John Gilbert: Gophers long-distance phone scam holds off threat of integrity
The only good thing that came out of the University of Minnesota's basketball-inspired athletic scandal was a certain confidence that once it got cleared up, everything would be squeaky clean. We believed in president Mark Yudof's earnest house-c...
The only good thing that came out of the University of Minnesota's basketball-inspired athletic scandal was a certain confidence that once it got cleared up, everything would be squeaky clean. We believed in president Mark Yudof's earnest house-cleaning and empathized with his long and dififcult search for a new athletic director, and we trusted that it should have put an end to the above-the-law arrogance that had infested the department.
Only the worst cynics among us raised an eyebrow when university officials said they would never entrust any coach with the autonomous power that Clem Haskins had abused, and almost simultaneously they increased football coach Glen Mason's annual earnings up to the $1 million mark. At least the football program was clean.
So it was devastating news, a couple of weeks ago, that someone with access to a university administrator's office had stolen that administrator's telephone access code and used it to make some unauthorized long-distance telephone calls, then handed off the code to numerous friends, whose calls ranged from $1.50 to $100-plus, causing the phone bill to soar past $1,000. The news that 13 football players were among this select group of criminals was not exactly the public-relations bonanza the University of Minnesota athletic department had hoped for a week before the underwhelming Gopher football team departed for Florida and something called the "Micronpc.com Bowl" game against North Carolina State.
This would be the chance for the university to show its new, clean-scrubbed face, and for Coach Mason to show that his bloated salary would be worth a quick payback in integrity. I figured he would express disappointment that, with the spotlight of controversy still shining on the Bierman Building, some of his personally-disciplined football players broke the law, and he was forced to leave them home when the Gophers went off to Florida for a week (if not a moment) in the sun.
This would have been easy discipline, because the Gophers would be playing in a bowl nobody cared about and might have earned the undermanned Gophers some support to win one for ethics. But "ethics" and "Gophers" still don't seem to fit into the same sentence. Mason feigned ignorance of the issue, and he insulted the intelligence of every Minnesotan by declaring, sternly, that these football players would not be allowed back on the team--unless they made financial restitution for the phone charges. They all paid it back. What a surprise!
The Twin Cities media jumped up and saluted. One television guy explained that there also were some non-playing students involved in this mini-scandal, but the repayment rule showed "that the football players are held to a higher standard." Another Twin Cities television outlet breathlessly reported the "good news," that this incident "was not a violation of NCAA rules," which meant that the university could determine and administer punishment (or lack of it) without incurring a repeat investigation and punishment from the NCAA -- which, it might be explained, does not take kindly to repeat offenders.
But this is not just a misstep by innocents. If someone stole your business or personal telephone credit card and charged a couple of unauthorized long-distance calls, then handed the card around so that dozens of others could do the same, you would probably want to see them punished to the fullest extent of the law.
The crime part of it could best be compared to a dozen or so football players and a handful of non-athletes deciding to do a little shoplifting. So they all going into a Target store, and some take a buck-and-a-half can of shaving cream, while others take a dozen $14.99 compact discs. Are the ones who stole less expensive things less guilty?
The university said it would be unable to disclose the identity of the football players involved because of data privacy rules. Leaving the criminals at home would have provided a clue, of course, but maybe the players involved are too important to the team. And maybe when all the information comes out it will be half the football team, rather than just 13 players, but many of them might conveniently be using up their eligibility this week.
Whatever, Glen (Million-Dollar) Mason has his team back intact. Too bad we can't say the same for his, and the university's, integrity. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
John Gilbert is a sports writer for the
Up North Newspaper Network. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .