Commentary

Making the wrong argument

Focusing on corruption takes focus off real problems in athletic system

Updated: September 13, 2013, 4:02 PM ET
By Jason Whitlock | Special to ESPN

I get angry and emotional and convulse childishly on Twitter whenever a large sports media outlet releases what I believe to be an unsophisticated investigative piece about corruption within college athletics.

Reports like these foment a level of simple-mindedness that causes the public and the power structure to think the solution is the denial of opportunity.

This week the headlines have been dominated by Sports Illustrated's expose on the alleged corruption within the Oklahoma State football program. Yahoo! Sports joined the party, releasing its own document-rich story about SEC players receiving NCAA "illegal" benefits from agents.

Dan Wetzel, a journalist I highly respect, wrote a column stating that these NCAA scandal stories reveal the folly of NCAA rules and pull back the curtain on the seedy underbelly of big-time college sports. He argues we need more of these stories.

I respectfully disagree. The public is well aware of college athletics' seedy underbelly. Over the past 30 years, there have been numerous books, movies and magazine/newspaper stories written detailing the corners cut in pursuit of athletic greatness. People don't read these stories to learn how college programs operate. People read the stories to see who is going to lose their job, which school is going to have scholarships and victories stripped.

It's vigilante justice, and crowds gather to view the hanging.

The stories do not promote healthy NCAA change. The stories demonize the "greedy, immature, uneducated, entitled, mostly-black" athletes and bait sports fans, the media and college administrators to view the denial of opportunity as a solution.

In reaction to the SI stories, Berry Tramel, another journalist I highly respect, wrote a column on Wednesday for The Daily Oklahoman that stated "some athletes have no business being on an NCAA campus."

This is a popular sentiment among some sports writers, some sports fans, some college educators and a few coaches and administrators.

Here's what it sounds like to me: The problem with college athletics is these poor, unprepared black kids. Less of them, less problems. Headache over.

This is why I get emotional and occasionally say dumb stuff in a fit of anger. That said, I need to remember that my tantrums distort and damage my message. This isn't about Twitter spats or my sparring with critics. This is about the critical issue concerning at-risk young men, an issue many seem to want to ignore or exploit.

And this isn't an indictment against investigative journalism. I believe in it. I've done it. Instead, I'm against the type of investigative journalism that a seasoned journalist like my colleague, Brett McMurphy, can pick apart with a few simple phone calls. In a matter of a few hours, McMurphy punched major credibility holes in Sports Illustrated's takedown of Oklahoma State football.

And I get emotional about the type of investigative journalism that leads the public to believe the solution to the problems facing big-time college athletics is the denial of opportunity to poor, unprepared black kids.

Many of those kids are my best friends. I know their stories. I've seen them evolve. I know firsthand that letting 40 to 60 of those kids (between football, basketball, track, etc.) every year on a college campus of 10,000 to 40,000 students does not jeopardize the academic mission of a major university.

Oklahoma State University and its 23,000 non-football-playing students are just fine. Several thousand of them can drink to excess, smoke weed, flunk out, underachieve, pass around old exams and papers at fraternity and sorority houses and blow their parents' money with nary a sportswriter moralizing for five days about the "dirty game" of Animal House. No one is all that interested in pulling back the curtain of their sleaze and filth. That's a sleaze and filth many of us enjoyed in our youth.

But football and basketball players must not be as irresponsible and immature as other college students while providing free labor for the NCAA. Their transgressions are a bane to society and must be rooted out by any means necessary. The moralizing is rooted in jealousy, a belief these kids are catching an undeserved break and an inability to think critically.

This is personal to me. I played college football at Ball State University in the late 1980s. The best player on our team was a linebacker from Detroit, Tim Walton. He was headed to Michigan State, but he got shot in a Burger King parking lot when he defended a friend who was being robbed of his jewelry. The big schools backed away from Tim. He was rough and slick. Coaches questioned the character of his friends. Ball State gave Tim a second chance. He nearly blew it. He got a 1.0 grade-point average his first semester.

"I'll never forget Coach (Rick) Minter bringing me into his office," Walton said, referring to our defensive coordinator, now linebackers coach with the Eagles. "He said, 'Tim, I can't use you. You want to go back to Detroit. You're not mentally ready for college and college football.' That was sobering to me. It was a wake-up call."

Tim was a four-year starter. He was the MVP of our 1988 squad. He turned into one of our best students. He graduated with a degree in Business Management. He and his wife are both successful and raising a son who has a chance to be a better player and student than his dad.

Rick Majerus coached basketball at Ball State when I was on the football team. Majerus recruited a guard -- Keith Stalling -- from one of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods, Englewood, Derrick Rose's 'hood. Keith was a Prop-48 kid. He wasn't academically qualified to play his freshman year. He was poor. He came to Ball State with a single trash bag of clothes. When it turned cold, I gave him my spare winter coat. His freshman year, during a sh*t-talking session with a football player, Keith accidently spelled cat K-A-T.

In an effort to catch up academically, Keith worked with Ball State tutors every day for hours. His enthusiasm and resolve to compete academically wavered from time to time. But he stuck it out. He ignored the ridicule of other athletes and students. His senior year, he was the MVP of the basketball team. He graduated. As an adult, he recently completed the class work necessary to attain his master's degree. He needs to take and pass the test to earn his master's. He went back to Chicago and became a history teacher in the Chicago public schools.

He is one of the finest, most amazing human beings I've ever known. His passion for education and intellectual evolution is inspiring.

I'm not going to tell you the real name of this next athlete or where he played football. He was neglected as a child by both of his parents. He ran the streets and fended for himself. He was a great athlete. His lack of structure and guidance cost him his freshman and sophomore years of high school. He was a terrible and truant student.

A couple in his hometown took him in before his junior year. He applied himself academically and became a huge football star. Many colleges recruited him. His bad academic transcripts from his freshman (14 years old) and sophomore (15) years created a huge problem for interested colleges. An administrator at his high school knew his entire backstory and witnessed his transformation once he was in a stable home environment. The administrator changed his transcripts so he was eligible to receive a football scholarship.

Once he got to college, he still had a lot of catching up to do academically. He earned a .7 grade-point average his first semester. The school assigned a tutor to work with him every day. He adjusted to the environment. He graduated. He's not perfect. He's a very good person. He has a good job. He's on a good career trek. I thank God that America is a place where a kid can get lucky and overcome parental neglect.

But I don't make my living intentionally or unintentionally demonizing the mistakes of young people.

My goal as a sports journalist is to help you understand why and how those mistakes are made and what we can do to eliminate some of those errors. It's why I'm excited to return to ESPN. The brightest minds in all facets of sports journalism work here, and with their help and support, I hope to achieve this goal across a much broader, more effective platform than Twitter.

Let me go back to Wetzel's point about this brand of investigative sports journalism peeling back the curtain shrouding college athletics.

That curtain was lifted long ago. No different from the curtain being lifted around gun and gang violence in inner cities across America. The shooting deaths are no longer front-page news. We know it happens. We need journalism that sparks a conversation focusing on what could combat the root causes of inner-city violence -- hopelessness, joblessness, mass incarceration, the destruction of the family unit and the gross moral decay of popular culture. Former Oklahoma State coach Les Miles isn't anywhere near the root problem of college corruption. The coaches, administrators and tutors that brow-beat unenthusiastic athletes to attend class and do schoolwork aren't near the root problem.

The problem is the NCAA system and its refusal to deal with today's reality. The NCAA's morally bankrupt amateur model, a system the NCAA's modern architect, Walter Byers, analogized to plantation slavery in his memoir, is at the root of the corruption we sensationalize for attention.

Big-time college football and basketball have been profe$$ionalized. The NCAA, its television partners and the leagues (NFL and NBA) that benefit from this professionalization need to come together and figure out a way to develop and support our athletes starting around age 13 or 14. European countries do this in soccer. Major League Baseball spends millions of dollars developing children in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.

But we can't do it here? Child, please. I blame us, the media, for not demanding that America serve its athletes better. We threw a 30-year tantrum for a Division I college football playoff. How long are we going to tolerate this covert tantrum to run poor kids out of college football and basketball?

• Columnist for Fox Sports from 2010-2013
• Columnist at the Kansas City Star for 16 years
• ESPN.com Page 2 columnist from 2002 to 2006

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