Football Writers Association of America 2005 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: COLUMN
Stewart Mandel, si.com

"Successful academic reform ... requires presidential leadership. There are strong forces driving athletics programs toward better and better athletics performance.

That is understandable and good: athletics is about winning. But it is essential that the response to these forces be made in a wider context of the mission of universities and colleges, which first and foremost are academic institutions.

The champion for this mission must be the university president ..."

NCAA president Myles Brand, State of the NCAA speech, Jan. 11, 2004

Question for Dr. Karen Holbrook, president of The Ohio State University, in light of this week's ESPN the Magazine report about alleged improprieties involving Maurice Clarett and the Buckeyes' football program:

When will enough be enough? When will you heed Brand's directive, step in and do something about an athletic department that continues to bring more shame and embarrassment to your otherwise reputable university than any glory it may have achieved on the playing field?

Whether or not you believe Clarett's tale of cashwielding boosters and free-wheeling car dealers the guy's credibility is more than a little suspect I can only presume that someone like you, Dr. Holbrook, who's devoted her life to the pursuit of higher learning, would be more incensed by some of ESPN's other findings.

In addition to Clarett, four other former players describe being steered by academic advisers to the easiest possible courses with the football-friendliest professors.

Stewart Mandel
si.com
Age: 29
College: Northwestern
Background: Has worked at si.com (formerly cnnsi.com) since 1999, first as the college sports producer, then, since 2002, as the lead college sports columnist. Mandel also is a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated and previously worked at ABC Sports Online and interned at ESPN The Magazine and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Originally from Cincinnati, Mandel now lives in New York City.

One, ex-cornerback Curtis Crosby, left OSU in '02 and tried transferring to Grambling only to find out half his credits, which included courses called Officiating Basketball and Officiating Tennis, would be denied. "What are they doing up there at Ohio State?" he says a Grambling adviser asked him. Former running back Sammy Maldonado showed up at Maryland in '02 with a transcript that included four credits for playing football, three for Issues Affecting Student Athletes, 10 for remedial reading, 10 for remedial math and three for Jim Tressel's Coaching Football class.

Tressel is teaching his players in a football coaching class? Are you familiar with Jim Harrick Jr., Dr. Holbrook? I'm guessing you are, considering you came to OSU in '02 ... from Georgia.

Now, if these allegations were the only dirty laundry involving Ohio State athletics recently, I suppose you could get away with having your athletic director, Andy Geiger, dismiss Clarett as a liar, launch a harmless little probe of the academic stuff and call it a day. But Dr. Holbrook, this is the same athletic department in which the following has occurred:

The men's basketball program is under investigation by the NCAA for major rules violations, including head coach Jim O'Brien giving a recruit $6,000 (to which he admitted and was subsequently fired). Amongst the other allegations: Boosters lavishing former player Boban Savovic with gifts, including air fare to Hawaii (the booster in question, Kim Roslovic, admitted to such in a deposition) and professors changing Savovic's grades to keep him eligible.

Fourteen football players have been arrested since '01. Several of the charges were for petty crimes, but others included assault, felony drug abuse, possession of a concealed weapon, theft and lying to police.

Several current and former faculty members have alleged special treatment of athletes. "They're told exactly which courses are easy. They get every possible break," Marilyn Blackwell, professor of Germanic languages, told The Associated Press. The school conducted an investigation last December and found no instances of wrongdoing, prompting you, Dr. Holbrook, to declare, "We have no systematic problems in the way we work with our student-athletes."

If that's the case, why are we now hearing more of the same, only this time from the players themselves?

You've remained conspicuously quiet, Dr. Holbrook, throughout a tumultuous period for the athletic department. Your only public statement about the basketball scandal was to acknowledge "the situation was clear" that O'Brien had to be fired. Your last public comments about the football program came in July, when you told the Columbus Dispatch, "I continue to have full confidence in Andy Geiger and Jim Tressel and in the integrity of the program they are running." A school spokesperson said Wednesday you would be unavailable for comment, and that the football and basketball scandals are "quite separate."

Together, however, they paint a similar picture of an athletic culture that represents everything wrong with college sports. Myles Brand has spent much of his two years in office preaching the need to bring athletics back into the sphere of the overall university, less like the professional enterprises they've become. No athletic department symbolizes this trend more than yours, which generated a staggering $87 million in revenue in '02-03, the most in the country. You've created a monster, in which little things like coaching ethics and educational values get brushed aside in order to keep feeding the beast.

I understand, Dr. Holbrook, that yours is hardly the only school guilty of such transgressions. But you have the power to do something about it.

As I see it, you have one of three options:

1) You can simply choose to ignore the whole mess that is, if you can sleep at night. While Clarett's accusations, if true, rise to the level of transgressions that got SMU the death penalty, there may be no smoking gun or paper trail for the NCAA to follow. And while jock curriculums and overly hands-on tutors may seem unethical, there's technically nothing in the NCAA handbook against it. Nor does a team's number of player arrests count against it in the BCS standings.

2) You can take the Colorado approach, roll out a bunch of politicians and self-appointed investigators, spend several hundred thousand dollars, show the public you're concerned, then, at the end of the day, let everyone involved keep their jobs and go about their business.

3) Or, Dr. Holbrook, you can actually do something bold. You can shut down the athletic department for a year. A self-imposed death penalty.

By doing so, you'll acknowledge that athletics are the window through which the outside world views your university, and that these scandals are cheapening the hard work of thousands of bona fide students who go there, perhaps even devaluing their degree in the eyes of potential employers.

Lord knows you wouldn't be a popular person in Columbus. In fact, you'd probably have to move, for your safety. But across the rest of the collegiate world, you'd be viewed as a hero.

Comment of the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This is what we're looking for in a column, strong opinion. This writer had something to say, and did a nice job of backing up his opinion with well researched facts. And the column flowed, as if he was simply talking to me, his reader. Really, really nice job. Just hope the Ohio State president listened.

Second place: John Canzano, The Oregonian
Third place: Peter Kerasotis, Florida Today
Honorable mention: Matt Hayes, The Sporting News; Tommy Hicks, Mobile Register