Let’s Fix College Sports — Now (updated July 27, 2012)


[This essay is part of an upcoming book by Dana Yost dealing with Curtler’s tennis program at Southwest State University and is posted here because of its relevance in today’s scandal-ridden college sports atmosphere.]

By Dana Yost

Excerpted from his forthcoming book, A Higher Level: Learning the Big Picture from a Small-College Tennis Team (Ellis Press)

The NCAA’s Core Values


Quoted verbatim from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s web site:

The Association – through its member institutions, conferences and national office staff – shares a belief in and commitment to:

• The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.

• The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.

• The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.

• The supporting role that intercollegiate athletics plays in the higher education mission and in enhancing the sense of community and strengthening the identity of member institutions.

• An inclusive culture that fosters equitable participation for student-athletes and career opportunities for coaches and administrators from diverse backgrounds.

• Respect for institutional autonomy and philosophical differences.

• Presidential leadership of intercollegiate athletics at the campus, conference and national levels.

Money: The Root of College Evil


“I, too, once shuddered instinctively at the notion of paid college athletes. But after an inquiry into locker rooms and ivory towers across the country, I have come to believe that sentiment blinds us to what’s before our eyes. Big-time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes … The time has come for a major overhaul.” — Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, writing in the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic

* * *

Early on the morning of Sunday, July 22, 2012, construction workers began taking down a larger-than-life-sized statue of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

The seven-foot-tall, 900-pound statue had stood outside Beaver Stadium, the massive football palace where Paterno’s teams played their home games in the city of State College, Pennsylvania. The statue showed a bespectacled Paterno in motion, his necktie blowing sideways and his right hand lifted skyward, the index finger signaling No. 1. It was meant to symbolize the triumphant spirit and success of the man who was Penn State’s head football coach for forty-six years. For a long time, the statue was a famous landmark on campus, viewed as a proper tribute to the most famous — and most important — man on campus.

But it came down July 22, with the day barely out of the shadows of dawn, and with workers shielded from public view by a long, blue tarp hung over a chain-link fence. Paterno’s own sculpted head was covered by a blue mover’s blanket — almost like an accused criminal covers his face when cameras try to catch him walking into a courthouse. The statue came down not in the middle of triumph, but in grievous disgrace.

According to a story that day on Yahoo! Sports’ web site: “Jackhammers rattled behind a metal fence covered by a blue tarp. The statue was tied to a forklift. The fence shielded the statue, covered in clear plastic and protective packaging materials. The statue was removed at 8:24 a.m. The forklift carried it into the stadium as about a dozen workers followed.” From there, the statue was placed in storage.

There was a lot of meaning in the removal of the Paterno statue — in taking away a symbol of a man who had, for a long time, seemed to stand for integrity and honor, Penn State officials were acknowledging that a sizeable part of Paterno’s almost-sainted legacy was a façade, and his reputation no longer worthy of such a public tribute.

It was also symbolic in this way: When construction workers placed the blanket over the statue’s head and hauled the sculpture away, it was perhaps one of the few times anyone had completely gotten their arms around anything connected with what may be the worst scandal in college sports history.

* * *

Not that others didn’t try explaining or understanding it, including Hugh Curtler.

Among all the topics Curtler has written about in his books and scholarly articles, none may connect two of his strongest passions — the importance of higher education and the success of his women’s tennis team — as much as the issue of corruption in major-college athletics. He sees the influence of money and corrupt or all-powerful coaches and officials as a threat to the mission of higher education. He sees his small-college tennis team as a purer version of the ideal of using education to balance mind and body, unlike major-college sports, which have simply become just one more multi-billion-dollar American entertainment industry.

Curtler devoted twenty pages of his 2009 book Provoking Thought to college-sports reform and also authored a large academic article published in 2001 in The Montana Professor Journal. That article pointed to the perils faced by universities where sports is king, questioned why higher education is in the (big) business of sports at all, and spelled out a detailed plan for reforming NCAA Division I sports.

Corruption and cheating in college sports are nothing new, and Curtler has been writing about it for a long time. But his arguments were given more urgency during the scandalous summer and winter months of 2011-2012.

There were several major-college scandals in those two years, but two in particular made headlines for the severity of the wrongdoing and for the unexpected personalities involved in them.

