This will be a brief post because it’s not one I originally intended to write, but the recent Penn State football scandal, heavily covered by the mainstream media, ubiquitous on ESPN and its affiliates, leaves me with no choice. That scandal, detailed, perhaps, most matter-of-factly in the Chronicle, is far from resolved. Former Assistant Coach, Jerry Sandusky has been charged with more than forty counts of sexual abuse, and may have even “pimped out” boys to wealthy donors. Legendary head coach Joe Paterno and Penn State’s high-profile president, Graham Spanier, have both been fired. But Sandusky allegedly committed crimes against young children for more than a decade, so my guess is that at least a hundred people, as yet unidentified and questioned by Pennsylvania’s district attorney, are unknown to us. Thus, the scandal will only escalate and expand.
The whole mess is obscene: who would have guessed that Paterno would end his iconic career by “lawyering up,” even though he has yet to be charged with anything except, as it’s vaguely put, even by Paterno himself, of “not doing enough.” The real fact is that this is not the first, the tenth, the hundredth major scandal involving intercollegiate sports. The expert on this subject, journalist Buzz Bissinger, had this to say about the larger implications of the Penn State scandal: this horrifying scandal displays the “evil that major college sports programs in this country have become, equivalent to Mafia families in which the code of omerta rules.”
Except, Bissinger says, “even the Mafia has higher moral standards.” In August of this year, commenting on nearly equivalent scandals at the University of Miami, Bissinger turns out to have spoken prematurely. Then he said (about Miami athletes being provided with cash and hookers), “Maybe, just maybe, there finally will be some recognition that the major college sports of basketball and football are rotten, and that the only way to root out the rot is with the tandem action of draconian punishment and cutting the snake off at the head. No more slaps on the wrist by the NCAA with the taking away of scholarships or depriving teams of Bowl game or playoff appearances. Now is the perfect time to send a loud and clear message to other schools about what the consequences will be if you flagrantly break the rules.”
If we grant that the gross abuses in intercollegiate sports are near universal and long-standing, there are bigger implications. I still vividly remember Len Bias’s death from a massive cocaine overdose long ago in June, 1986. Everyone in the University of Maryland’s basketball and athletic program denied that he’d ever used drugs, but within a short time all the principles, chiefly head coach Lefty Driesell, disappeared and eventually moved on to other positions at other universities. A terrific blog post by Libby Sander captures the problem perfectly. She documents that over the last five years, “Spending per athlete grew by 50 percent in the FBS (Football Championship Subdivision—the highest level of college football) . . .while academic spending per student increased by 22 percent,” according to a report produced by the Delta Cost Project. Even in other Division I programs, those without football teams, athletic spending per student grew by 31 percent, compared to 15 percent for academic spending per student, according to Sander.
This simply needs to stop. Major universities, such as Penn State, are facing significant spending cuts to academics, our primary mission. Why are we pouring money into sports programs when, for so long, so many of them have not proven ethically worthy of the money we give them? The shocking Penn State scandal has created a rare opportunity: it has created a national mood that might be sympathetic to severing the relationship between college education and college sports. No more undercover payments from boosters to athletes, no more sex scandals, no more pampering athletes through grade-school level courses, no more cover ups. Let’s just do as Bissinger says and cut the snake off at the head.