The Wagging Tail

I have blogged (endlessly some would say) about the tail that wags the dog in Division I athletics. I promised myself I would not go there again  (but I may have had my fingers crossed!).

A recent editorial in Sports Illustrated requires comment. It addresses the ripple effect of the decreasing use of cable TV on college athletics. Because fewer people are using cable since moving to digital technology which will allow them to watch those programs they want to watch and not pay for those they will never watch in their lifetime — or that of their children — the cable companies are hurting in the pocketbook 😢. The sports network giant ESPN, for example, has been seriously affected by the change in viewer preference. While a few years ago they could count on $8.00 per month from everyone who watched sports on their network  ESPN is now in 12 million fewer homes than it was in 2011. In a word, the number of viewers has dropped considerably and the income from cable has dropped accordingly. ESPN recently laid off 100 of its people in a move that had remaining folks on ESPN crying crocodile tears as they breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them — yet.😥

All of this impacts on college sports, which, as we know, is Big Business. As Sports Illustrated tells us:

“College athletics departments spent lavishly [in recent years because of the huge influx in cash from ESPN and other major TV networks], especially on football. At Texas new lockers were installed at a cost of $10,500 apiece and include individual 43 inch TV monitors instead of the traditional nameplates. Auburn added a $14 million video board at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson’s training complex included a bowling alley and nap room. Even position coaches were making six figures. . .”

Nick Saban, head football coach at Alabama, can be seen crying all the way to the bank as he gets ready to deposit some of his $11.1 million annual  salary; he worries that this trend spells the end of collegiate football as we have come to know and love it. Armageddon is at hand. This, of course, is nonsense as the universities will find ways to support their athletics programs — including raising student fees even higher — most of which (by the way) operate at a deficit. But they all see the big bucks the big guys make and hope that some of it will come their way. The problem will not go away just because figures must be juggled. It’s still a business and it is a HUGE business.

Oh, and speaking of big business, Jay Paterno, son of the infamous Penn State football coach and an assistant coach during the Sandusky era, was recently named to the Board of Trustees at that University. So much for cleaning house. The tail will continue to wag the dog. (But, seriously, a “nap room”??)

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Genie Out Of The Bottle

You have doubtless heard about the sex scandal involving the basketball team at the University of Louisville. It is reported (again and again) that for a number of years a woman by the name of Katina Powell procured prostitutes and exotic dancers to attend to the needs and urges of basketball recruits in order to entice them into enrolling in the university. Reportedly this has cost the university “tens of thousands” of dollars and involved numerous high school recruits and their fathers or guardians over a number of years.

This is sensational and the media love sensational stories so it will become the hottest story around —  at least until interest wanes. But the real questions lie at the heart of this sort of thing, because we must suppose that Louisville is not the only school to be involved in doing whatever it takes to win. They are simply the ones that got caught, because Powell wrote a book about it and the police and the NCAA are investigating the reports, which appear to be well founded.  The real question is how this sort of thing can be stopped. And the answer, I fear, is that it cannot be stopped. There is simply too much money involved in Division I basketball and football to put an end to the sordid activities that coaches will resort to the get a “leg up” on the competition. And while  Rick Pitino. the coach at Louisville, has denied any knowledge of these going-on, it beggars belief that the man would not be fully aware of these activities. As a recent Yahoo News story notes:

Pitino has repeatedly denied any knowledge of strippers being paid to dance for or have sex with recruits, but in Powell’s first interview since her book was published, she reiterated to ESPN she finds that hard to believe.

Said Powell: “Four years, a boatload of recruits, a boatload of dancers, loud music, alcohol, security, cameras, basketball players who came in [to the dorm] at will … ”

What will be interesting now will be how Louisville responds. Will the school try to get ahead of potential NCAA sanctions and self-impose penalties or encourage Pitino to step down? Or will it do nothing besides continuing to insist it’s still investigating the veracity of Powell’s claims?

The standard response, of course, is that “everyone does it” and that is supposed to count as moral justification. But, even if true, it does not. I have written about the scandals involving athletes before (some would say endlessly) and this one really doesn’t differ in kind from the rest; it is simply more sensational because of the role played by prostitutes and the involvement of high school students — and their fathers or guardians. Louisville will almost certainly be found guilty as charged. The coach and perhaps the athletics director might be fired and there will be NCAA penalties. Whatever does occur, the whole thing will soon go the way of Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, and scores of other schools involved in scandals. It will be forgotten. What matters here is the success of the teams and, of course, the revenue they bring in.

I have suggested in the past that all athletes at Division I universities should be paid a decent salary and treated as professionals. If they then want to attend college they can pay tuition like everyone else. If not, they can spend it as they like and gamble on the remote possibility that they will be selected in the NFL or the NBA and become Professionals with a capital “P.” But this would not begin to solve the problems that surround college athletics because, they involve such huge amounts of money and, as in this case, they also involve young people who aren’t even enrolled at the school. There is simply no way to put a stop to this sort of transgression. The demand for sports on television — where the bulk of the money is generated — is insatiable and the networks couldn’t stop broadcasting the contests even if they wanted to. And, clearly, they don’t want to. They also make huge amounts of money.

Didn’t Jesus warn us all long ago that avarice is the root of all evil? These issues, along with many others too numerous to mention, seem to bear this out. In any event, moralizing aside, the genie is out of the bottle and there really doesn’t seem to be any way to put it back.

Who’s In Charge Here?

You may have heard about the refusal of the football team at Grambling University recently to board a bus to play a football game at nearby Jackson State — the latter’s Homecoming, as it happens. The game was cancelled, though one suspects that the revelry at Jackson State was not put on hold! In any event, the situation raises some interesting questions about our educational priorities and about the willingness of young people, in this case, to accept their responsibilities. After all, these players are on football “scholarships” and made some sort of commitment to the university when they agreed to play football there.

A recent news story tells us, in part, the cause of the players’ discontent: “The players are unhappy with [university President] Pogue, the university’s facilities, transportation and the dismissal of coach Doug Williams, a Grambling alum and former Super Bowl winning quarterback with the Washington Redskins.” In recent weeks the players were required to travel by bus to a game 900 miles away, which is a lot to ask of pampered athletes. But the University has fallen on hard financial times and has had to make deep cuts in a number of programs. One suspects that air travel in this case is out of the question. One also suspects that this is what the players were promised and what they have come to expect. At any rate, they refused to play a game that would have involved another bus ride, this time a comparatively brief one, and this has caused ripples at the university and around the country. ESPN loves this stuff! The players have called for the firing of President Pogue who commented that the players should be aware of their responsibilities to the university and aware also of the fact that they are at Grambling to get a “first class education.” Sure. Former Grambling coach Doug Williams recently tweeted “”I am proud of them boys. They took a stand.” So much for the myth of a “first class education” in the case of at least one former Grambling alum. On the other hand, the players claim their uniforms are not cleaned properly and this has brought on a number of of staph infections. If true, this is a serious charge indeed. Time will tell.

The larger question here is not who is right and who is wrong on this particular issue, but whether a struggling university should even try to fund a football team in the first place. Indeed, a number of times I have raised the question whether the tail wags the dog in college athletics at the Division I NCAA level. Who’s in charge? This question keeps coming up. Does the athletics department at those schools rule the roost? In this case do the athletes at Grambling rule the roost? One would like to think that President Pogue is right on: education ought to be the first priority and the athletics department in general and the football program in particular should suck hind tit — if they are allowed any nourishment at all. But that is a pipe dream because there are tons of money involved in large, successful football programs and the universities are willing to do anything (I repeat, anything) necessary to field a successful football team. Witness the Oklahoma State scandal recently, and, of course, Penn State and Ohio State. And the list goes on.

So while we reflect on whether a group of spoiled athletes who may have a legitimate gripe and may or may not have been promised the stars when they were recruited to Grambling ought to be heroes, as Williams suggests, because “they took a stand,” one must ask whether their stand was worth taking and whether or not these young men were standing on principle or whether they were simply put out because they were not treated royally as they have been led to expect. And this may be the root cause of the entire issue: in this age of entitlement the young have been led to expect royal treatment and when they don’t receive it they feel they have legitimate grounds to protest in whatever way seems appropriate — even if it involves ignoring the promises they made and their obligations to a university that is, after all, paying for their education.

A Dialogue

In reading about the State of Pennsylvania’s recent decision to take the NCAA to court to force that group to rescind the sanctions brought against Penn State University for the Sandusky scandal I was going back and forth on the issue, which engendered the following dialogue:

PRO: I think the State has every right to take this action. As they have said, it was a criminal action that Sandusky was duly tried for and the University (and the state which contributes $200,000 a year to the university) should net be penalized for that man’s actions — especially since he has been punished.

CON: True, but the football program at the University is culpable since they were clearly aware of what Sandusky was doing and chose to look the other way. In addition, not only the head coach knew what was going on, but apparently the Administration knew and also chose to look the other way. Furthermore, the board of governors needs to take responsibility for what is going on in the university and should never have allowed Joe Paterno to have as much power as he obviously had.

PRO: Yes, but the NCAA has entirely too much power. They ran the AIAW out of business back in the early days of Title IX  and were slow in recognizing the importance of women’s sports, and they effectively have rendered the NAIA irrelevant. They are really the only game in town, which raises the specter of anti-trust. In this case they acted without full knowledge of the events and handed out a very harsh punishment that affects the entire student body and players who were not involved in any sort of cover-up and should not be punished.

CON: True, the NCAA is a very powerful body but it fills a need. Can you imagine what intercollegiate sports would be like without a watchdog like the NCAA keeping an eye on things? The corruption we see now would be ten times worse without a group like the NCAA playing the role of watchdog. In this case they may have acted peremptorily, but they knew (as we all did) that blame went all the way the chain of command at the university and how else were they supposed to act if they didn’t punish the football program and the university as a whole? If they have the power to hand down sanctions, as they do, then they have the power — and the right — to punish the football program and even the university itself with fines and the reduction of scholarships.

