If you were shocked this week to learn that Oklahoma State's football program was handing envelopes of cash to players, at least according to a Sports Illustrated investigation, then you must be incredibly naive. Either that, or you live here in the Bay Area, where that sort of stuff always seems to happen someplace else.

Every now and then, someone asks me: "Do any of the schools around here cheat in football?"

I usually answer by telling a story about how, when Fitz Hill became football coach at San Jose State in 2001, he discovered there was no money to buy caps for his assistants during spring practice. So he went out and purchased them himself with his own checkbook. If there was no dough available for coaching caps at San Jose State, I reasoned, there couldn't be any loose cash floating around to pay players illegally.

Our two other local Football Bowl Subdivision programs, Stanford and Cal, have also remained largely circumspect.

Stanford has plenty of rich boosters. But it embraces a culture aligned against athletic tails wagging academic dogs, even with a top-five ranked team.

Cal has had recent problems with its football graduation rate -- which is one reason Jeff Tedford was dismissed after last season -- and was placed on NCAA probation a decade ago for allowing players on road trips to get away with charging too much to their hotel rooms. But envelopes full of major cash? No. Certainly, nothing like the $2,000 to $25,000 per season being handed out to players at Oklahoma State, if you believe the heavily reported Sports Illustrated stories by George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans.


Advertisement

Nevertheless, at all three Bay Area schools, one popular tailgate discussion topic remains the issue of whether the NCAA should just drop the hypocrisy and allow big-time programs to pay athletes a stipend or salary of several thousand dollars. One argument in favor is that paying players legitimately would end illegitimate payments to those players.

That argument, to put it in scholarly terms, is a crock of cow manure. Anyone who buys it is just as incredibly naive as those who believe there is no cheating at all.

If one thing becomes clear in reading the SI stories or the accounts of so many other college football scandals, it is that illegal payments to players are merely a symptom of the disease. The disease involves the crazy desire by certain universities and their coaches, administrators and alumni to reach a major bowl game and/or beat their dastardly rivals. And they'll cheat to do so.

If players were paid through some sort of legal NCAA process, the programs that cheat would not stop cheating. They would simply find ways to pile illegal money or other "benefits" on top of the legal money. The stories about Oklahoma State describe an atmosphere where whatever could be done to beat Oklahoma -- be it allowing players to slide academically, use drugs or take advantage of campus "hostesses" -- was done.

And there's this part of the equation that is seldom mentioned: Players already are paid.

In 2011, a Virginia Tech lineman named Collin Carroll wrote a series of columns for the school paper that laid out the money that makes its way into players' hands over the course of a season. At Virginia Tech, that included a $4,135 check to cover room and board for a semester, plus a $400 "meal enhancement check" and other small per diems for every home game and over Thanksgiving break.

Wait. There's more. During a Sugar Bowl trip, in addition to free meals at several fine New Orleans restaurants, Carroll received $64 per day in spending cash. Additionally, there were $2,775 Pell Grants available for players from difficult financial situations.

"Why do college athletes accept illegal benefits?" wrote Carroll. "Is it to provide for their families? I'd like to think so, but the problem runs much deeper than players' pockets. It's a lack of respect for the integrity of college football."

As a practical matter, the NCAA will have trouble ever instituting a pay-the-football-players policy. As soon as that happens, lawyers will pounce and demand that athletes in other sports, male and female, also be paid. And not even the wealthiest college programs can afford to pay $5,000 or $10,000 salaries to participants in 12 or 14 sports.

Still, as the current Oklahoma State scandal and others show us, money handed to players on a "legal" basis won't solve anything. It still comes down to fair play and honesty. No matter who is paying for the coaches' caps.

(San Jose State now does.)

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.