Sports Illustrated is publishing a blockbuster series this week on Oklahoma State University’s football program.
The first part went online today and it is oh-so-scandalous, featuring sordid details of the under-the-table cash payments OSU players have been receiving for years. Imagine Martin Scorsese on college football and you’ve basically got the idea -- socks stuffed with cash; no-show jobs; boosters strolling down the aisle of the team plane, distributing envelopes like a Mob boss paying his capos.
The system operated as you might expect. “It was just like in life when you work,” Thomas Wright, a former OSU defensive back told SI. “The better the job you do, the more money you make.”
There’s no denying that this is an impressive piece of reporting. Here’s the problem, though: SI is basically doing free investigative work for the NCAA, which will probably turn around and impose harsh sanctions on Oklahoma State for having violated its rules in such flagrant fashion. The whole purpose of investigative journalism is to disclose abuses of power. Part 1 of the series represents a perversion of that purpose: It essentially reinforces the power of the real abusers -- the NCAA cartel that colludes to prevent players who generate millions of dollars for their schools from being paid for their services.
Rooting out “corruption” is only meaningful if the corruption is real, and not simply a matter of violating a set of rules designed to protect an ethically bankrupt system. Sports Illustrated isn't just buying into the NCAA’s bogus morality, it is helping to prop up the NCAA against powerful market forces that would otherwise reward college athletes.
While paying athletes under the table may be “cheating” by the NCAA’s definition, it’s really just the inevitable result of the NCAA's own price-fixing scheme. All of the money that college athletes generate has to go somewhere, whether to the college administration, coaches, facilities or the athletes themselves. A similarly basic rule of economics dictates that if an individual -- say, a college football player -- is generating significant revenue, some entity will be willing to pay him for that valuable economic contribution.
It looks as if the rest of the SI series will focus on genuine scandals at OSU, notably the school’s effective pimping of college women. (Coming Friday, a takeout on Orange Pride, the football program’s “hostess group,” some of whose members apparently had sex with recruits to help sell them on the school.) So I’m not saying Oklahoma State doesn’t deserve every bit of what’s no doubt coming. Just remember that the institution empowered to punish it is the same one that’s responsible for creating this sleazy underground economy in the first place.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)