Mirror shows root of problems in college athletics
What's wrong with us?
How did we allow these games being played at institutions of higher learning, where the primary goal is supposed to be educating young people, to become such a damning, out-of-control influence on our lives? To completely skew what we should easily recognize as the difference between right and wrong?
Make no mistake, we should've stopped it. Long before a deranged fan said he spread poison on some historic trees at a rival school. Or a respected coach didn't feel any need to tell his bosses that players had turned a tattoo parlor into their personal cash machine. Or a con man of a booster given the keys to a major university and allowed to turn it into his personal playground.
We certainly should have known that long before our worst lapse yet, when some of the very people we entrusted to lead our kids decided it was better to look the other way than to dial three numbers -- 9-1-1 -- when told that other kids were being sexually assaulted on their very campus.
No one is excusing the actions of the individuals at the center of the Auburn tree poisoning, the Ohio State tattoo scheme, the Miami booster scandal, and certainly not those linked to the horrifying child-abuse case at Penn State. Hopefully, those who committed wrongdoing or didn't do enough to stop it will get the swift and sure justice they deserve.
But maybe this would be a good time for each one of us to pause in front a mirror and ponder the monster we've created.
Yep, I'm talking to you, my fellow journalists who spend more time breaking down a game plan than noticing who is -- and isn't -- going to class. And you, hyped-up talk show hosts who'd rather scream into a microphone about who should be starting at quarterback than crying out when those same kids fail to get a legitimate education. And you, college presidents, who linger in locker rooms after victorious games like gushing fanboys, who defer to football and basketball coaches like they're the ones running our universities, not the other way around.
And you, the fans, who essentially feed the aforementioned monsters. Inexplicably, your worth as a human being is directly tied to the sports fortunes of your college. You've allowed what happens on Saturdays to cloud your view of life the other six days of the week.
We're all complicit.
"The anomaly of American higher education is that we've got mass commercial entertainment, sports entertainment, on our college campuses," said Allen Sack, a professor of sports management and interim dean of the College of Business at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. "The very notion of a 100,000-seat football stadium in the middle of a university is unheard of anywhere else in the world."
Sack has a unique perspective on the subject. He was a backup defensive end on Notre Dame's national championship team in 1966, and he got his doctorate at Penn State. These days, he studies the unique and often troubling relationship Americans have with college athletics.
The roots go all the way back to the very first such event in U.S. history: An 1852 rowing competition between Harvard and Yale on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. A local railroad that also owned a resort hotel came aboard as a sponsor. Ringers were brought in to bolster the squads.
It's been pretty much downhill ever since.
"Big-time college sports is driving the basic values of our universities," Sack said. "There are people who feel when the football team fails, they fail. When the football team is under attack, they're under attack."
It was impossible not to cringe when thousands of Penn State students took to the streets last week in protest, upset that their beloved Joe Paterno was shown the door for not doing enough to deal with deeply troubling allegations against his former top lieutenant, Jerry Sandusky.
All those students seemed to care about was that Paterno had won more football games than any other major-college coach, not that he had fumbled perhaps the biggest call of his long life. But the protesters were merely a symptom of a society that desperately needs to find, once and for all, its moral compass when it comes to college athletics.
While schools are wallowing in red ink and students -- perhaps many of those same ones who ran roughshod on the streets of bucolic State College -- are forced to take out loans that will be with them for a good chunk of their adult lives, coaches are making millions. Football and basketball programs are making tens of millions. The stands are packed every Saturday with fans who couldn't care less about all the good things being done in the biology department.
This is not an indictment of athletics themselves, no more than it's an indictment of the band or the drama club. All can and should play an important role in college life, serving as balance to the grind of the classroom. But we've allowed sports to take on a role that's far out of whack compared to those other extracurricular activities, de facto professional franchises setting up shop right in the middle of academia.
"We have created a monstrous system that allows this type of thing to happen, that allows our cover-up culture," said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "It allows people to think it's somewhat OK to move past this type of thing without paying it the attention it deserves and without reacting in a way that asks us to take a better look at ourselves. We've created that."
We'll try to say it's the fault of the big-money television contracts, or the win-at-all-costs coaches, or the not-so-diligent investigators at the NCAA. But that's taking the easy way out.
None of those would even be an issue if not for us, the ones who've fed the behemoth that is college athletics until it's so enormous that no one, even if we wanted to, could possibly bring it under control. And, seriously, does any of us want to rein it in? What would we do on Saturdays in the fall? What would we talk about the rest of the year?
Deep down, we know that's why trees get poisoned, and coaches look the other way, and boosters run wild. That's why Paterno and his cronies didn't step up when confronted with reports that a pedophile might be operating on their very campus. The athletic program, it turns out, really is more important than right and wrong.
How did it get like that?
Take a look in the mirror.
You, me, all of us.