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The death of Joe Paterno, the former Penn State University football coach, revived the discussion about the child-abuse scandal involving former assistant Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. But it also pointed to an underlying issue — the role of big-time/big-money sports in American college life.
If one looks at the scandal from a distance and over time by reading the original grand jury report, it’s clear that Penn State not only had circled the wagons to protect the reputation of the athletic program, but also that the Pennsylvania Legislature had aided and abetted any kind of cover-up that might occur. Lawmakers in the Keystone state had exempted the university from the open-records law, a move I hope they come to deeply regret.
Now, if you’re tuned in, we find something even more shocking.
According to Jim Romenesko’s blog, the student newspaper at Yale University, the alma mater of 41st and 43rd U.S. presidents George Bush, held off on a different story about alleged sexual abuse and instead reported that the reason for football star Patrick Witt’s sacrificing his Rhodes Scholarship interview was to fight fiercely against archrival Harvard University. What really happened behind the scenes would have remained as deeply buried as the Ivy League’s secret societies had it not been for a Jan. 26 blockbuster story in The New York Times that tore the scab off the puss-filled festering wound of Witt’s story. It turns out that Witt did not forgo an interview for a Rhodes scholarship; instead, the interview had been put on hold over questions about the allegation of sexual assault. The Times' story also implied that Witt's life was more about football than anthing else.
I have personal experience with what a big-name football program does to a university.
In the 1960s, I attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Yes, the forebears of the LSU “Fightin‛ Tigers” who got thrashed by the University of Alabama in the BCS National Championship game a few weeks ago. One of the star football players was in a biology lab with me. He was not the sharpest scalpel in the dissecting kit. And I suspect that learning the plays for Coach Charlie McLendon’s “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” offense wasn’t very taxing.
But I digress.
In the good olds days, it was common knowledge that the jocks who played great football didn’t need to be competent students. Oh, sure, some were exceptions. The great running back, Billy Cannon, from LSU's teams of the late 1950s went on to be a dentist. But for the most part, players got the special tutoring at the football dorm that “taught to the test,” if you get my drift. The “training table” in the football dorm was renowned for quality, a few steak cuts above the dining hall food endured elsewhere on campus.
It’s clear to anyone who follows sports and popular culture and who read about the Penn State scandal that big-time college sports is the tail wagging the university dog. Penn State and Yale are probably so prominent in the exposés recently through bad luck and some good journalism. Other schools have escaped the bad publicity because their leadership, either within the athletic department or main administration, has managed to suppress information. If you don’t believe Les Miles or Mack Brown can’t pick up the phone and make a discreet call to the local constabulary to get a kid out of trouble, I’d like to know what you’ve been smoking, drinking or chewing.
And don’t forget the American fascination with celebrity, whether it’s college or professional sports, or television and movies. Academic excellence has taken a back seat to campus celebrity just as truthful and civil discussion of public policy has done to celebrity in other parts of our society.
If the Golden Age of American exceptionalism isn’t past, it’s close to its end.
I remember clearly coming out of the old Tulane/Sugar Bowl stadium on that fateful Oct. 4, 1957, to find my father terrified that the Soviet Union had performed an amazing technological triumph, launching Sputnik. It sure shattered our illusions about American science after World War II. We would later regain our edge, for a while, at least.
Now, as I look at university life, I believe we must change the priorities on campus if we are to return America to greatness. That means a radical change in the role of sports in higher education.