I never want to hear another person tell me that college football is a pure sport in comparison to professional football.
If this argument had been in question the last few years, the Penn State sex abuse scandal has effectively killed it. What has occurred in Happy Valley has the potential to go down as the biggest, worst and most far-reaching scandal in the history of sports as a whole.
It could be greater than the baseball doping scandal, the Chicago “Black Sox,” Southern Methodist University’s pay-for-play scandal of the ‘80s and the 2006 Duke lacrosse rape case combined.
As reprehensible as the alleged crimes were, the cover-up has only exacerbated it. But what would drive a seemingly upright university like Penn State to cover up such accusations?
Simply put, the culture we have built around collegiate athletics has driven universities to extreme lengths to compete, sometimes at the expense of their academic reputation.
By definition, a university is “an institution of higher learning providing facilities for teaching and research and authorized to grant academic degree.” Merriam-Webster doesn’t say a word about sports being a necessary part of the equation.
But with that said, take a random assortment of well-known universities — Harvard, Louisiana State, University of Southern California, Princeton, Alabama and the University of North Carolina for example — and what comes to mind immediately? If you’re among the general masses of Americans, your answers were probably academics, football, football, academics, football and basketball.
Universities are putting more emphasis than ever on their sports programs while simultaneously relegating their academics to a secondary priority.
According to a USA Today article from June 2011 entitled “Athletic departments see surge financially in down economy,” nearly $6.2 billion was spent on college athletics at the nation’s 218 Division I schools in 2010. This was a growth of three percent from the year before. One-third of these schools raised their budgets.
This came as tuition hikes struck many of the same schools due to higher-education budget cuts across the country. Stadiums and arenas are getting bigger while state education budgets are getting smaller.
Even here in South Dakota where, in the face of this state’s education budget cuts, the South Dakota Board of Regents approved a 6,000 seat addition to the DakotaDome as well as an attached 5,000 seat arena.
I’m not saying that athletics are a total detriment to colleges. They provide a positive activity not only for those involved in the actual sports themselves, but also for students and the community as a whole. It is only a small minority of schools that have resorted to shady and unethical tactics as a way of gaining an edge on recruiting or competition.
However, we’ve turned a blind eye to this minority of schools, and they seem to have gained a sense of invincibility. In the case of Penn State, the football program seems more like a religion than an athletics program.
One of the best analogies I’ve seen for this scandal comes from LA Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke. Plaschke describes Joe Paterno’s treatment as God-like, stating, “It was a school that sold its soul to football coach Joe Paterno for the sake of riches and recognition.”
Universities are not meant to create religions of sports. Universities are meant to educate and prepare the masses for their careers.
If we continue to keep this godly aura around college athletics, we can only expect corruption as blatant and as reprehensible as what occurred at Penn State to spring up elsewhere in the future.
Penn State was not the first and will certainly not be the last university to be involved in covering up blatant violations of ethics and the law. But this instance can be used as a learning tool in order to avoid these problems in the future.
Reach columnist Rob Nielsen at