THE BEST OF TGS...THE "BAG MEN" OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
The following TGS feature appeared in our kickoff issue of the 2014 campaign, which began our 58th season of publishing. Thus, we return to late-August of that year and one of our memorable editorials...
Every once in a while, we experience an "Abe Ribicoff moment." Ribicoff, if you recall, was the U.S. Senator from Connecticut who famously, and forcefully, told the assembled masses at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago what many of them didn't want to hear.Specifically, Ribicoff bravely, or perhaps brazenly, went off script and upbraided Mayor Richard Daley and his Chicago political machine to their faces, right in their backyard of the old International Amphitheater, for the behavior of their police force against protestors nearby at Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue. Daley and many in the Amphitheater had no interest in being publicly scolded, and let Ribicoff know it by trying to shout him down, but the senator stood his ground, letting 'em have it, anyway. "How hard it is to accept the truth!," Ribicoff repeated exultantly from the podium before putting George McGovern's name in nomination for the presidency.
In 2014, in an offseason filled with ground-breaking headlines (many of those to be reviewed on these pages in coming weeks and months), there was a story in particular that really caught our attention...one in which the majority of the college football fan base will react much as Richard Daley and his cronies did to Abe Ribicoff in 1968, and likely not want to hear, in order to spare damage to what visions they have created of their beloved sport.
For us, it wasn't as much the content of the piece as it was the reaction (or non-reaction) by the national sports media that we found most curious. Especially considering such explosive subject matter.
The story to which we refer first appeared in April on the web pages of SB Nation. Entitled "Meet the Bag Man" and authored by Steven Godfrey, it was an exhausting editorial that attempted to uncover the layers of the shady college sports (football in particular) underworld and the well-known, but little publicized, practice of compensating players under the table. While the review focused almost solely upon the SEC, Godfrey would suggest that his expose' would likely be just as applicable elsewhere in the country, especially within the "big five" conferences.
This is certainly not new territory. Among many similar tales, a Big Ten source once told us how a certain star player in the '60s was routinely rewarded by fans and alums, who would personally deliver "gifts" before home games. Our source's wife happened to work in the student store and would regularly cash thousands of dollars of checks for the star player(s). (The "system" has obviously become more refined over the years, as the practice of under-the-table payments has continued to evolve.)
So, it wasn't that Godfrey was providing any earth-shattering revelations. Cheating has been going on in big-time college sports for almost as long as the games have been played. Godfrey would go the extra mile, however, as he effectively went undercover to gather much of his info and witness countless transactions over an extended period of time.
But what fascinates most about the Godfrey story is that it doesn't focus upon the end result of cheating, instead serving as something of a treatise on the fascinating mechanics of the college football underworld...and how the rule-breakers discreetly operate away from public view.
Godfrey was meticulous in his detail, though, like our attempts in the past to uncover similar subject matter, he was not able to get anyone to go on record. With little or no attribution from sources, the story could understandably lose some of its editorial integrity, which was a reason we never seriously pursued a similar review, and construct the sort of piece the topic deserved, although it was a risk we often considered taking.
Godfrey, however, pressed forward, reckoning that just because sources didn't want to go on record was not a reason to abandon the project. After all, for more than 30 years, the identity of Bob Woodward's infamous "Deep Throat" (the FBI's W. Mark Felt) from Watergate and "All The President's Men" was withheld from the public, but the source existed...and was legit.
We applaud Godfrey, as only the most naive of college football followers could believe that the participating schools are all above-board in their behavior and ethics. And, indeed, in our own past research on the subject, several sources have "guesstimated" that the entire amount of under-the-table money involved in just the SEC alone (combined among 14 schools nowadays) could hit the eight-figure mark, and rising, each year. But rule-bending is certainly not limited to the SEC in this network of face-to-face meetings, handshakes, and, literally, bags of cash.
Godfrey also asserts that similar "networks" exist for almost all of the major schools, not just the those in the SEC, and they mostly function away from the purview of the major donors. Fanaticism among the base of supporters is so over the top at many locales that there is never any shortage of alums or "friends" of the program who are more than willing to provide cash and other "gifts" not just to players, but to recruits...as well as those who can influence recruits. Which also accounts for a substantial amount of "waste" in the entire process, as money and gifts can be lavished upon recruits just to merely make official visits to schools, with no guarantee of eventual signatures. That's why most of the schools probably have no idea of the exact amounts of money that is flowing in the hinterlands to not only aid their recruiting efforts but also to keep many of the players happy within their programs.
These underground "networks" have evolved over decades and use cold cash as their currency. And when one of these operations goes awry and gets spotted by the NCAA, such as the recent Nevin Shapiro debacle with the Miami Hurricanes, it is not an isolated incident, exposed instead by carelessness within a specific network.
What should disturb most college football fanatics is the root of the Godfrey story, that this underground is in fact the steam engine of big-time college sports, yet goes almost completely unpublicized. We agree with Godfrey that it is an almost unavoidable consequence with a culture of such fanaticism. Moreover, we also agree with Godfrey that this sort of behavior is not going to abate when and if schools are able to legally compensate players with added stipends or other monetary mechanisms. The "underground" will continue to exist on the recruiting trail and likely sustain to a large degree in its current form.
Does it all matter in the exercise of forecasting the games, and picking winners and losers? Not really. But we think it's important that you know that we know what it is we are dealing with in college football...and why we are reluctant to participate in the all-too-familiar canonization of high-profile sorts involved in the gridiron business.
Don't, however, expect the major networks to illuminate Godfrey's story. ESPN provided only token coverage, as Godfrey would guest on a segment of Paul Finebaum's radio show in April, but as far as we could tell, no other major network picked up the baton. Which didn't surprise us at all...because, like Abe Ribicoff told Richard Daley in 1968, Godfrey is telling the college football masses something they don't want to hear.
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