The first was at Ohio State University, one of the nation’s best Division I football programs. Once-revered Ohio State coach Jim Tressel lost his job over a series of violations involving players trading memorabilia for a variety of favors and gifts, a case compounded by a cover-up led by Tressel. Tressel was caught lying to his own administrators and the NCAA, behavior the opposite of the image he had long projected as a coach of supposed high morals and faith. Tressel had authored two books on Christian-based leadership and integrity, but ended up looking weaselly and almost Nixonian. Curtler called Tressel a “scumbag,” after reports surfaced, especially in Sports Illustrated, that Tressel had a history of cheating going back to his days as a graduate assistant.

The other was a double-barreled scandal even more grievous, and more surprising. In the fall of 2011, a grand jury indicted former longtime Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on dozens of charges of molesting young boys over a period of several years. The rapes occurred, prosecutors said, while Sandusky was an assistant coach, and after he took an early retirement in 1998, but was allowed to stay on campus to run a charity for at-risk young boys operated out of a Penn State football building. Some of the boys his program supposedly was designed to help became his victims. On June 22, 2012, Sandusky was convicted on forty-four of forty-eight criminal counts of child sexual assault.

However, the case wound up engulfing Joe Paterno, three top administrators at Penn State and the entire football program after the grand jury and an ensuing independent investigation led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh found extensive evidence of a long-term, deliberate, Watergate-like cover-up of Sandusky’s crimes.

On at least two occasions, in 1998 and 2001, witnesses reported Sandusky molestations directly to Paterno or other top Penn State officials. By federal law, those officials are required to take such reports of sexual assault to law enforcement. But none of the Penn State officials did. They hid the information, and continued to — as Sandusky molested more young boys — for thirteen years, the Freeh Investigation found. The investigation unearthed e-mails between Penn State President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley that show the two making a conscious decision to conceal the crimes. The e-mails and other evidence also show Paterno not only was aware of the reports of molestation — despite his personal denials in the fall of 2011 — but seemed to have played an active role in the cover-up, at times maybe even providing the decisive voice.

Paterno and Spanier were fired November 6, 2012. Curley and assistant athletic director Gary Schultz were charged with the crimes of perjury, for lying to the grand jury, and failing to notify authorities of suspicions of child sexual assault.

While Paterno was not charged criminally, the Pennsylvania attorney general said the coach was guilty of “morally” failing to stop Sandusky or report his crimes, even though Paterno’s prominence and clout gave him the ability to do so.

Paterno died not long after, January 22, 2012, at age 85, ailing from a broken hip and lung cancer.

On July 12, 2012, the Freeh Investigation released a 267-page report that further detailed the extent of the cover-up, and further blamed Paterno and the administration for basically letting the football program operate above the law, and outside the reach of university disciplinary rules. “Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” Freeh said at a news conference July 12 in Philadelphia. Officials thought it was more important to protect the prestige of the football team, he said, than to protect young boys.

The consequences were steep, including the price paid by Sandusky’s victims and the criminal convictions of Sandusky himself, and beyond: On July 23, 2012, the NCAA levied a harsh set of sanctions against Penn State, including a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on bowl games, and loss of dozens of scholarships. And, perhaps, in a move that hit closest to the heart of the proud Paterno family and Penn State fans, the NCAA ordered that every Penn State victory from 1998 — when the Sandusky accusations were first reported to the administration — through 2011 be vacated. That meant stripping 111 victories off the official books, a move that knocked Paterno out of his treasured ranking as the winningest coach in college football history. In a sense, the ruling declared that the legacy he built, protected and basked in was a sham.

It was all so shocking, and so hard to believe: This was Joe Paterno and his program, the man with the larger-than-life statue and reputation for high graduation rates among players, the reputation of not cheating, for turning out young men who became business and civic leaders — a man who was supposedly one of college football’s good guys.

The night Paterno was fired, fans and students held a candlelight vigil on the Paterno family front lawn, and hundreds of others rioted on campus and in downtown State College — in support of Paterno. Even after the Freeh Report was released, his family continued to deny Paterno’s involvement and former players downplayed the coach’s culpability for Sandusky’s crimes.

