Calvin Mickens was elated. The freshman cornerback from Beaumont, Texas, had just appeared in his first college game, Oklahoma State’s 2005 season-opening 15-10 home victory over Montana State, and he had performed well, forcing a fumble, breaking up a pass and making two tackles. In the locker room, as Mickens and his teammates shed their gear, a man he had never seen before approached and handed him cash. “I was like, Wow, this is the life!” Mickens says. “I’m 18, playing football, and I just got $200.”
Mickens says he received several similar postgame handoffs from other boosters during his first season in Stillwater. After a 62-23 loss at Texas A&M in which he had an interception, Mickens recalls getting $800 in the locker room from a different man. At the time he didn’t consider that he was violating NCAA rules. He saw other teammates receiving similar gratuities and assumed they were the perks of playing for a big-time program.
In separate interviews seven other former Cowboys told SI they received cash payments; 29 other OSU players were named by teammates as having also taken money. Those payments, which stretched from 2001 to at least ’11, were primarily delivered three ways: a de facto bonus system based on performances on the field, managed by an assistant coach; direct payments to players from boosters and coaches independent of performance; and no-show and sham jobs — including work related to the renovation of Boone Pickens Stadium — that involved at least one assistant coach and several boosters. “They figure if a player shines and you pat him on the back in an obtainable way, he’s going to do whatever he can to keep getting that paper,” says Javius Townsend, a redshirt offensive lineman during the 2010 season, who says he did not take payments but knew of others who did.
Some players received $2,000 annually and others around $10,000, multiple players told SI; a few stars allegedly received $25,000 or more. Often lost in the discussion about whether college football players should receive more than room, board and a scholarship is that some already are compensated, in violation of NCAA rules. At a school like Oklahoma State the desire to create a national-title contender spawned a widespread bonus program, and it paid dividends: Since 2002 the Cowboys have had 10 winning seasons out of 11, and in 2011 finished No. 3 in the country, the highest final ranking in the program’s 111-year history. “It was just like in life when you work,” says Thomas Wright, a defensive back from 2002 to ’04. “The better the job you do, the more money you make.”
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