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The New Penn State Tragedy

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The New Penn State Tragedy

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The new tragedy at Penn State lies in the refusal of the fans, students and faculty of PSU to recognize commercialized college sports as the cause of their initial tragedy. Instead, they continue to worship the memory of the essentially decent, but flawed, man who was led by the glories of commercialization to betray them. They obstinately call for the "hair of the dog that bit them."

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On Jan. 16 of this year the NCAA, in effect, pardoned the late Joe Paterno. It had earlier removed 111 games from his record of 409 football victories. Paterno had been removed from his couching job by PSU for tolerating the sexual abuse of children. The NCAA'S statement apologized for "taking away" Paterno's victories in the first place. On Jan. 17, The Daily Mail reported that a State College crowd had celebrated Paterno's reinstatement as the "winingest" college football coach: "The crowd grew to about 500 as it marched to the nearby BeaverCanyon apartment area, where someone projected a huge photo of Paterno onto the side of a building. Other people chanted Paterno's name and 'We are PennState!'" The readers' comments on the Daily Mail article were virtually all triumphant - congratulating the NCAA for its recantation.

What are we to make of this? Have the bloody wars in the Middle East and Eastern Europe so numbed us to the torture and slaughter of human beings that we are indifferent when a university tolerates the sexual abuse of children? Or perhaps we are numbed by the recent film glorifying the killing of innocent human beings by sniper fire? Yet the death of our capacity for outrage [1] is no excuse for our triumphant (yet defiant) congratulations for the NCAA. There is no more heinous crime against humanity than sexual child abuse and pardoning its tolerance should not be greeted with applause.

The underlying cause of the PSU tragedy was the belief of a basically decent human being that he was not subject to any institutional supervision. This belief was no doubt rooted in the special treatment and near-worship he had been receiving for years from PSU fans, students and faculty. This special treatment and near-worship was a direct result of the commercialization of collegiate sports. As one who both played and coached college football (before commercialization) and served on a number of university faculties (after commercialization), I am speaking from some experience. I can attest to the subtle damages done to everyday university life and to our system of higher education by commercialized college sports. The initial PennState tragedy was the tip of an iceberg. My own alma mater, while far from being a principal offender, pays its football and hockey coaches more than it pays the presidents of its various branches. At the same time, it has the highest in-state tuition of any state university.

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The recanting of the NCAA in the PSU case will only increase the "hold" that money has on college sports. The NCCA could, instead, have struck a blow for higher education. It had a golden opportunity to take a first step toward ending the presence on university campuses of what are, in effect, minor-league professional sports teams. It could have spoken out in opposition to athletic scholarships and in favor of vastly increasing academic scholarships. It could have called for placing sports coaches under the same salary systems as academic faculty members. Instead, it confirmed college students in their belief that the wealth, glory and status associated with college sports both trump the benefits of higher education and trivialize moral concerns.

This opportunity came to the NCAA at a time when the ranking of US higher education is steadily falling among the developed nations of the world. The rest of us should not be deterred by the NCAA blunder. It is the moral and professional duty of university presidents, boards of regents and state commissioners of education to take a stand for the end of commercialized college sports.



[1] William J. Bennett titled his 1998 book The Death of Outrage.

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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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