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What we have (not) learned from the Penn State tragedy

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On July 23, 2014, it will have been two years since the National Collegiate Athletic Association slapped Penn State University (PSU) on the wrist for tolerating the sexual abuse of children in its athletic department. On the same day, ESPN News reported that only about one-half of Penn State students favored the removal of the former PSU football coach's statue from campus. Taken together, these two news items should have shocked us into action. The tragedy at Penn State was (and is) a clear "wake-up call." Unfortunately, it is a wake-up call that we have so far ignored.

Penn State's toleration of child abuse is so horrifying that it has obscured the underlying problem. This underlying problem is the commercialization of collegiate sports. The PSU tragedy is only the tip of an iceberg created by the injection of "big money" into collegiate sports. When PSU'S football coach and president were informed of the athletic department's sexual-abuse problem, they were faced with a choice. They could either take action to stop the child abuse or they could ignore it. They chose to ignore it in order to preserve the good name of the university and in order to continue enjoying the power and celebrity status accorded them by their association with its sports program. Both were reasonably decent human beings. Yet their behavior was despicable. It was, however, normal under the circumstances. You and I might have behaved the same way under the same circumstances. Even PSU students, who (by association) possessed only small portions of reflected "fame," found themselves making questionable choices.

In the PSU case, decent human beings were complicit in the continued commission of sexual abuse of children - arguably the most heinous inhumanity one human being can inflict on a fellow human being. Given this indisputable fact, what are we to infer about the impact of sports professionalism on day-to-day activities in our other colleges and universities? As a college football player and graduate assistant coach in the 1950s, I experienced the benefits of college sports before they became commercialized. As a faculty member at several universities since then, I have observed some of the day-to-day evils of commercialization. "Gut" courses have proliferated and some professors, without a word being spoken, have found themselves "stretching" the grades of athletes. Football and basketball coaches have become more powerful in university affairs than university presidents. The day-to-day impact of our practice of housing professional sports teams in universities is incalculable. At the same time, it is generally acknowledged that our nation's future, in large part, depends on the excellence of our educational system.

Further, our colleges and universities have abdicated their most important duty. This duty is to set an example of moral and ethical conduct for their students. The commercialization of collegiate sports has led them to neglect this prime responsibility. Our institutions of higher learning have, by participating in this commercialization, declared that power, fame and money trump education.

PSU'S athletic department was a fiefdom under the absolute control of its football coach. This organizational arrangement was the result of sports commercialization and is not uncommon among our universities. For example, Michigan State hired a new president in the late 1980s. His task was to put MSU athletics "in perspective." The football coach responded by asking the Board of Regents to make him director of athletics in addition to his job as football coach. Despite student attempts to recall certain members of the Board, the coach's request was honored. The new president resigned. This was an object lesson for the MSU students: "Money talks and sports trump academics."

Penn State's NCAA sanctions implicitly accepted sports commercialization as desirable. They punished PSU by making it temporarily more difficult for it to compete against other professional sports teams housed by universities. They assumed the desirability of the university's returning to its football preeminence. PSU, for its part, was determined to stick its hands back in the fire of sports commercialism as soon as the NCAA sanctions permitted. Until the NCAA wrist-slapping, there was a chance that the dark cloud hanging over State College, PA had a silver lining. Just as the 1968 Farmington, West Virginia, coal-mine disaster produced the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, the PSU tragedy might have produced a first step toward the de-commercialization of college sports.

The NCAA was positioned to turn the State College tragedy into a giant step forward for PSU, our country and the US educational system. Just as the money of special-interest groups has corrupted our political system, so has the money from sports revenues corrupted college athletics. Just as a political disaster in the US might lead to a constitutional amendment prohibiting the use of private money in federal elections, the PSU disaster might have produced sanctions making PSU a model again -- this time a model for the de-commercialization of college sports.

The NCAA might have (1) eliminated all sports scholarships at PSU, (2) required all sports revenues to be deposited in a solely academic scholarship fund, and (3) required PSU to include all coaches in its academic faculty-compensation structure. The overpayment of coaches makes a powerful statement to students that sports are more important than education. Education should be a national priority and the de-commercialization of college athletics should be a key item on our education agenda. The housing of professional sports teams at colleges and universities is a mistake with far-reaching and disastrous consequences. We need to stop "moving on" from the lessons implicit in tragedies such as the one that occurred at Penn State.

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Neal Herrick is author of the award-wining After Patrick Henry (2009). His most recent book is (2014) Reversing America’s Decline. He is a former sailor, soldier, auto worker, railroad worker, assistant college football coach, (more...)

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