Tuesday, July 24, 2012

We're All Too Big to Fail

When I first read that the NCAA going to make a ruling on Penn State this month, I have to admit that I didn't think much would come of it. In my lifetime, the NCAA has seemed for the most part an overly bureaucratic and hypocritical organization. Most decisions that could truly benefit student-athletes seem to get buried in endless committees, while the term "student-athlete" has become a sick joke in many big time sports at big time schools. My feelings were confirmed when former NCAA president Myles Brand (rest in peace) came to the CSCAA clinic as key note speaker in 2008. College swim coaches were mad- our sport was under threat despite being one that actually adhered to the student-athlete ideal. To that point Brand had only the defense that he was trying, but there was little he could do.

Despite the severity of yesterday's sanctions, I have to believe there is little current president Mark Emmert can do either. The vast majority of collegiate athletic programs feature football programs that are too big to fail. While Penn State was at fairly unique in how much of a cult of personality it formed for it's football coach, it was not unique in it's worship of football. Since I entered high school, every institution of learning I have been a part of has put football ahead of it's own educational ideals.

I do not intend to portray that there is something unique about football that makes it evil or twisted. Rather, it is a reflection of our own culture and values as a society. Defenders of Joe Paterno often cite how much he did to build the prominence of Penn State and the actual funds he personally donated. Seldom do the same people pause to reflect on how poorly it reflects on our culture that Penn State (and many, many others) became football programs with universities attached.

It's not only the big schools that are affected by this culture. As an undergrad at tiny Colby College, a school playing in most likely the least prominent college football league in America, the reign of King Football was very apparent. It was public knowledge that recruited football athletes could be a full standard deviation below average applicants on an academic index used to evaluate incoming students. On a campus where the vast majority of students and administrators decried homophobia, the football program was seemingly exempt from any serious consideration.

Again, there is nothing unique about football that makes it evil. There's an inclination to extrapolate from the violent play on the field that somehow those who participate lack the moral character of genteel swimmers racing neatly in their lanes and politely shaking hands afterwards. The problem is not the sport itself, the problem lies with giving so much unchecked power to anyone.

While I can't know how other university athletic departments have been responding to this scandal, I can speak to my own. Georgia Tech had it's employees watch a two hour educational video on child sex abuse. Afterwards, the lesson that we should draw from it was made clear: use the information to limit your personal liability and that of the University. Other than that, life goes on here just as it did before.

The response, while informative, misses the point. The problem at Penn State was not that Joe Paterno and others did not know how to limit their own liability or that of Penn State, it was that they had the power to unilaterally ignore what had happened. Unless a concerted effort from the top down is made in athletic departments to empower the less powerful to speak up and be heard when they see abuse of any kind, college athletic departments are still going to be great places for abuse to be concealed.

1 comment:

  1. It is indeed a reflection of society. The same could be said of any large corporation or organization where abuse can happen. All too often scandal is covered up for the sake of "greater good".

    Personally, I was hoping to see the football program killed for at least a year to have to completely rebuild from the bottom up, but I am somewhat heartened by the penalties and corrctive actions taken by the NCAA as a seemingly genuine attempt to change the culture at Penn St and provide safeguards for the future.

    For those that might think that the penalties are too harsh and hurt those not responsible,I ask that you consider a simpler situation as comparison. If anyone innocently buys stolen merchandise only to later have the police show up to collect what was stolen, the innocent party still loses not only their money, but the stolen merchandise as well. Would you really blame the police for doing their job? The innocent parties at Penn St in some way benefited from a program and university leadership that was morally corrupt in this matter. Like it or not, there are consequences that will have an impact on those who innocently gained by their association with a corrupt leadership.