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2011: College sports' most scandalous year?

By Lateef Mungin, CNN
updated 6:38 AM EST, Sat December 31, 2011
Jim Tressel resigned as Ohio State's coach earlier this year.
Jim Tressel resigned as Ohio State's coach earlier this year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Before Penn State and Syracuse, other schools were rocked by scandals this year
  • "There is no question this is the most scandal-plagued collegiate year ever," Eddie George says
  • But one sports historian says 1951 had more damaging scandals than this year

(CNN) -- Even as early as last summer -- when several big name college programs were roiling under allegations of improper gifts, academic fraud and recruiting violations -- sports analysts had dubbed 2011 the year of college sports scandals.

But then came the fall, when the child abuse allegations at Penn State and Syracuse eclipsed everything that came before. Allegations that, many said, exposed the ugly underbelly of long-buried secrets at these august traditions.

"There is no question this is the most scandal-plagued collegiate year ever," said Eddie George, a former Ohio State running back and Heisman trophy winner.

"You look at Miami and Ohio State earlier and now the unthinkable at Penn State and Syracuse -- this year, the stories off the field far overshadowed the play on the field."

In the beginning

As the year started, Ohio State was reeling from claims that players violated NCAA rules by trading team memorabilia for body ink at a tattoo parlor under investigation for alleged drug trafficking and money laundering.

By June, the school had suspended several players, its legendary football coach Jim Tressel had resigned, it was banned from a bowl game next season and the university was placed on probation for three years.

Southern Cal dominated headlines early in 2011 with the continued fallout about former Trojans running back Reggie Bush.

The NCAA said Bush and his family received thousands of dollars in improper gifts and benefits, including cars and a house, from would-be sports agents while he was at USC. In June, authorities announced that USC would have to forfeit its 2004 national championship win.

North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, LSU and Georgia Tech also had their reputation sullied under allegations of academic fraud and recruiting violations.

Then came what many thought -- at least at the time -- the worst scandal of the year for college sports.

In August, a report surfaced that a booster showered University of Miami players for years with cash and jewelry, paid their restaurant and nightclub tabs and supplied them with prostitutes. The college is still under investigation about the allegations that Nevin Shapiro leveled against it.

"I honestly don't think the sport has ever had as tumultuous of an off-season as we had during this year, " ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said at the time the scandal broke. "I do mean 'ever,' and I'm referring to the entire history of the sport."

Herbstreit may have spoken prematurely.

November brought allegations that Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator had sexually abused young boys over a span of at least 14 years.

Prosecutors contended Sandusky -- who coached at Penn State for 23 years and remained a presence on campus after his retirement -- met the boys through a youth charity he founded, and abused them in the basement of his home, hotel rooms, a high school wrestling room and the locker room for Penn State's football team.

Sandusky has pleaded not guilty to all charges, saying in interviews that while he may have "horsed around" with children, he never sexually assaulted them.

But the fallout was wide-ranging. The school's former athletic director and a university vice president who oversaw campus police will face trial for not going to the authorities when one of the alleged sexual assault was brought to their attention.

And Joe Paterno, who had served as head coach since 1966 and sent more than 350 former players to the NFL, lost his job amid criticism that he hadn't done more when the allegations surfaced.

Later in November, Syracuse fired its assistant basketball coach, Bernie Fine, after three people, including two former ball boys, said he molested them for years. No charges have been filed against Fine, but multiple investigations have been launched.

"The cheating and recruiting scandals have been going on for a hundred years," said Allen Sack, a University of New Haven professor who has written books about college sports scandals. "But what you're seeing right know with the (alleged) pedophilia is unprecedented."

Is 2011 really the worst?

But Ronald Smith, a retired Penn State professor, disagrees that this year is college sports' most scandalous. The historian says that ignominious distinction belongs to 1951.

That year, three City College of New York were arrested for conspiring with gamblers and fixing games. The arrests were just the tip of a thread that kept unraveling.

In the end, the investigation led to the arrest of 32 players from six other colleges: Manhttan College, Long Island University, New York University, Bradley University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Toledo.

Also that year, a cheating scandal at West Point led to the dismissal of 37 Army football team members. It also turned the college's focus away from the football program, a powerhouse until then.

The year is also remembered for a series of photographs that captured the racial tensions of the time during a game between Oklahoma A&M and Drake University.

The photos showed the Oklahoma defensive tackle, who was white, punching Drake's black running back during two plays. The running back, Johnny Bright, was the nation's leading rusher at the time, and Drake was unbeaten. But when the attack knocked Bright out, Oklahoma went on to win.

The gambling and point-shaving scandals in 1951 were incredibly damaging because they put the authenticity of games in question and could have severely damaged all of college sports, Smith said.

"I don't think you can come up with more than that this year," Smith. "By far, 1951 was the most scandalous year in college sports history."

This, from a man who has been personally affected by the Penn State scandal.

"This is the worst scandal that (has) hit Penn State; nothing (else) even comes close to this," Smith said. "It is hard to calculate what the fallout will be from this. There will be so many civil suits. And students are now wondering if their Penn State degrees will hurt them in their job search."

Smith said one of the reasons he chose in the 1960s to work at Penn State was its reputation of integrity and the fact that the school was known as a place where powerful football coaches were not allowed to pressure professors to grant athletes better grades.

Sack, the University of New Haven professor, agreed. Penn State and, specifically, Coach Paterno had a great reputation for running a clean sports program, he said..

"Joe Paterno has always been seen as a bastion of integrity," he said. "And for this to happen at Penn State makes you wonder where else has this happened? It makes you wonder -- God, what could be next?"

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