WHAT now for Oklahoma State's football program?
The Cowboys were one of college football's top stories last week due to a Sports Illustrated series that explored alleged academic shenanigans, drug use within the program, players being paid for performance, and some recruits having sex with female students who were assigned to serve as hostesses during visits to campus.
It was all pretty unseemly. Much of it was strongly rebutted by former players who defended not just the program but some of those who were named by the magazine's sources as having had a hand in the alleged misbehavior.
SI, a serious magazine throughout its 60 years in print, isn't likely to win any prizes for the quality of its journalism in this instance. The magazine's sordid picture of the program included no documentation — not a text message saved by a former player, or a financial statement, or a conspicuously well-written term paper. Contrast that with Yahoo Sports' report late last week alleging five Southeastern Conference football stars had received extra benefits in violation of NCAA rules. Yahoo Sports cited text message records, Western Union fund transfers, banking statements, flight receipts and other financial material.
SI's stories were based primarily on interviews with former players, many of whom had been dismissed from the program or transferred. Several had criminal records. At least a half-dozen of those cited as sources recanted, even accusing the magazine of taking quotes out of context and worse.
SI reported one player was overpaid for minor work at a booster's rental house; no such rental house exists, according to the booster's son. The magazine said one source had a degree from OSU; he didn't graduate. Some of those accused of wrongdoing are deceased.
On Saturday night, a record home crowd of 59,061 turned out to watch the Cowboys play lowly Lamar University. Coach Mike Gundy said there was a special energy on campus before the game. Some of his players felt the same support. “It shows you that no matter what, Stillwater's got your back,” quarterback J.W. Walsh said.
The temptation among OSU fans will be to dismiss the SI piece as shoddy journalism, cowritten by someone who reportedly is no fan of the Cowboys. That's natural. The OSU administration, though, should use the magazine's work to improve its practices where possible.
One would be its four-strikes-and-you're-out policy for players caught using illegal drugs. That needs to change, as it should at any school with a similar plan. Four strikes? But OSU also needs to give players better access to professional help. The man handling drug counseling duties for the football team isn't licensed to do so. Instead he's primarily a strength and conditioning coach and a spiritual adviser.
The football program's Academic Progress Rate — a formula that tracks retention, timely graduation and other classroom standards — was third-worst among the 65 schools in BCS conferences. The Cowboys need to improve in this area.
One installment of the SI series alleged that some players were given envelopes of cash by boosters after games, or were paid for doing little or no work for backers of the program. Some of the claims seemed outlandish. But why not use this episode to redouble efforts to ensure boosters and players and coaches know the rules?
Oklahoma State, highly successful in so many sports through the years, always longed to reach the big time in football and stay there. It has done that, with a beautiful stadium, first-class facilities, talented players — and now, with a high-profile portrait that wasn't flattering but could nonetheless prove useful.