Louis Freeh and others saw it differently: At the July 12 news conference, Freeh said there were so many “red flags,” of problems in the Sandusky case any alert person should have seen them, and Paterno was more than alert — he was in charge. Freeh was asked if Paterno could have put a stop to Sandusky sooner. Freeh replied: “I think you can make a very strong and reasonable inference that he could have done so if he wished.”

Freeh added: “I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Paterno. But the facts are the facts. He was an integral part of an active effort to conceal.”

Stories in the Wall Street Journal and by The Associated Press pointed to several other crimes and rules violations committed by Paterno’s players over the years, and to his persistent meddling and bullying in Penn State’s internal student-disciplinary processes. A former vice president at Penn State, who oversaw student discipline, resigned in disgust in 2007 after repeatedly bringing concerns to top officials over she said were Paterno’s threats and manipulations as he tried to make accusations against his players disappear, the Wall Street Journal reported.

On his website, hughcurtler.wordpress.com, Curtler wrote thirteen blogs that were about or mentioned Paterno and Penn State between November 9, 2011, and July 24, 2012, and another five blogs about college football during that same period. A total of eighteen.

In a blog posted July 16, 2012, Curtler — having had time to digest the Freeh Report — vented disgust. The image of a saintly coach, Curtler decided, was not the real Paterno.

Ironically, by attempting to see that [exposure of the Sandusky allegations] wouldn’t happen, Paterno compounded the problem and guaranteed that it will indeed be the case that his reputation is forever tarnished, as it should be, and the university and his former football program will take years to recover. …

The man was not what he seemed, clearly. And it is a warning to the rest of us not to “buy into” the public image of the larger-than-life men and women built up by the media.

Part of what was at stake at Penn State was image and the frenzied passion of thousands of loyal fans. Money was also at stake: In 2011, Penn State’s football team generated $70.2 million in revenue and $50.4 million in profits, the most in the Big Ten Conference. The NCAA, which has generally been wishy-washy or even weak on how it sanctions programs that violate its rules, surprised some observers with its strong punishment of Penn State. But child rape is a little different than recruitment cheating.

Still, it may be natural to believe that cases like Ohio State or Penn State or those at the University of Miami (a 2011 scandal involving allegations of loads of illegal money and gifts, and prostitutes), or many others, would add heft to the calls of reformers. But don’t count on it, as Curtler himself acknowledged. The money and mind-set are simply so hard to change. Before the NCAA penalized Penn State, Curtler remained skeptical of the likelihood of major changes. In his blog on December 4, 2012, Curtler wrote:

For the most part, at Penn State Joe Paterno held immense power and saw to it that whenever possible  any misbehavior on the part of one of his football players was handled by the coaches and never got to the judicial board that handled all other student cases.  It is common for football teams like Paterno’s to have separate housing, separate practice and training facilities (even separate from the other athletic teams), to eat their meals as a group, and regard themselves as privileged members apart from the university community. This obviously breeds insularity and a feeling that the group is all that matters and rules do not apply, except for those made by the coaches. Needless to say, the education of the athletes is of minor importance. “There’s an emphasis on athletics that necessarily results in a de-emphasis on everything else,” according to Penn State journalism professor Russell Frank. “But a lot of us owe our jobs to [Paterno], and that’s attributable to how high-profile the football program has been.” Best not to bite the hand that feeds us.

But the universities are at fault to allow this to happen, and all criticism should not be directed at the athletic teams. In principle, it is a relatively simple matter for the university president to disallow this sort of insularity and insist that the athletes be treated the same as all other students. However, it would be supremely difficult at a place like Penn State, because of the immense power that Paterno had, and the football team will doubtless continue to have. Additionally, it would be difficult for any single university to take the lead here, because the athletes expect and like the special treatment and they will seek out other teams that treat them as royalty and avoid any institution that doesn’t treat them as such. Furthermore, the universities are steeped in the cover-up culture, concerned about their reputation and willing to look the other way to protect their image. Thus we can expect the cover-ups to continue.

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis summarized it effectively in an editorial on July 18, 2012:

“Football was too important at Penn State. The reputation of a long-admired program was at stake. Paterno was a revered figure in college sports. And the arms race for recruits, stadiums and bowl games was only intensifying as the Sandusky affair played out over the years. Penn State had to keep up, so enabling a pedophile became an institutional goal.

