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Pay-For-Play and Fans: Our Responsibility and Our Choice

Well, if you'll forgive the sarcasm, that was fun. The week that started with a new coach in Tennessee to replace deposed and scandal-ridden Bruce Pearl ended with more allegations of pay-for-play against Auburn ... and LSU. (Peterson denial here.) Amid all the new tarnish, we wondered if the bad old days were back for the SEC. And Year2 has already done a good job of breaking down where all the various investigations go from here.

But there's a more fundamental question at stake: Where do we as college football fans and SEC fans go from here? Maybe it's a shortcoming as a sports fan, or maybe it's a virtue, but I've never had as easy a time as some at shrugging off allegations of corruption as "the way things are" and moving along. I hate steroids in baseball, so much so that I don't ever want Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire to even visit a restaurant in Cooperstown, N.Y., much less get in the Hall of Fame. (And as a Cubs fan, I would extend the same remark to Sammy Sosa.) Part of my grudge about Lou Holtz's time in Columbia is the fact that he left in his usual way -- just as the results of an NCAA investigation were about to come crashing down on the program.

We have to care about whether a team has broken the rules or not, because sports is essentially all about rules. The rules say when points are scored, and what you can and can't do to score those points, and they set out the guidelines for fair competition in pursuit of those points. You might not like the rules, and you might think the rules need to be changed. But let's not get into this facile and superficial argument about whether players should be paid or some other rule should be changed. (My take on the payment question is here, here and here.) As long as we have rules, we have to make sure that people follow them. If not, the entire sport breaks down.

But there appear to be few completely clean programs any more. We all know the issues at Auburn and Tennessee and are getting familiar with what allegedly happened at LSU. No one should forget that South Carolina is still apparently under investigation both for Agentgate and conspicuously small bills at the Whitney Hotel, while the Tennessee football program has caught the eye of the NCAA for non-Bruce Pearl matters. Mississippi State looks likely to end up as collateral damage of the Cam Newton investigation -- if only in the court of public opinion -- and questions about Newton's time in Florida have arguably been re-energized. Oversigning seems to fit the cliche that what's really corrupt is what's legal -- and most programs are guilty of that to some degree or another. And even if Houston Nutt hadn't signed an infantry division as a recruiting class a few years ago, he would have the Jeremiah Masoli saga to answer for.

That doesn't even count the players who sell their own jerseys or get caught for doing the dumb things that college kids do. If you think it's just you who's having a hard time figuring out which teams are the rogue programs and which ones are the model citizen, it's not. We'll be along next week with a dramatis personae to help you tell your smiling fathers from your whistle-blowing boosters, because at this point it's getting hard for even those of us who keep up with this obsessively to remember who is whom.

But again, all that can really do is give us a surface understand -- the who, what, when, where and (to some extent) how of this whole situation. The why is still elusive, and what it means is still anybody's guess.

Sure, part of the why is understandable. After all, there are people who are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to have the nicest seats at the game and to have either a condo near the stadium or an RV that can camp out just outside the stadium walls. What's another few thousand to try to make sure that the a four-star offensive lineman protects your quarterback or blocks the five-star running back that's on the team because of the car or SUV that he received from the booster who sits next to you at the game?

The "why" that's somewhat harder to quantify, though, is why we put up with this. And make no mistake about it: We do. Most fans don't get upset at the player who gets paid or even at the player who gets paid and gets caught; they save their anger for the compliance department or the NCAA for doing their jobs and finding the player who broke the rules. Sure, some fans take shots at the coach once the decision has been made to fire him -- usually after a disastrous season that crumbled under the weight of constant scrutiny -- but even then, it's only in some cases and usually with a heavy dose of it-happens-everywhere rationalization. If they're guilty of breaking the rules, then we as fans are just as guilty of aiding and abetting those maneuvers.

So where do we as fans go from here? Maybe it's time to make a decision of sorts. Are we going to stop blaming the rules and start blaming those who break them? Or are we going to continue to dismiss is and encourage the relativism that now threatens to make a mockery of the sport's codes, no matter how many payment plans for players you concoct or how many different ways we think of to assure ourselves that it's not that bad? Because as long as we tolerate it and voice unwavering support for our coaches -- until the team misses bowl season or a player throws the championship-losing pick -- there's not really any true incentive for anyway to actually rid the system of the corruption that seems to be shaking it to its core.

And the future will be full of many more weeks just like the dizzying one that just ended.