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Turning Tragedy Into Something Good: the Lessons of Penn State

Someone, I think president emeritus James Duderstadt of the University of Michigan, once opined to me that true reform of intercollegiate athletics will occur only when a threshold of public indignation is reached as a result of some overwhelmingly devastating scandal. Arguably that has happened with the tragedy at Penn State, where credible allegations of child rape at university sports facilities that went unreported to police have led to arrests of two top university officials and the ending of the career of one of America’s iconic coaching legends, Joe Paterno (who apparently has no criminal culpability in the incidents that occurred). President Graham Spanier of Penn State (ironically, chair of the Bowl Championship Series Presidential Oversight Committee), himself a major name in higher education, likewise lost his job, having been roundly criticized for rushing to the defense of the arrested persons in this case.

The power and emotional appeal of football was evidenced by the rioting student support for Paterno. By the way, the NCAA, which waxes indignant if some “student athlete” tries to make a few bucks selling his own souvenirs, apparently does not think the cover-up of rape of underage children rises to the level of immoral conduct enough to justify much more than issuing a very tentative statement.

While the Penn State scandal is more odious than other incidents, it is not an isolated occurrence. Indeed, Paterno himself is generally perceived as one of college football’s classier coaches. A graduate of an Ivy League school (Brown), Paterno pushed hard for his athletes to succeed academically, and donated much time and money to promote Penn State activities, including the university library.

Nonetheless, the sheer number of scandals and wrongdoing make it very clear that something grievously is wrong with big-time college sports in America. These excesses give higher education a bad name and should increase the cries for reform. There have been other alleged sex-related scandals (some involving high-school recruits) at major schools (e.g., the universities of Colorado and Miami), and other scandals involving transgressions of the “rules of the game” as defined by the NCAA at such prominent athletic powers as the University of Southern California and Ohio State (where another likely future Hall of Fame coach, Jim Tressel, lost his job this year).

The image that is emerging is that many in big-time college sports believe they are above the law, be it expressed in statutes of criminal conduct, or extra-legal rules of conduct such as NCAA rules or the Ten Commandments. To be sure, the NCAA rules are often morally indefensible, protecting and financially enriching schools and mature adults (e.g., coaches) at the expense of students. On top of the issues of moral turpitude, there is the crowding out of academic emphasis, be it in the form of using university or student-fee funds to subsidize athletics, or decisions to cancel classes around game time (a practice followed by Bubba Universities like the University of Alabama).

The ultimate solution would be for universities to get out of the commercial intercollegiate business, perhaps by spinning off their athletic operations to separate for-profit companies (which could be sold to the public), largely erasing the fiction of the “student athlete” that exists in the more commercial sports such as football and basketball. I bet the Ohio State or University of Texas football franchises could fetch the better part of one billion dollars in an IPO. The NCAA needs to be broken up. The tax-exempt status of athletic activities should be rescinded, which neatly fits into other national imperatives (e.g., debt and deficit reduction).

To be sure, there are other, less radical, approaches that try to return college sports to a more reasonable perspective, more akin to what it was around, say, 1950. But given the huge amounts of monies involved, I am not sure that approach works—it is a little like trying to get an alcoholic to go from 10 drinks a day to 2 drinks—it seldom works.

The one issue is: who initiates the reform? Some things, like tax-exempt/anti-trust status, require political action. But other things could be initiated within the higher-education community itself, but not by the NCAA (more like groups such as the American Council on Education). Where is the DuPont Circle crowd on this issue? Can a “Division III” model work for all college sports? Can colleges “tax” commercial athletic revenues significantly to reduce the pecuniary incentives to cheat that are so common in big-time athletic programs? There are a lot of questions that should be asked and answered, and if the university presidents don’t deal with them themselves (high likely), then others like Congress should. Perhaps Congress should start by denying the NCAA tax exempt status, applying anti-trust laws to college sports, making illegal the life-time expropriation of the use of athletic names, and denying federal tax-exempt status for all gifts to athletic programs. That would send a clear message.

The sad thing is that college sports do teach many kids discipline, leadership skills, teamwork, loyalty, confidence, and many other desirable things. Sports can contribute to a sense of college and university community that on balance is healthy. But the commercialization of sports reflecting Americans’ love of competition has not truly brought financial gains to higher education (at best it is a break-even proposition), and the arrogance, contempt for moral standards, and other attributes associated with modern athletics increase the need for truly radical change, now.

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