Who's your favorite baseball player? Even if you don't like baseball, I'm willing to bet you'll name a power hitter or pitcher. Regardless, as I'm sure many of us on here are aware, professional baseball has been plagued by the steroid bug over the last decade or two. Baseball was almost crippled by a steroid investigation that cast a shadow of cheating over many of baseballs' top names (such as Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Roger Clemens and many, many more premier baseball players). MLB was hit so hard by the steroid craze because it was the last of the three major sports (NFL, NBA, MLB) to implement a steroid testing and banning policy and when MLB finally DID implement a policy, it was widely criticized as the weakest of such in professional sports.
So, what did baseball do? It introduced a stronger penalty and broader list of banned substances - but this was just a front. What did baseball REALLY do? It swept the issue under the rug (proverbially speaking), because what would happen to the sport - America's past time - if many of its' premier players were suspended (thereby acknowledging their guilt)? Would you watch baseball without its' major stars (as I know a lot of people don't like watching baseball anyways, let alone without its' best players).
Now, back to the beginning sentence; who is you favorite baseball player? Odds are that player has taken or is currently taking a substance banned by MLB. The job of steroid engineers is to stay a step ahead of the game in creating substances that cannot be detected and players generally know when they can and cannot use. Whether or not you or I care about steroid use in baseball is irrelevant (personally I don't care if every single one of them is using). Baseball knew it had a problem and once it was too big to contain, it had to turn a blind eye to the situation in order to keep the sport afloat.
Why am I bringing any of this up? I propose that college football may VERY well be suffering the same fate as we speak - and not even necessarily from steroid use.
What's new in college football these days? It seems that with every passing day, another school is put on probation for violations. I've been witness to arguments on this site and in real life interactions about the purity of college football for months now. It has been said that every program that's winning is cheating and it has been said that to some extent, EVERY single NCAA program is cheating. In fact, an article was posted in the Fan Shots the other day highlighting a Sports Illustrated article on how to cheat. Cheating is certainly not new in college football - just ask SMU. But, is cheating so widespread, especially amongst major moneymaking programs that the NCAA (an institution meant "to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount") is also having to turn the other cheek? It certainly seems so with the "slap on the wrist" given to LSU.
There are so many issues and ways to cheat in college football that it is nearly impossible to name them all in one piece, but let brush over a few of the main ones:
A. Recruiting violations (pay recruits to choose a school) - How can you stop (or even blame) a 16-18 year old kid from taking a few dollars to attend a school that they may or may not have been considering anyways? Most major college football programs are going to offer a similarly excellent college experience (although they obviously differ in ways) and most major colleges dedicated to winning are likely the only ones paying players anyways. Money speaks volumes to recruits, but it is not the only tactic used to "pay" recruits for their football services. I don't know about you, but I think this goes on FAR more than we'd like to believe and if the NCAA investigated this matter as far as they'd need to to put an end to it, they'd run out of employees or money. Result? The NCAA only goes after cases that are obvious/publicized and refuses to cripple it's cash cows even when they find guilt.
2. Booster interaction with recruits - Again, how can you stop/blame a kid from taking a gift here or there when they're putting the same services on the line as guys a year or two older than them and getting no compensation. Rhett Bomar certainly enjoyed the money. This also probably goes on far more often than we'd like to believe at ALL schools (not just contenders) because boosters have resources and players just so happen to like resources. Again, think about how far the NCAA would have to dig into this in order to find evidence, let alone at 119 schools. What's the easier and less costly thing to do? Act stupid and only investigate when it becomes publicly obvious that there is a situation (to make it look like you care). The NCAA likes money more than destroying the programs making it for them.
D. Performance enhancing drugs - I'm not even sure this is a problem in college football, but I'm extremely curious. I know there is a drug testing program, but as Bud has pointed out, there is a marijuana testing program and a lot of people believe that many players smoke. So many of the players at FBS schools are physically gifted and have the genetics to look like Greek gods - but if you knew that taking a few shots and maybe a few years off the tail end of your life could earn you fame and fortune now, wouldn't you consider it? I'm suspicious based on these instances and the insane physical characteristics of many Division I football players, although they could just be THAT gifted. I don't believe this to be the case, however, as I think FAR more NFL players are juicing than we're led to believe and I don't see why this wouldn't be the case in college. Here are a quick few cases, along with former fan favorite, Shawne Merriman. I don't think that losing a few players would be crippling to a major program, which is why I don't believe this is a HUGE problem, but I remain curious nonetheless.
Æ. Letting players "off the hook" - The University of Florida has had more players arrested since 2007 (?) than I can count on my hands and feet COMBINED. In fact, as of September of 2010, 31 players had been arrested. What kind of example is this setting for our nations youth, especially under the moralistic NCAA? I'm sure many of us are aware that a lot of these players were basically let off with minimal punishments, especially considering the nature of some of these crimes. Not directly crime related (unless you want to consider this battery), but Brandon Spikes was suspended, what, a half a quarter for gouging a players eye out in plain view of national television? I don't believe the University of Florida is the only school that this happens at, but they are certainly one of, if not THE worst. Why did the NCAA not step in and take further action? Why didn't the NCAA make a stand and say "it's not alright to set a bad example and not suffer severe consequences"? Morally, one could argue that this is a far worse offense against the NCAA than any paying of players, since this sets the worst example and the offenses are literally ILLEGAL. Do you really think the NCAA was prepared to suspend one of its' best, lucrative programs, especially during tough economic times? We have our answer.
Money rules all and without college football, there is no money in college sports. College football subsidizes programs deficits at some schools and has a HUGE impact on NCAA revenues. If the top FBS programs were to go down, would you be interested in college football? I don't think I would and I don't think the NCAA is willing to find out. I believe there is far more cheating going on in major college football that we'd like to believe and I think that much like Major League Baseball, the NCAA is turning a blind eye to much of the corruption going on. After all, if the public doesn't put up a stink, why should the NCAA care?
The old adage goes "if you're not cheating, you're not trying". I wonder if this is indeed true. I don't have any inside knowledge of cheating in college football, but we know about baseball, we know what impact money has on people and we have basically every major FBS program on probation.
So, now I'll ask the question. Who's your favorite college football player? Think they cheated? Do you think the NCAA is sweeping the problems under the mat, much like baseball has?
**Addition** This happened today, and I suggest you read about it. Yet another BCS Superpower (Ohio State) let off the hook.