“That arms race is funded by us, the fans of college football, although we’d rather not admit it. We’re guilty, too. …

“At the very least, those who support college athletics should see in the Penn State tragedy an opportunity for introspection. Those who won’t admit that there’s a connection between our national infatuation with big-time sports and the scandals that continue to plague otherwise credible academic institutions are blind to the fact that power and money often corrupt.”

Others agreed. But while they, too, saw a system rife with problems, some had little hope of serious change. As long as the people at the top, the people who make the decisions about the system, continue to make big money, nothing major will change, journalists such as USA Today’s Steve Wieberg and the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Phil Miller wrote. Only a small percentage of Division I football programs actually make an annual profit, but the mere chance that they will — by winning a lot of games, and because of the size of the money thrown around from TV revenue, sponsors and bowl games — can sap the reasoning and ethics of otherwise well-educated college officials. It can lead them to stand aside for coaches who will win at any cost, the universities chasing the lure of big profits that only few actually attain.

The University of Alabama’s Nick Saban was the highest paid Division I football coach in the country in 2010 with a salary of $5.166 million, according to USA Today. He was followed by Mack Brown of the University of Texas at $5.1 million and Bob Stoops of Oklahoma University at $4.275 million.

Noting the pay, Wieberg tried to explain it, and the potential problems, in a December 29, 2011, story:

“Gate receipts for Oklahoma football tripled in Stoops’ first seven years. Athletics donations quadrupled. The school’s athletics [overall] revenues went from $26 million in 1998-99, the year before his arrival, to more than $93 million [in 2010-11), according to data provided by the school.

“Football accounted for nearly half that take in 2010-11 — $45.4 million — and the sport turned a more than $22 million profit and kept Oklahoma’s 21-team athletics program in the black. [Nick] Saban’s impact at Alabama is similar. Ticket demand spiked and was accommodated by stadium expansion. Marketing and other media rights took off. Football revenues rose 38 percent in the first four of Saban’s five years, hitting almost $77 million and providing a more than $45 million profit in 2010, according to federal filings.

“Those are critical, leverage-building numbers at a time when fewer than two dozen major-college athletics programs are in the black and higher education is in the throes of a financial crisis that makes the subsidization of sports harder and more controversial.

“”Does it give that particular coach or the football program more power on campus?” Univeristy of Miami President Donna Shalala asked. “Yeah, it probably gives them a level of visibility and power. But that cannot be translated in a way that breaks the rules.”

“Naturally, these coaches are big shots. We’re paying them as big shots,” says former UCLA chancellor and Florida president Charles Young. “That, in my opinion, is one of the worst things.”

The serious consequence, long-term, Curtler argues, is that big-time sports often equals big-time academic failure. That’s an important subject at a time when many, including members of Congress, have questioned whether American education institutions can keep up with global competition. In 2006, the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee sent a letter to the NCAA, scolding the organization for its flawed enforcement policies and failure to improve academic performances at its member schools.

In Provoking Thought, Curtler developed his own definition, which he good-humoredly called The Curtler Law: “The quality of education is inversely proportionate to the success of the [high-profile] athletic teams.”

In following years, not much had changed. A June 2010 USA Today story about the results of a study by the Knight Commission said: “In a survey of 97 public Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I) schools and the eleven conferences in the subdivision, the commission found that athletics spending between 2005 and 2008 increased at a rate that’s an average of four to eleven times greater than spending on academics.”

* * *

How can a nation concerned about academic excellence also be a nation where spending on major-college sports escalates up to eleven times higher than spending on academics? One possible answer: We are a sports-obsessed nation, for good or bad. Another: There is a lack of courage by the people who lead those places of higher education.

A 2012 survey found a strong majority of university presidents believed major sports were out of control, but also believed there was nothing they could do to fix it. The survey of more than 1,000 campus chief executives, conducted by the online publication Inside Higher Ed, showed that “just 13 percent think the presidents of big-time sports schools have control of their programs,” according to a mid-March 2012 Associated Press story.

Yet, everyone seems to think it is the other guys’ fault — their poop stinks, but not mine — a mindset unlikely to lead to change. It could suggest presidents are blind, maybe deliberately so, to problems within their own buildings, or just sidestepping responsibility on severe issues they’re paid to resolve.

