SAM MELLINGER

The real story of the Oklahoma State scandal is that no one cares

Updated: 2013-09-12T04:05:18Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

Just so we’re clear about what’s happening this week:

Sports media giant publishes much-hyped takedown of major college football program … sports world reacts by scratching its belly and fixing a sandwich.

Oklahoma State, one of college football’s rags-to-(literally)-riches stories over the last decade, is alleged by the country’s grandest sports publication to have done it with what amounts to a thorough flaunting of fundamental rules in college sports. The collective reaction is mostly one of the following:

This happens everywhere, the story needs more proof, who cares, and/or the NCAA rules are so absurd it should be open season for schools to cheat.

Those are powerful statements on their own, but the real kicker is the underlying message about the dying relevancy, credibility and viability of the institution that is the NCAA.

College sports’ paying customers just don’t give a damn about NCAA rules.

This is about more than the journalistic questions about Sports Illustrated’s report, of which there are many. These legitimate concerns — about the motivations of those who spoke, and the methods with which their perspectives were gathered — are undoubtedly part of the general public reaction.

Still, this is a 10-month investigation by a well-regarded magazine that found allegations that include coaches paying players, sex with recruiting hostesses, players dealing drugs, and an academic adviser hired without any previous experience in academia. Ignore every bit of accusation from a former player, and there is still enough to call this a scandal, still enough to warrant punishment.

These are major problems.

And the public reaction so far is a chilling truth for everyone inside college sports.

The SI report is only the most high-profile report this week. On Wednesday, Yahoo Sports published accusations that five former Southeastern Conference football stars, including Chiefs quarterback Tyler Bray, received extra benefits. Bray, who played for Tennessee, was alleged to have received $900. The report was accompanied by a column pointing out that none of the schools involved are likely to receive punishment.

Which is how we sports fans have shown we want it.

Whether it’s scandal fatigue or NCAA fatigue, the people — college sports’ paying customers — have spoken. They just don’t care.

If follow-up investigations will determine potential punishments for those involved, the reaction we’ve seen already can be viewed as the ultimate judgment of the fundamentally flawed system of major college football.

Critical rules may very well have been broken, and the customer base is very clearly and overwhelmingly apathetic. Take your rules and shove it. What time’s the game on Saturday?

A quarter-century ago, SMU’s infractions were greeted with gasps and horror. Today, we yawn.

The NCAA — which hasn’t yet responded publicly — as an authority is bankrupt of credibility. The first reaction of so many is to attack SI’s reporting, including a sleek (and genius) page on Oklahoma State’s official website.

NCAA president Mark Emmert has become the face of the public backlash, and he’s promised fundamental change in how the organization makes rules and policy. The question is whether the structure can be saved, or should be.

The NCAA has only itself to blame here. The bureaucrats in charge have been shamefully slow to adapt to the modern sports world, and the follow-up to Yahoo’s investigation of Miami could serve as a how-to guide on flushing credibility. Also, Oregon received the equivalent of five minutes in the timeout corner for the Willie Lyles mess.

If the NCAA is showing itself to have no regard for or ability to enforce its rules, why should anyone else?

The effects of this new landscape are potentially huge. Barring a quick and complete turnaround for the respect of NCAA rules, the message is clear to everyone around college sports: Many fans don’t care if you cheat.

This is not to say that coaches and administrators will necessarily become lax about rules compliance. KU football coach Charlie Weis, in fact, sent an email to staff and administrators about the importance of following NCAA and Big 12 rules. Surely he was one of many head coaches to do that in the wake of what will be, if nothing else, an enormous headache and distraction at Oklahoma State.

But the fear is diminished, particularly the further away you are from a coach’s culpability — those around college sports have much less to lose than those inside college sports.

Enforcement of NCAA rules has always been effectively outsourced to newspapers, magazines and websites. An investigative piece would run, people would be outraged, the school and NCAA would follow up, and punishments would be decided.

That playbook has now changed, because the second step in that process no longer exists. If there is outrage, a big chunk of it is aimed at the rules instead of the rule-breakers.

The structure of major college sports has been agonizingly slow to evolve. The modern world evolved anyway, of course, and has basically left the NCAA and the rules that govern it behind. That’s what we see and hear this week.

Major college football programs may very well have broken rules. A decade ago, this little game would’ve turned college football on its head. There would’ve been disgrace.

This week, there is mostly apathy. Any disgrace is the NCAA’s. Once again, the institution in charge of college sports comes out as the biggest loser. How much longer can this last?

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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