All the way back in 1989, seemingly hundreds of years ago, David Whitford wrote A Payroll To Meet: A Story of Greed, Corruption, and Football at SMU. I picked it up at a used book store, curious about a scandal I had heard about, but did not really follow. I’m glad that I read it. A blow by blow expose that was republished in 2013, the book still stings with relevance.
Southern Methodist University, for those not in the know, used to be a college football powerhouse. In fact, it was one of the very top teams in the nation, appearing regularly on network television and sending its players to the NFL. SMU was also, famously, given the “death penalty” by the NCAA for multiple infractions in 1987. It is the only Division 1 school ever to be punished this severely, losing an entire season and all home games for the following season. SMU’s football program, though competitive today, has never returned to its former glory.
Whitford’s book is a systematic investigation into the people at SMU and what they did. It is closely researched, well written and engaging long form journalism. Not concerned with the larger context of student-athletes or criticism of the NCAA (many have issues with the way that the NCAA operates and promotes “amateur” athletics), the book zeroes in on the ambition of SMU, its administration and the football program, and above all, the culture that made it all possible. Whitford writes lyrically of a Dallas history shaped by ambitious men with smarts, charm and tremendous appetite for risk – unconstrained by ethics or morals. Couple that with the desire to excel on the gridiron and the recipe has a determined outcome: payments to recruit and retain the best possible players. What better way to secure talent?
Are things any better today? Considering recent scandals surrounding sports in higher education, it would be hard to argue that we have witnessed a significant improvement in ethics. Nor have we made any significant gains in expectations for college athletes or the institutions they play for, or work for. In fact, recent admissions scandals highlight the outsize role that athletics can play in higher education. What Whitford does all so well is document just how easy it is to cut corners in the name of success. While it may seem like distant history, the story of SMU in the 1980s still imparts important lessons.