The athletic departments affiliated with major colleges and universities are considered separate entities and function as corporations unto themselves. But we now know they shouldn't.
The ugliest scandal in modern college history taught us this lesson last week as a football coach more concerned with amassing victories and preserving his own legacy allowed the molestation of more than 20 young boys to go on for 15 years or longer.
You may not believe that all the blame should be put at coach Joe Paterno's doorstep for the alleged cover-up of allegations involving one-time Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, who has been accused of molesting eight boys through the guise of a charitable organization for at-risk youth. But you're wrong. Paterno – the most powerful man on campus and among the most renowned in college sports – could easily have addressed the matter before more children were harmed. Instead, he sat idly by and did nothing to prevent Sandusky from harming other children.
The Department of Education announced this week it was launching its own investigation at Penn State University to determine if the school failed to report incidents of sexual abuse on campus, as required by federal law. This is all way too little, way too late. The tremendous focus on turning sports programs into money-making juggernauts has already reached sickening levels of corruption.
The scandals in college athletics are so abundant in the last half-decade alone, it’s impossible to run them all down. At the University of Miami, a booster paid players, bought women for them and arranged at least one secret abortion for a player’s girlfriend. Who can forget Ohio State’s foray into unchartered territory when football players traded tattoos for memorabilia, costing a well-respected coach at the time his position? Cam Newton’s father reportedly auctioned his son’s services to the highest bidder. All these violations make the University of Southern California’s forfeit of a national championship and Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy a few years back seem like child’s play.
These are only the scandals we know about – at top universities. I shudder to think about the mid-size or smaller schools and the travesties that have gone on there that we will never know about. What the Department of Education should be doing is considering how to reign in the power-mad (and need I say greedy) university administrators that are allowing scandals to be swept under the rug and condoning schools jumping athletic conferences for the sake of the almighty dollar.
My son Charlie’s dream is to play college athletics some day. On the wall in his bedroom is a four-foot Kansas Jayhawk that watches over him while he drifts off to sleep. At seven years-old, he’s already been indoctrinated in college athletics, but 10 years from now – when he’s ready to make his choice of schools to attend – how can I reasonably send him somewhere with any good faith in his experience as a college athlete?
Charlie and I frequent a local sports restaurant and bar, usually to share a drink and take in a game – until he grows impatient and we head home to actually play whatever sport we’ve been watching. From the rafters hang university banners, every one affiliated with in-state schools or rivals from neighboring states. Once, they all belonged to a single athletic conference, the Big 12, the conference most closely aligned to the region and the area from which the establishment draws the majority of its customers.
Less than two years ago, the Big 12 spanned the middle of the United States, and featured schools in an area of land mass stretching as far north as Nebraska and Iowa south to Texas, jutting west to Colorado and east to Missouri. But as of the University of Missouri’s decision to switch conferences last Sunday, there are now four athletic conferences that encompass these schools: the PAC 12, the Big 10, the Southeastern Conference, and the Big 12 (which totals 10 member schools at the moment.)
This “conference realignment” that’s slowly evolved over the last few years is being driven by money from television rights – and there is more money to be made from football than any other collegiate sport. While you might think it inappropriate to link something such as conference realignment to the scandal at Penn State, I’d assert that the cover-up like we saw involving Paterno was brought on because of the repercussions the university’s athletic programs would face – and the money it would lose – if the world knew what happened inside the football program’s locker room.
We all know "for-profit" schools have been demonized over the last year or more. Time and again, the word “greed” is applied not to traditional colleges and universities, but to their career-focused competitors.
Make no mistake – athletic programs are multi-, multi-million dollar operations at major universities. In every case, academics and even now the safety of children are among the less important considerations for the continued success of the athletic program. The more essential factors are size of television markets, quality of athletic programs, the following of those athletic programs among alumni and fan bases.
And yet we see no interaction from within the traditional sector of higher education or the government to bring sanity to the situation. No Senate committees are looking into how to better police these institutions even though their actions are touching all the major athletic conferences and destroying lives. The Department of Education’s investigation is required by federal law. Otherwise, the department seems to be perfectly content to let greed run its course and all because these universities are trusted since they are supposedly not profit driven.
Once again, major colleges and universities are left to police themselves while the government focuses its rapture in the wrong places. The most corrupt and reprehensible behavior in higher education to date has involved athletics – be they separate from academics or not. The leaders of these departments have shown they can’t be trusted to operate on their own. The NCAA should institute additional oversight of athletic programs and let those programs face stricter regulations that open up their recruitment and inner-operations to responsible leaders before more people’s lives are ruined.