing for the SEC and Big 12 when you compare them to the Big Ten and Pac Ten in the rankings of the top 5 schools for: Psychology, Clinical Psychology, Political Science, Computer Science, Nursing, Physical Therapy, Social Work, English, History, Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Physics, Masters in Public Affairs, and Sociology.  The final tally from this comparison is an embarrassing 41-0.

-         Again, top 50 schools overall – 9 for the Big Ten/Pac Ten and only 3 for the SEC/Big Twelve (with Texas and Texas A&M sneaking in tied for 48th)

-         The total for all of the rankings considered above from the U.S. News and World Report is:  The Big Ten and Pac Ten 115 – SEC and Big Twelve (which have 3 more schools total to draw from) a lowly 23.

115-23… Ouch! 

This is not to say that you cannot receive a quality education in the Big Twelve or SEC, but it illustrates there is evidence that a differing dynamic exists when it comes to sports and the university as a whole.  In a school not known primarily for its contributions to the world with academics or research, they are faced with a quandary of how can they attract students from outside their local area?  Since it would be cost prohibitive to blanket advertise on television, radio, and print media across the country – another solution must be found.  Enter the athletic programs.  As the primary means of showcasing their university, athletic programs and coaches of major sports often begin to overshadow the university and the trustees.  They put their school on the map and give the university its only serious (and badly needed) national exposure in the news media.  Without the resources and financial backing to hire the top professors and engage in groundbreaking research like Ohio State, Penn State, UCLA, Stanford, Michigan, Purdue, Southern California, California Los Angeles, and California Berkley (among others) - they often rely more heavily on sports programs to attract students. 

In short, the larger, more academic minded institution views sports as a frill that should not embarrass the public perception of the university while the smaller, less research oriented university views sports teams as essential in putting them before the public eye.  The real embarrassment for the SEC is not when their teams cheat but rather when their teams lose.  If you don't believe me, then watch the advertisements for the SEC and compare them to those of the Big Ten and Pac Ten.  Pull out several tapes of games you recorded last season and check out where the emphasis is placed for the various conferences and teams.  Which do they tout more frequently - their research and academic qualifications or their sports championships?

4.      Fans. 

Here is the heart and soul of the problem.  The average Southern fan honestly seems to care very little if their team cheats.  They don't care if their players do not graduate and end up tossed aside like so much worthless chattle after being exploited by the university.  They don't care if their program recruits thugs or offers scholarships to players who plead guilty (or "no contest") to serious criminal charges.  They don't care if the coach has to pressure the tutors and professors to keep the boy eligible.  The bottom line is that they just want to win and will justify almost any behavior in pursuit of the almighty "W."  In all of my years of discussing football with fans of the SEC – I honestly recall only two individuals native to this region (preachers included) saying that their team deserved the sanctions they received.  Every other fan has tried in some way to justify what was done or claim that, "Everybody does it and we just were the only ones who were caught."  Or, "You know what the real problem is don't you… It is that the Northern media is biased against us and wants to take us down because we are winning…"  No joke and no exaggeration… All of the sanctions and even investigations are because of that biased media trying to persecute the innocent SEC!  (Tennessee fans in particular deserve a special mention here for conspiracy theories in the proud tradition of Oliver Stone).

So what does all this mean?

It means the SEC fans and alumni need a complete reorientation before their drive to win will stop within NCAA boundaries, and they will have to come to some conclusions that they have not yet reached.  Only when the SEC fans and alumni reach the point that they are shamed when their team cheats…  Only when the SEC fans and alumni recognize that it is beyond the pale of unethical when young men who grew up in poverty are exploited by 50 year old coaches who are multi-millionaires…  Only when the university professors demand a sense of academic honor in their administration and discover a backbone to oppose wrongdoing…  Only when the comparative ethics excuse of "everybody does it" vanishes and is replaced with personal integrity and responsibility…  Only when all of this occurs – then and only then will the SEC clean its act up.  Until then, expect them to continue to be the rogue conference in the NCAA. 

In other words, in order for the cheating to stop, the dynamics driving it must be altered. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen any time soon.  The pain of the Civil War is fading, but it will likely be at least another 20 years (and maybe twice or three times that long) before a team from North of the Mason Dixon is just another opponent instead of an opportunity to, "Shove all those Yankees' noses in it again for what they did to us."  Industry has aided in population and economic growth in many regions of the South, but some areas in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia it will still be many years before professional teams come to town.  The universities are growing and their faculty is improving, but they are not going to morph into top-flight academic institutions overnight.  The alumni and fans are starting to discover the embarrassment of being thought of as a disgrace and rogue conference, but it will be a while until the sportscasters and talking heads have the gumption to call the teams out on a regular basis (or the TV folks are not allowed by the NCAA to televise the games). 

All in all, I think that it is too bad that the SEC schools are constantly running afoul of the NCAA.  Their behavior is hurting their players, their fans, and even the sport of college football.  These schools and their fans are better than that; they can win and do it the right way.  Too bad they do not realize it…

Postscript:

This article is not intended as a judgment upon the South.  It is offered as an observation of what may contribute to the delinquent nature of SEC and the now defunct SWC football programs.  Certainly some would disagree with what I have written (and granted - every generalization can be broken down and made to look illegitimate).  However, I have observed these patterns of behavior over and over and over and over again for years.  Nor is this article something hastily penned because I have some ax to grind against all things Southern.  Quite the contrary - in many respects, I consider the South a superior place to live in comparison to the Midwest, and I actually – gasp – prefer it to a lot of places in Ohio (though after this article I may need to enter the witness protection program). 

At the same time, fans of the Pac Ten or Big Ten should not engage in snooty or moralistic behavior, nor should they look down their noses upon the South.  There are coaches in the SEC who seem to be trying very hard to keep their programs clean (including Tubberville first at Ole Miss and now Auburn and Spurrier before he left Florida).  Further, when Big Ten schools have handed the reins of their programs over to coaches who have been either inattentive or willful cheaters, scandals such as the Michigan and Minnesota Basketball programs have occurred.  The Michigan disgrace in particular is worthy of mentioning as it is now the largest payment scandal in all of NCAA history and makes the sensational Albert Means and Alabama scandal look like chump change.  In the end the South is not a barbaric, 19th century pit of immoral practices with the Big Ten and Pac Ten being the pinnacles of purity.  Don't scorn the South, and don't think that the Midwest is perfect. Both regions have serious flaws - they are just different in nature. 

 


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