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Jane Ahlin, Published September 08 2012

Ahlin: Even at NDSU, no surprise in football player scandals

How should the public interpret North Dakota State University athletic director Gene Taylor’s words when the probable voter fraud charges against eight current and one former Bison football players were made public? As quoted by Jeff Kolpack for a Forum article, Taylor said, “The knowledge that we have in what goes on in an investigation in terms of seriousness – felony violence, theft, DUI, sexual in nature – is very different than putting names on a petition. And that’s how we determined right now why we’re going to let somebody go through court and somebody who doesn’t.”

Forgive me, but my reaction was to laugh out loud. Taylor might as well have said, “See folks, you’ve got your dirty crime and you’ve got your clean crime. Boy, oh boy, we’re tickled pink this is clean crime.”

No doubt, what made his remarks so funny to me was that I’d had the same reaction on first hearing of the charges. Although I am not a football fan, my first reaction was to think that this sort of criminal behavior was – if not tolerable – at least more tolerable than other criminal behavior that seems to crop up in college football programs. After all, the alleged crimes didn’t concern rape at a drunken party or a theft ring at a mall or methamphetamine sales to students or the pummeling of a couple of smart alecks for badmouthing the team.

In other words, voter fraud isn’t violent, brutish behavior. Heavens, voter fraud could be perpetrated by 90-pound weaklings on the chess team or sopranos in the choir.

My second reaction was different. In fact, my second reaction came in response to my first reaction. I wondered why our expectations for football players – not only at NDSU but all across the country – are so low. Whether we are the folks who fill the stadiums and take pride in a winning (or wish-the-team-was-winning) football program, or we are the folks who barely notice, all our expectations for the personal and ethical decorum of football players are equally low.

Well-executed plays (call it athletic choreography) thrill the crowds on Saturday, but those same thrilled fans are not shocked if the player whose athleticism on the field is astounding proceeds to run afoul of the law a few weeks later. It’s happened too many times in too many programs to be a surprise.

Certainly, voter fraud is an unusual crime for football players. (Really, has anybody ever before heard of voter fraud and football mentioned in the same sentence?) Most often, nonviolent scandals concern cheating – somebody else writes the athlete’s paper or takes his test. Running a close second is payola, and in that situation, alumni and relatives of the athlete can be complicating factors, as if the idea that college athletes cannot be paid or given gifts defies understanding. Of course, the bizarre world of recruitment (courtship on overdrive) sets up kids and their families not to understand.

In truth, football at big-name colleges and large universities could be called a quasi-college sport. The young men on those teams aren’t college or university students playing football; rather, they are football players who need a school to play for.

Voter fraud is serious. The proponents of the two ballot measures have had years of effort and good faith work negated by the criminal actions of a few. Then, too, the people to have benefited by the passage of the measures didn’t get their day at the ballot box.

In the news conference, coach Craig Bohl said several times that the team was “focused” and wouldn’t be “distracted” by the charges, and it was clear he and Taylor were on the same page. But here is a red flag: NDSU President Dean Bresciani not only made no appearance, he made no comment. When eight current players – including four starters – are facing charges of criminal activity, the problem involves more than football. No matter the size of the scandal, never should it appear that anybody other than the president of the university is calling the shots.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.