This is the state of college football in 2011:
— The game has never been more popular and generated more revenue;
— It's hard to remember a time when the sport looked dirtier.
Television networks are doling out billions of dollars to conferences just to get their hands on a couple dozen games a season. Last season's BCS title game set a record for cable television viewers.
The two teams in that game, Auburn and Oregon, also fit into the other half the equation. They're among the ever-growing list of elite programs that have drawn the NCAA's attention since the start of 2010. Among the others: Southern California, Ohio State, North Carolina, Michigan and Georgia Tech.
"I can't remember a period of time where we've had more questions about various programs, whether it be on the agent side, the recruitment side, or the academic side," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said at the conference's media days last month.
Pay-for-play schemes. Coaches covering up violations. Assistants steering players to agents. Those transgressions have led to calls for drastic changes to the structure of big-time college sports — and there is none bigger than football. NCAA President Mark Emmert is talking reform, and other heavyweights in the world of intercollegiate athletics have been quick to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
"It is something I and my fellow Commissioners think is a very high priority, and are taking seriously," Larry Scott of the Pac-12 said in an email to the AP.
Penn State President Graham Spanier, who leads the BCS presidential oversight committee, added: "We absolutely must put this climate of rule-breaking behind us."
No one would argue with that, but the fact is it certainly hasn't hurt business.
The latest and maybe greatest example came in May when Scott's newly expanded conference agreed to a 12-year TV contract worth about $3 billion with Fox and ESPN.
A couple of months later the Pac-12 announced it would be launching its own networks, both regionally and nationally. That came shortly after the University of Texas and ESPN unveiled plans for the Longhorn Network.
To be sure, fans will be able to tune into everything from basketball to track and field on those new cable channels. There is no doubt, though, that football is the force behind them.
Even in the Big East, a league built on basketball, when ADs talk about the future of the conference and its next media deal, football is the focus.
"Football drives the train," Commissioner John Marinatto said. "There's no question about it. Football is the engine that makes us go."
For the past year that engine has been spouting soot, creating an "extreme sense of urgency" — as Emmert put it this week during a summit of college presidents — to clean up big-time college athletics. Still, the money that schools are making argues, "Why worry?"
"I don't have the feeling that we're that close to a problematic area," said Charles Clotfelter, a professor of economics and law at Duke University and the author of the book "Big-Time Sports in American Universities."
Clotfelter said the integrity of college sports has been questioned as long as there have been college sports — from the Carnegie Commission for the Advancement of Teaching study in the 1920s, which found a "distorted scheme of values," to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in the early '90s, which called on college presidents to take control of their athletic departments.
"So important is the mystique — that these are amateurs playing the game because they love to play and love the school," he said. "If these players begin to look like minor league baseball players, it besmirches it."
Now, here come the dueling extremes of college football. Clotfelter also says the fans who invest in college football, both emotionally and financially, tend to have at least some sympathy for the athletes who break rules.
"They see it as a technical violation," Clotfelter said. "And, in a way, you kind of feel for the kids because the coaches are making so much money."
So if major college football as we know it is not truly in danger of being brought down by the weight of its own misdeeds, why have powerful commissioners such as Delany and Mike Slive of the Southeastern Conference tried to position themselves as lieutenants in Emmert's reform revolution?
Why so much worry about cheaters, rule-breakers and liars in major college football?
"Because it's being done in the name of universities that pride themselves on certain principles, one is following rules, the other is telling the truth," Clotfelter said.
"It makes it more unseemly."
Because no matter how popular college football is and how much they want to have successful programs, university presidents such as Penn State's Spanier don't want it sullying the reputations of their esteemed institutions.
Earlier this week Emmert and his fellow presidents laid out an agenda for sweeping change.
They want to simplify the massive 439-page Division I rulebook, enforce stronger penalties for rule-breakers, boost academic standards and more strongly link academic performance to possible postseason bans. And Emmert wants it done in the next 12 months.
At the SEC media days last month, Slive said "intercollegiate athletics has lost the benefit of the doubt" from those who are skeptical about its integrity.
What it hasn't lost, though, is America's interest, and as long as that's the case the state of college football is strong.
Ralph D. Russo can by followed at: http://www.twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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