The Associated Press: “One prominent college president told Inside Higher Ed the survey ‘confirms the need for major reforms but demonstrates why they are so unlikely to occur.’ As long as the attitude is ‘Things are awful except at my institution,’ the status quo will, unfortunately, prevail,” said William (Brit) Kirwan, president of the University System of Maryland and co-chair of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.”

Phil Miller, a college sports writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, interviewed several former coaches and administrators and journalists, many of whom concluded reform can’t be done. In a June 4, 2011, story, Miller wrote:

“You need major changes, but the people that would do the reforming are the ones making the most money. So why would they reform it?” asked Dan Wetzel, national columnist for Yahoo! Sports. “Ohio State had one of the highest-paid coaches in the country, the highest-paid athletic director and the highest-paid university president. Where’s the incentive to change? Everyone involved is getting really, really wealthy. We may say the system is corrupt, but I guarantee most of the people in it like things just the way they are.”

That includes the fans, in most cases. “The public has always engaged in a willing suspension of disbelief about college athletics,” said Murray Sperber, visiting professor at the University of California’s graduate school of education and author of several books on athletic departments. “So the school tries to maintain an image of purity, and meanwhile there’s a whole Kabuki theater going on behind the scenes.”

However, Curtler has argued, this is not the movies or theater — suspension of disbelief is irresponsible when the stakes are real.

* * *

In his blogs between November 2011 and the summer of 2012, Curtler tackled the issue with the energy and echoes of his words from earlier years, saying, yes, there are problems when a university gives too much authority to coaches and programs, and turns a blind eye to their behavior. The Penn State case, of course, is an extreme example of a program existing “on an island,” in Freeh’s words, but other programs have had serious violations, too.

They are in deep contrast to the way his Southwest State tennis program operated. His players won without cheating, without being corrupted by the stain of questionable money, and while performing exceptionally in the classroom.

At one point during the Penn State debacle, Curtler was so frustrated he wrote an e-mail that said, “My goodness, how we could use some real heroes — like the women who played tennis for SSU in the ‘80s!”

Curtler’s desire for reform is not centered only on nostalgia for his tennis team, however.

Curtler’s plans are designed to restore integrity and priority to things: he believes NCAA Division I should be abolished, replaced with a two-tiered system. The higher tier would make college athletes professionals, paid outright to play, and fully separating the athletic department from academic operations. The lower tier would operat more like NCAA Division II currently does, with money and booster participant diluted, and athletes given time and limited distractions to attend to their classwork.

Fans who want the festive atmosphere of big-time Saturday afternoon college sports can still have it, but the representatives of their schools will be paid players. Those who believe sports should be about building character, not stealing it, that sports should be part of a well-rounded development, can have it, too, in a Division II-like system that provides a balance between sports and the classroom.

1) While athletes may have the opportunity to get a scholarship in exchange for their play, the reality is that many athletes in big-time sports do not live the same college experience as do non-athlete students: They are asked not only to play the sport but be marketing and fund-raising objects for their universities and the NCAA. During their seasons, they spend a good deal of study time on the road, and many athletic programs and the NCAA provide neither a sufficient filtering system to keep agents and wealthy boosters away from players, nor do enough to help the athletes succeed in the classroom. The system seems designed to put the classroom after the field or basketball court, if it fits in at all (some schools have been busted for academic fraud: hiring others to take athletes’ tests, bullying professors into forging grades). While some major-sports athletes will reap the riches of a pro-sports contract, more than 95 percent do not, meaning they may be tossed aside by life after their college eligibility expires, and certainly never attain the paychecks of coaches for whom they played.

Coaches get rich. Many players never graduate.

“For sure,” said an athletics department official at a Division I university in the Upper Midwest. “Kids are brought in to win football games but are not taught life skills or pointed in the right direction most of the time. It’s the truth. [Our football teams] did well in the classroom, and had good graduation rates. But we play a lot of schools that are a total mess in that regard.”

“I suspect,” Curtler wrote in Provoking Thought, “that even the best of the universities and small colleges have of necessity come to expect less of their students than they did a decade or two ago, and big-time sports drain funds that are desperately needed elsewhere if, indeed, money can begin to solve the problem. It’s a zero-sum game, and most universities that choose to play the game lose. Needless to say, so do their students – for all the fun and brou-ha-ha that is involved.”

