Point of View

Renewing college sports

August 6, 2012 

First, full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Penn State football fan. In fact, I rooted for Penn State when Beaver Stadium accommodated only 46,000 fans, Syracuse was the annual big game and people wondered whether the longtime assistant with the big nose and Coke bottle glasses had what it took to replace legendary head coach Charles “Rip” Engle.

That assistant, Joe Paterno, did all right for himself. More wins and bowl victories than any coach in Division I history, five undefeated teams, two national championships, more Coach of the Year awards than you can shake a stick at….the list goes on. But awards aside, we could tell that Paterno was different.

He was the rare big-time coach who took academics seriously, who saw the football program as part of the university instead of the other way around. We saw him as something of a Renaissance man, one who pursued victory within an educational and even moral framework.

But as the years went on I came to believe that while Paterno may indeed have been different, he wasn’t that different. You don’t successfully compete in major college sports without cutting a few corners, without sometimes looking the other way, without recruiting some players that have no business being admitted to your school, without, well, making winning by far and away the first priority.

It’s not my intent to disparage Joe Paterno as so many have in recent weeks, and particularly since the release of the Freeh Report. Today, even his most ardent supporters would acknowledge his playing at least some role in allowing unspeakably harmful acts against defenseless children. But I find the massive “piling on” excessive and even a bit unseemly. Some of those who seem to be taking so much satisfaction over stomping on a dead man’s grave might do well to think about their own tangential role in this tragic affair.

We sports fans tend to assign all kinds of positive personal characteristics to players and coaches we admire, whether earned or not. Winning championships and scoring touchdowns doesn’t necessarily make someone a good person, but we are quick to put the Joe Paternos, Jim Tressels, et al., on pedestals, reveling in every success and finding convenient excuses for actions and behaviors we might normally be quick to condemn.

That’s how we empower our heroes to do as they please, often oblivious to who might be adversely impacted by their actions. Make no mistake about it, we fans play a seminal role in creating and nurturing an environment that allows for – at times even encourages – various abuses, some relatively innocuous and others despicable, like what occurred in central Pennsylvania.

So where do we go from here?

The prevalent mantra suggests it’s up to college presidents to fix this mess, to reclaim their leadership role and to put powerful coaches in their places. But many Division I athletic departments are so financially leveraged that presidents are somewhat powerless, forced to “play ball” with wealthy boosters and influential television executives – the former interested in winning so they can strut their stuff at the club on Saturday night, the latter with maximizing revenue and scant consideration of where athletics might most appropriately fit in a university setting .

The Division I president who tries to buck the system will have to spend so much political capital doing so that little is left to tackle the more vital challenges on campus, such as financial accessibility for all qualified students. Indeed, the current big-time sports model assures an increasing dependency on external funding sources, and power acceded to entities that care little about the rightful role higher education should (must?) play in order for our students to succeed in an ever competitive global environment.

The controversial punitive measures handed down by Mark Emmert and the NCAA may have satisfied some people’s desire for payback, but they won’t begin to address the broader, ongoing dilemma. Indeed, what happened in Happy Valley could have occurred on any number of campuses. Anything less than serious study and consideration of a complete overhaul of how we “do college sports” will ensure that a too-often corrupt and ultimately unsustainable system persists. We fans who have long played a role in fostering a system now run amok must be part of the solution by demanding no less.

Robert Malekoff is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Sport Studies at Guilford College. He served as a men’s lacrosse and women’s soccer coach at Princeton University before embarking on a career in sports administration. He was also director of research and national consortium coordinator at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, where he also co-authored “On the Mark: Putting the Student back in Student-Athlete.”

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