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The school of hard cash

| Friday, March 29, 2019

The headlines were the tastiest click-bait as the FBI rounded up dozens of affluent actresses and business leaders in a nationwide college admissions scandal. These ambitious parents bribed test-takers, exam monitors and coaches to help their sons and daughters enter target universities. This is a scandal involving the merely rich, as opposed to the filthy rich who traditionally seek to influence admissions decisions the old-fashioned way — by donating huge amounts of money to endow eponymous buildings and playing fields. 

The merely rich obviously think their offspring cannot rely on good fortune and hard work to succeed, dismissing the formula landing them profitable roles as actors or CEOs. The crooks running the bribery scam recognized and exploited this insecurity and anxiety. William Rick Singer, head of the college preparatory business at the center of the scandal, summed it up nicely in a call recorded by the FBI: “What we do is help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school. My families want a guarantee.” 

Rather than devote any more time to the miserable world of paid college admissions, I prefer to move on to an even more lurid tale at the crude intersection of college athletics, big business and Texas politics. The main protagonist was William P. Clements. His family lost their Texas farm in the Great Depression, and Clements worked as an oil field roughneck before attending college. He dropped out to begin a career in drilling, eventually founding SEDCO, at one time the world’s largest offshore drilling company. 

In 1978, Clements became Texas’ first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Led by poor performance in the oil industry, Texas suffered a severe economic downturn and Clements was defeated for re-election in 1982. What happened after his defeat was especially interesting. Clements chaired the Southern Methodist University Board of Governors in 1983, around the time he became involved in a plan to upgrade the athletic programs at SMU — especially football — to compete on a national level.

SMU had already been hit with probation by the NCAA, but the unrepentant response was to come up with a better way to succeed in sports. The plan was simple and has been applied in any number of institutions before and since: pay top high school athletes to attend the school. SMU’s plan was especially effective because it involved untraceable cash — lots of it — and had the apparent blessing of top school administrators. There was no “lack of institutional oversight”; all elements of the pay-for-play plan were institutionally approved. When SMU president L. Donald Shields meekly objected to the proposed payment scheme, Clements told him “not to be so self-righteous.” Clements was downright dismissive of Shields’ feeble attempts at oversight, telling him “to stay out of it,” and “go run the university.”

While the plan fell short of producing a national championship, it did deliver quick results when both of Texas’ top-rated running backs, Craig James and Eric Dickerson, decided to attend the small private school. Dickerson had already committed to Texas A&M (and received a Pontiac Trans-Am SMU supporters dubbed the ‘Trans A&M’). The scope of the enterprise was impressive, but it also ultimately led to inevitable leaks from disgruntled athlete “employees” and the embarrassing destructive collapse into the athletic hell of the NCAA “death penalty,” with total loss of the football program in 1987 (university officials later canceled the 1988 season) and ongoing bowl and scholarship restrictions.

When Clements sought reelection in 1986, another plan was hatched to keep his involvement in the athletic scandal quiet until after the election. Athletic director Bob Hitch agreed to act as SMU’s “fall guy” for $246,000, telling NCAA investigators in December 1986 about the improper payments as part of an agreement under which he would remain anonymous and the NCAA would not seek to interview other persons. The NCAA went along with this proposal. 

The role that Hitch played in burying the details of the scheme, along with Clements’ involvement, were finally set out in a report Methodist bishops produced in 1987. While it might be seen as small consolation, one of the bishops remembered SMU was ostensibly a religion-based university and noted, “At SMU, the basic principles of Christian faith should guide the board of governors to aim for a higher level of actions than at a state university. ‘Everyone is doing it’ can never be an excuse for SMU.” Despite such stark examples of recrimination and regret, the temptation to favor money over merit still can operate to crush a reputation and create a lawless legacy.

Clements’ own son, Ben Gill Clements, graduated from SMU and became president and CEO of SEDCO, retiring from the drilling industry in 1983. Afterwards, Ben Clements developed property in east Texas for an exclusive hunting and fishing retreat. He especially wanted to buy land from a neighbor who refused to sell at any price. Details are sketchy, but following months of insistent efforts to obtain the property, Ben Clements’ bullet-riddled body was found in 2010 in a shallow grave on the neighbor’s land.  Heartbroken, Bill Clements passed away the following year.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Rich Boy,” he observes: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” You may find it hard to fathom the sense of entitlement driving some wealthy persons to ignore the rules governing the rest of us, but clearly they grapple with temptations and insecurities of their own. Blessed are the poor, who cannot afford sin and retribution on such a grand scale.

 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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