2) Graduation rates for major-sports athletes are well below the averages of the general student body, yes, and at least one study shows that football-player graduation rates at really large football schools are worse than those one tier down: That study, by Mallory Heydon, was published in The Park Place Economist Volume XVII in April 2009. Heydon compared graduation rates from football teams in the big-money Big Ten Conference to those of schools in the Missouri Valley Conference, which competes at the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision level. FCS used to be known as NCAA Division I-AA, one level down from Division I, and one level higher than Division II. There are fewer scholarships and overall funding for football at Division I-AA than Division I. Not surprisingly, Heydon’s results showed the Missouri Valley football teams had a much better graduation rate, top to bottom, than the Big Ten.

Surveys by the NCAA and by outside researchers continue to find dismal academic results for athletes on major-level teams. Seventy-two percent of athletes from these teams finish in the lower third of their class’ academic rankings, one study showed. Not only that, but Curtler’s concern about the creeping infection of sports on the rest of campus seems right-on, as well: Studies show that graduation rates among the overall student body at Division I campuses where sports are high profile are worse than those of overall student bodies at schools where sports are not as high profile.

In October 2011, The Atlantic magazine published a cover story titled the “The Shame of College Sports,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author Taylor Branch. The story is a damning, nearly irrefutable indictment of the NCAA and major-college sports. Branch was disgusted by the NCAA’s too-common attitude that athletes are disposable, writing the NCAA seldom imposes sanctions on coaches themselves because coaches are so well-paid they can afford lawyers who could defeat the NCAA in court. Players make easy targets for quick, summary punishment.

Branch wrote that greed feeds greed, (football coaches’ compensation has risen 750 percent since 1984, adjusted for inflation) and athletes themselves are usually powerless against the lawyers of the NCAA or their heavy-handed coaches. In one example, the NCAA owns lucrative rights to athletes’ images, for instance, in perpetuity — something several former athletes have sued to change.

“The most basic reform would treat the students as what they are,” Branch wrote. “Adults — with rights and reason of their own — and grant them a meaningful voice in NCAA deliberations.”

Branch’s Atlantic story mentions a renouncement of the NCAA by the man who built the organization and ran it with an iron fist for decades, former president Walter Byers. Byers negotiated the first exclusive TV contracts in the late 1950s, and led a series of power grabs that consolidated authority within the NCAA’s central offices in his first years on the job. In a way, Byers’ is the father of today’s monster. But in a memoir written after he retired in 1987, Byers wrote: “The college player cannot sell his own feet (the coach does that) nor can he sell his own name (the college will do that). This is the plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today’s campus executives.” Byers also wrote: “Prosecutors and the courts, with the support of the public, should use antirust laws to break up the collegiate cartel — not just in athletics but possibly in other aspects of collegiate life as well.”

Byers’ repudiation of his own NCAA is like Thomas Jefferson turning his back on the Declaration of Independence. Still, his criticism did little over the ensuing twenty-five years to stem the corruption, or improve the reputation of the NCAA, which has been spotty at best. Some critics say it doesn’t explain its rules well enough, especially in areas like recruiting, or that those rules seem to be able to be interpreted a variety of ways. Some critics also say the NCAA was inconsistent in how it penalized schools for infractions. And others, like Curtler, have said the NCAA has simply been lax to the point of being irresponsible for the way it oversees universities, letting too many things go on as long as the money was good.

For that reason, many journalists and athletic officials at universities were surprised when NCAA President Mark Emmert acted swiftly and forcefully in punishing Penn State. Emmert essentially took the evidence of the Freeh Report and did not wait for the customary separate NCAA investigation, blasting Penn State with penalties mere days after the Freeh Report was released. Some critics were skeptical — was this just a one-time blow in an especially horrid situation? Others were more hopeful — maybe the NCAA was finally catching up to the advice given in 1987 by Byers.

“As we evaluated the situation, the victims affected by Jerry Sandusky and the efforts by many to conceal his crimes informed our actions,” Emmert said in a news release issued July 23, 2012. “At our core, we are educators. Penn State leadership lost sight of that.”

