Callaghan: Penn State might be different, but it's hardly unique
Despite what NCAA President Mark Emmert said this week about how the crimes and cover-ups inside Penn State football say something sinister about college sports in general, very few inside the system really believe it.
They’ve heard similar warnings before, usually coming just after the latest scandal caused by the latest effort by a college team to win at any cost. But with so much money at stake, and no talk of capping the budgets of big programs, college football will continue to be the tail that wags the dog.
They and their boosters will continue to say the other schools are bad but we’re OK.
Emmert made headlines across the nation and broke hearts in the college community known as Happy Valley on Monday when he slapped Penn State with sanctions that might keep the program down for a decade. And while he tried to keep the focus on Penn State and its leaders for their role in covering up years of child sex abuse by an assistant coach, he also attempted to turn it into a lesson for everyone.
“One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become ‘too big to fail’ or even too big to challenge,” he said. “The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs.”
I like Mark Emmert. When he was president at the University of Washington, he at least said the right things about balance between education and athletics. And in his first two years at the top of the cartel known as the NCAA, he has fought an uphill battle to provide a fairer deal for athletes.
In the world of major American universities and big-time athletics, he might even stand among the reformers. But that is a very small group. And being considered a reformer is a very low bar, akin to being listed among the best-dressed sports writers.
Despite his tenure at the UW, there is little indication that the college has lessened its reliance on and obedience to the athletic department. Only because the football team was so bad while Emmert was there could he exert some control over it. After hiring Nick Saban at Louisiana State University and enjoying the fame that came from a national football championship, Emmert would have been hard pressed had he stuck around to reign in the monster he helped create in Baton Rouge.
There is too much money pumping through the system for any lowly president to insist that integrity take precedence over wins. When the coach makes two or three times what the president makes, the power relationship has been well established.
Major college football programs frequently speak about how they are financially independent from the university. They pay their own bills with money they raise from tickets, from television, from alumni eager to associate themselves with a winner. In fact, they support the rest of the athletic program.
But that is true only at a relative few universities. The rise in costs driven by the biggest few dozen programs place most other schools at a disadvantage that requires subsidies to keep pace.
And it ignores the truth that if big programs weren’t associated with big universities, they’d be nothing. Ask UW Athletic Director Scott Woodward how much he could charge for tickets, collect from the networks, and draw from boosters if his business card said North Lake Union Sportsmen Club. Ask his counterpart at Washington State University, Bill Moos, if he’d be able to pay new coach Mike Leach
$11 million over five years if he were leading the Whitman County Athletic Association.
They are able to do it because they are affiliated with institutions built by taxpayers and the academics and students who came before.
All that gets lost, though, when presidents and regents and governors and legislators announce that their universities would be lessened without men’s football (and sometimes, basketball). Once the boosters and coaches and athletic directors know they have their bosses by the scruff of the neck, they are not subject to outside control.
Penn State is not unique in that regard. The school’s adults just behaved so horrifically they got found out first.