True fans of college football have known for some time that it's an ugly business. The game we love so much is completely balled up in big money. The sport's immense popularity, fueled to a large degree by alumni loyalty and the intense desire for bragging rights round the water cooler, has created a massive market that is facilitated by television and results in filthy TV contracts.
Television money, in turn, has made multimillionaires out of many a coach. And the lucrative nature of coaching means that there is cutthroat competition to break into the business, and once there, to win games and advance up the golden coaching tree.
But as any coach will tell you, you don't win games without the hosses on the field. And in college football, unlike the NFL, coaches must convince 17- and 18-year-old phenoms to bring their game to the school employing the coaches. Fail in this inherently venal endeavor, and the entire coaching staff crashes and burns.
The pressures to win in recruiting and on the field compel many coaches to break rules and to recruit illegally. The evidence for this comes from the sanctions the NCAA hands down yearly. And for every violator the NCAA catches, Lord only knows how many others slip by Scott free.
But as disappointing as the recruiting dirt is, at least we don't see it on the field of play. We can watch a game of football, played hard and clean and officiated well, and forget about its essentially sordid nature. Out of sight, out of mind.
Sadly, however, the ugly side of college football is now rearing its head in actual games. The cheating that runs rampant in the recruiting arena is now manifesting itself on the field of play. I speak, of course, about the increasingly prevalent tactic of having defensive players fake injuries in order to disrupt up-tempo offenses.
The spread offense has frankly struck fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators across the land and in traditional powerhouse coaches such as Nick Saban. At this point, the spread is running roughshod over most defenses, and it has closed the gap between supremely talented teams such as Alabama, and relative parvenus like Texas A&M. Lacking the imagination to effectively scheme down the spread, defensive coordinators are resorting to cheating, and Saban cynically seeks to hamstring this offense by playing upon fears of player safety. He famously claimed that the spread likely leads to more injuries.
Nobody seriously disputes that these cheating tactics occur. By now every college football fan has seen spread offenses on the verge of incinerating defenses, only to be stymied by defensive players unconvincingly writhing in pain. A few seconds later, we see the putatively stricken players on the sideline with grins on their faces, and a few seconds after that, back on the field of play. These guys will never be confused with Sir Laurence Olivier or Denzel Washington, and they're not fooling anybody.
And it is disgusting.
What we are seeing is players ordered by coaches to cheat. It is shameless, bald-faced and out in the open for all to see. What we are seeing furthermore is the corruption many of us believe underpins college football made manifest on the field of play where we cannot avoid the ugly truth.
This unabashed cheating undermines the game of college football by destroying its integrity. Kids grow up playing football because it is fun, and fans watch the game because it is grandly entertaining. But there's nothing fun or entertaining about seeing grown men, who are supposedly moral exemplars to the young, ordering their players to do the wrong thing on the field of play. On the contrary, it is repellent.
Unfortunately, the NCAA is behind the curve on this one. Rather than proactively and preemptively establish rules to forestall this form of cheating, the NCAA sat on its hands. Presumably the organization will take action prior to next season, but there is no guarantee. Consequently, it is largely up to the media to shame the NCAA into action by copiously documenting the cheating, and condemning it frequently and forcefully. The sooner this contemptible behavior is nipped in the bud, the sooner we can all get on with forgetting about the true nature of our favorite pastime.