The scandal shook a state to its boots — payoffs, lies, conspiracy, all involving people who, said one observer, "convinced themselves the rules didn't apply to them." Ah, but the scoundrels got caught.
That would teach a football program to test the NCAA.
That black mark on human history was featured recently in ESPN's "30 for 30" series with a show on the deeds that earned SMU college football's "death penalty" in the 1980s.
What a story, and what scoundrels: full-of-themselves coaches, boosters ladling out cash like ice water, a school governing board in it up to its ear lobes. That Bill Clements, twice Texas' governor, was complicit as chairman of the SMU board of governors added explosive intrigue.
Drinking in the corruption, the ace reporting by Dallas-area media, and the righteous sanctions dished out in this morality play, I found myself wondering: What would happen if the same standards, and comparable enforcement, were brought to bear on matters that actually affected the commonwealth?
Let's say the principals weren't schoolboy athletes who deigned to strap it up for cash, but elected officials who did the same? That would make some scandal.
Unfortunately, lawmaking is not governed by the NCAA.
What sunk the SMU program was evidence from a former linebacker that he got $750 a month to induce him to be a good little Pony.
In the time since, ponder the millions of dollars in campaign contributions given to our elected officials to be good little pawns. Yet "Pony Gate" gets the hour-long TV special. Great television.
What former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay did for years as one of the most powerful men in Washington was exactly what the SMU athletic program did — use filthy lucre supplied by vested interests to gain and hold dominance.
Recently DeLay was convicted, of all things, of breaking Texas campaign finance laws. Now, anyone who knows Texas understands that its campaign finance laws are akin to the rules for extreme caged fighting — except in extreme caged fighting you can't hide a chain saw in your leotards. In Texas politics? Whatever.
One thing that Texas prohibits, remarkably, is direct corporate donations to candidates. No problem, thought DeLay, when Texas Republicans needed some cash to help stack the Legislature for an unprecedented second redrawing of congressional districts after the 2000 census.
DeLay took $200,000 in direct corporate dollars and gave them to a PAC, which gave the exact sum to his chosen candidates.
It was pretty brazen, but no more so than DeLay's weepy lament when a jury convicted him on felony charges in November. The verdict, he said, represented the "criminalization of politics."
Yes, and with SMU the NCAA had criminalized football.
ESPN's account of Pony Gate made it clear that SMU was far from alone in what it did, just exceptionally prolific. We can read into DeLay's words that his was and is the way politics is done in America. What the court in Austin had done was penalize success.
Americans should never accept such rationalizations, but they do.
In recession-scorched Florida, newly elected Gov. Rick Scott just celebrated his election with a $2.8 million inaugural gala. Nothing wrong with that, say his Republican boosters. It didn't cost taxpayers a thing.
Oh, yes, it did. Raising private money means Scott owes vested interests at least that much "back atcha." I'm betting it will be more.
Three-term Texas Gov. Rick Perry, known for similar ("Look, Ma, no taxpayer dollars") inaugural bacchanalia, this year toned it down, with the economy as it is. Other governors reportedly did the same. But when it comes to influence buying and peddling, such austerity is strictly temporal.
Whether it is lobbyists spending millions to influence our laws, or anonymous corporate donors financing smear campaigns to benefit their chosen candidates, or insiders wheedling their way into privatization schemes, it is corruption.
No college football team could ever get away with it.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: email@example.com.