“In the Penn State case, the results were perverse and unconscionable. No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflicted by Jerry Sandusky on his victims,” Emmert said.

“We cannot look to NCAA history to determine how to handle circumstances so disturbing, shocking and disappointing,” Emmert said in the statement. “As the individuals charged with governing college sports, we have a responsibility to act. These events should serve as a call to every single school and athletics department to take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the ‘sports are king’ mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators.”

Emmert’s comments and the removal of the Paterno statue made Curtler more optimistic about reform than he had sounded seven months earlier, in December 2011.

In a blog he wrote in July 2012, Curtler said: “[A]n outstanding editorial in a recent issue (July 23, 2012) of Sports Illustrated reminded me of something I said in print a number of years ago: the purpose of a university is not to promote football (or sports in general) it is to educate young people. As I said in an article in The Montana Professor: The tail wags the dog at the Division I level. Sports play a disproportionately large role in the university in our day. Perhaps this [the Penn State punishment] was a wake-up call to restore instruction to its proper place at the center of the university.”

Curtler said he is a big major-college sports fan himself, enjoying Saturdays watching football on television. So it was not easy for him to say the system needed to be gutted. However, he said, it was necessary.

What precisely did Curtler spell out in his article in The Montana Professor in 2001?

The biggest hammer was this: “If I were commissar of culture, I would eliminate all athletic ‘scholarships,’ pay athletes at the Division I level to play for pay (if they want an education they can spend some of their hard-earned cash for classes in physics, philosophy, and literature), and reduce all college athletics to the level of Division III, where student-athletes play for the love of the sport.

“The strength of this model is simply that it is more honest… The model I have suggested takes us to the heart of the problem, since it allows professional athletes to be recognized and rewarded for what they are and eliminates the need for watchdog organizations such as the NCAA to patrol the halls of academe looking for possible violations of hypocritical codes that merely disguise the fact that so many athletes under review want nothing more than simply to play sports, while their sponsoring institutions, in large measure, simply want the prestige and profits that come from winning.”

While he fought a massive obstacle, Curtler continued to be motivated by memories of his tennis team.

“[Some teams] are clearly not in a league with our team which had to raise money by selling candy bars in order to travel to Duluth!,” Curtler said. “There’s an interesting point here about how much money must a school spend in order to guarantee the members of an athletic team the advantages that come from the intercollegiate contests? We spent little and had a greatly reduced schedule (playing mostly on weekends). But we had some remarkable success. It doesn’t take big bucks: it takes dedication and desire…and good players!”

Marianne Zarzana said: “Hugh was focused on tennis, but he made it very clear that academics was why they were here. He was very proud of the fact that they were not dumb jocks. They could hold their own in the classroom.”

Former players said it is right to contrast what they did with the problems faced by major-college sports today.

“I am personally very proud of my accomplishments as an SSU grad,” said Holly Logan, who went on to become a high school tennis coach. “I must say that most tennis players are also high achievers in the classroom. My own teams have been very successful academically, and the girls have stayed out of trouble, for the most part. Maybe it’s a genetic link!

Former SSU player Kathy Erickson delivered a jab that sounds much like The Curtler Law

“Academics and athletics, seems like the bigger the colleges are, the more problems they have with it,” Erickson said. “I do think it is important to have the balancing of the two.  I hate reading about all the problems they have with these ‘star’ athletes that these colleges have recruited and paid for everything, and it sounds like they don’t even go to classes.  It’s not like they are professionals — they are supposed to be student-athletes!  I remember it was hard to miss classes, but like Holly [Logan] said, you adjusted your schedule so you didn’t have to miss too much!”

“The success we experienced in the classroom was a spillover to the court,” Jamie Horswell said. “Hugh knew one could not exist without the other, and he saw to it that we were doing our jobs. Was it hard to juggle homework, studies, jobs, relationships, etc? You bet, but it was required of us, and we committed to doing so, not because of a paycheck, but because of the privilege.”


Curtler brings his argument back to money, how its importance is misunderstood, distorted and misused in Division I major sports.

“An immense amount of money is spent on Division I athletics,” Curtler wrote in Provoking Thought. “And a number of rationalizations have sprung up in the form of what I shall call ‘myths,’ because they are nothing more than weak attempts to justify this bloated expenditure in institutions that are supposed to be dedicated to the education of young men and women.

