NCAA must change outdated system with times

Scandals never will cease unless colleges address root cause of needy players and greedy patrons

Do this job long enough and walking into a press box starts to feel like work on some days.

But never on Saturdays, the day I enjoy being a sports writer most. Our experiences shape us all and, for me, nothing offers more appeal professionally than a college football environment. Personally, that has been true for years.

Since watching my first game as a kid at Notre Dame Stadium in awe of how many South Carolina fans traveled to South Bend, Ind., to watch running back George Rogers. Since appreciating the small crowds and big hearts of Division III football many Saturdays in high school going to my older brother's games at Wabash College. Since signing a national letter-of-intent to attend college free at Ball State University, where I played four fulfilling years during the Jason Whitlock Era.

Along the way, romantic notions of Saturday afternoons developed that barely remain. Only baseball bottles and sells nostalgia like college football, which uses tradition to unify alumni and the past to market the present. To say I love the sport for all the opportunities it afforded me would be no exaggeration.

But love of college football cannot be blind for anybody.

See the Sports Illustrated expose of Oklahoma State for what it is, a journalistic takedown in staggering detail that reminds us what a university will compromise to win. See the Yahoo investigation alleging a former Alabama player funneled money from an agent to marquee SEC players, including ex-teammate D.J. Fluker, as the latest example of the need for NCAA reform. See every screaming headline alleging scandal at Football U. as a cry for help from a campus more similar to your favorite one than many want to believe. The flaws lie within the underlying message, not the messengers who did the dirty work for ineffectual NCAA investigators.

The NCAA continues to hear but not listen, which is why only the names and places change in these documented stories of corruption. It happens everywhere. Pretending your alma mater is immune sounds as outdated as thinking you can read this sentence only in the morning newspaper that arrives on your doorstep.

Programs like Notre Dame and Stanford nobly try. Northwestern represents everything major-college football wants to be but, sadly, stands out for being an exception more than the rule. Unleash a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter on most Football Bowl Subdivision programs and my sense is it would result in a damning five-part series somewhere. This just happened to be Oklahoma State's turn.

Over time, the totality of the transgressions indicts the NCAA process more than the 18-to-22-year-olds accused of circumventing it. That doesn't excuse their inability to know right from wrong but extenuating circumstances often require empathy the NCAA's rigidity prohibits. Fluker dealt with poverty and homelessness before leaving for Alabama. I remember a teammate who wore team-issued gear everywhere because he had one pair of jeans. Needy student-athletes deserve resources, not ridicule.

Creating ways for student-athletes to receive money above their scholarships, especially those in football and men's basketball that account for 99 percent of athletic-department revenue on some campuses, might not eliminate the long line of players looking for improper payments. But a stipend would shorten it.

Lift restrictions on extra income. Lend families that can't afford traveling to games a hand. Lessen the number of NCAA rules so there are fewer to break. Find creative solutions. Focus on academic improprieties but forget trying to track impermissible financial transactions. Quit perpetuating the myth that college football players are like every other student. Face the reality that most players at big-time programs major in football and graduate with a degree in whatever they studied between 13-game seasons, off-season workouts, spring ball and summer conditioning.

Johnny Manziel can't relate to a typical student at Texas A&M as much as he can to Justin Bieber. Why not let players as popular — or polarizing — as Manziel share whatever revenue the market dictates for selling memorabilia? Why shouldn't Kain Colter be able to do commercials in Chicago? The U.S. Olympic Committee model for outside income permitted its athletes would be worth studying for the NCAA.

Amateurism might be alive and well at those idyllic Division III campuses I long to visit again or on most Football Championship Series teams. But it has been dead for years at sexier football factories responsible for driving TV rights fees into the billions that serve as the NFL minor leagues. The landscape of college sports has changed dramatically. Yet the NCAA keeps trying to navigate the same road, ignoring the new map. Essentially the method for compensating student-athletes that exists now — room, board, tuition, books — has existed for decades.

Stop using a system that broke long ago. Start fixing it, before all the romance surrounding a great sport fades.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

CHICAGO