“These myths have been thoroughly debunked by James Shulman and William Bowen in their informative book The Game of Life. The first myth examined is the fiction that Division I athletic programs are profitable, a claim that proves to be false since the vast majority of athletic programs at the Division I level lose money, especially if the cost of repairs and improvement of facilities is included in the cost (which seldom occurs).

“As an example, the authors note that in 1998-99, which was a good year for Michigan, the team shared the Big Ten title in football, won the Citrus Bowl, and finished ranked 12th in the nation. The men’s ice-hockey team made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, the women’s basketball team went 18-11, and the University finished 6th in the Sears Cup competition [measuring success of all a school’s teams]. At the end of that fiscal year, the athletic department projected a $2 million loss, although it ended up losing $3.8 million.”

In a 2011 e-mail discussing Shulman and Bowen’s book, Curtler agreed with the authors’ general view that sports builds character. But he said it probably does so better at small-college levels than in corrupt big-time programs. If it’s character-building a school is after, go the SSU tennis path, or even intramurals — sports for sports’ sake. A school doesn’t have to spend millions — or ransom its soul — to teach character:

“I do think that the women who played tennis for Southwest Minnesota State University, along with thousands of other young women and men can lay claim to the very qualities of character that are listed [by Shulman and Bowen], and I might even go so far as to say that it is likely that they benefitted from their involvement in intercollegiate sports every bit as much as the top athletes in the major spectator sports at the large NCAA Division I universities — if not more.

“There is little or no benefit to spectators of these ‘minor’ sports since they are seldom witnessed by more than a handful of loyal followers. But it is doubtful if there are any educational benefits whatever from witnessing sports on even the grandest scale. Thus, it would seem, it is difficult to justify the expenditure of huge amounts of money for intercollegiate sports on educational grounds.”

Curtler ended his 2001 essay in The Montana Professor with a firm restatement of his belief that higher education should get back to putting the classroom first:

“In its rightful place, athletics can contribute to the goal of the well-rounded student; it cannot presume to lead the way.”

Curtler’s first-hand brush with corruption

From a blog posted by Hugh Curtler on December 4, 2011:

This short-term thinking that equates protecting the reputation of the university with secrecy in the face of misconduct extends beyond the athletics programs, of course. The “cover-up culture” permeates large — and even small — colleges and universities. In point of fact, I was involved in such a cover-up at the University of Rhode Island years ago when it was discovered that a fraternity had gotten a copy of the final exam in a logic class and those of us who were teaching logic had to get up at 5:00 AM the morning of the exam and pool our resources to put together another exam at the last minute — in spite of the fact that we all taught the class differently: no one knew whose exam had gotten out. When it was revealed that one of the fraternities on campus was selling the exam to other students — lined up into the street outside the frat house — absolutely nothing was done.

Thinking the fraternity should at the very least be put on probation, I raised my voice in protest and was called into the Dean’s office and told to cool off. I was a lowly Instructor without tenure, so I did as I was told. But it was clear to me that the university didn’t want a “scandal” and wanted to keep things under wraps. They feared bad publicity above all else. In my way, I saw first-hand how insidious is the cover-up culture. Imagine how intense the pressure must be in a large university with an athletic program that brings in millions of dollars to keep things “in-house” and make sure misconduct is hushed up.



3 thoughts on “Let’s Fix College Sports — Now (updated July 27, 2012)

  1. Obviously, this chapter was written before the whole Penn State scandal blew up. One of my friends who has read a couple drafts of my book cautioned me about this chapter, saying I could spend forever updating it with new scandals that will quickly drive the ones described in this chapter far out of the headlines. Sadly, looks like he is right.

  2. I agree, things need to change in college sports in general. I have played tennis since I was little. I was always disappointed in the tennis facilities at most colleges and how little I feel like people care about tennis in general. I was so excited to hear that Mark Hurd f is working hard to revitalize tennis at the collegiate level but he is also trying to improve American tennis overall. He has plans to sponsor collegiate tournaments, create a new American tennis circuit, and possibly start a junior academy in California. I think that Mark Hurd is really going to turn this sport around.

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