And so it goes. Back and forth. I do know one thing: the NCAA’s attempts to throw up a red herring by saying that “[this action] is an affront to all of the victims in this tragedy – lives that were destroyed by the criminal actions of Jerry Sandusky” is hogwash. It suggests that the NCAA lawyers know they are on thin ice and are attempting to divert attention away from the central issue, which is whether or not the NCAA acted in accordance with its own rules. If the state of Pennsylvania wins its case it will severely hamper the ability of the NCAA in the future to hand down sanctions for breach of its many rules. If it loses, the power of the NCAA which is already tremendous, will grow exponentially. And this for a group that already takes in $845 million a year in non-taxable revenue and seems determined to increase that amount in any way it can.

What do you think?

Back To The Toilet Bowl

I blogged recently about the rash of football bowl games at this time of year that makes the stomach turn over and the head whirl. Actually, it was a re-blog from last year but the blog seemed timely and I ran it again. In that blog I sought to tie in the absurd number of bowl games with the ridiculous inversion of priorities that has invaded the major universities in this country making education almost incidental.

I have repeatedly gone on about the need to rethink our priorities in education — not only higher education, but all of education. At the lower grades we have placed the child’s sense of self-esteem above the need to know — and by creating a false sense of self-esteem in our kids we have bred a narcissistic sense of entitlement that permeates the culture. In the higher grades we see the colleges fighting over doctrine, territory, and enrollments while the students plan their next party; in the process all are forgetting that education is what it is all supposed to be about.

But the depth of the problem really came home to me when I was reading Sports Illustrated’s annual “Scorecard” in which Ohio State’s third string quarterback, Cardale Jones, was quoted as having tweeted “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.” It’s hard to know what to add to this indictment of the education system at that level. It provides graphic evidence of the depth of illusion in the case of at least one of the participants in a football program that was being denied participation in a bowl game by the NCAA. But it also shows how little at least this player regards the importance of the education Ohio State University is supposed to be providing him free of charge. Talk about biting the hand that feeds!

This has been a most interesting year in the arena of major college sports scandals, of course, with the Penn State scandal the most prominent. And that situation just got more interesting as the State of Pennsylvania pledged to take the NCAA to court to have their sanctions overturned. (I’m just happy it’s not my tax money that will pay for that!) But the larger issue is the fact that Penn State and Ohio State are not isolated cases: they just happened to get caught. In major college football and basketball programs across the country the coaches are paid salaries that dwarf those of the college presidents — not to mention the occasional Nobel Prize-winning physics professor. And rules are bent and things like sodomy are allowed to pass unnoticed in order to field a winning team. The message that comes across — and judging from Jones’ tweet it is being received loud and clear — is that education really doesn’t matter: success on the field and the court are what matter, because that success translates into profits. Education at the “higher” levels is big business and the putative students are the victims though they don’t seem to realize it.

Paterno As Scapegoat

In the wake of the massive penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA there was shock and dismay in State College recently. An astonishing number of people still cannot accept the fact that Joe Paterno was part of the cover-up of his assistant coach’s  attacks on young boys. A reporter for ESPN mentioned that a number of people he spoke with regard Paterno as a scapegoat who is being made to take the blame for errors in judgment by those above him.

Apparently they haven’t been paying attention: they haven’t read or heard about the Freeh report in which is was made clear that the man not only knew about Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but was unwilling to report the behavior to his superiors upon first hearing of it because it was a Friday and he didn’t want to disturb authorities on the weekend!  And he continued to stonewall as boys continued to be attacked in his own facility which he ruled over with absolute power.

There is such a thing as denial, and this may simply be such a case: group denial. But there is also such a thing as stupidity and I suspect this is closer to what we have here. I understand it would be hard for those who held Paterno in very high regard to admit that he is guilty as sin — not because they believe he was above suspicion, but because it would mean that they were wrong about the man. We have more trouble assimilating this sort of shock when it’s about ourselves, and those who thought Paterno was a Saint (yes, that’s what has been reported) must have suffered quite a shock to their reality principle as they were very wrong.

For years I sat on a committee at my university that heard student appeals after they had received poor grades and were dismissed for academic reasons. Students had the opportunity to try to convince a committee of fellow-students and faculty that there were extenuating reasons for their failure and some of them were at times given another semester to get their grades up to par. One of my close academic friends on the committee was an economist and we often looked at one another in dismay as we heard about dead grandmothers, broken promises, sick girlfriends (or cats), and a host of other excuses that the students tended to fall back upon with remarkable regularity. One of the most common lines of defense was the argument that the student had a learning disability. Students would usually appear in front of the committee with the head of the “Learning Resources Center” who would attest to the student’s inability to read and write because of this supposed “learning disability.” Some of them had legitimate disabilities and we usually took pity on them. But one day after hearing this excuse for the umpteenth time from a student who was clearly grasping at straws my friend looked at me and said “stupidity is also a learning disability.” He was right on. There are legitimate learning disabilities, but there are also hollow excuses. And once you have heard a few you learn to recognize them. There is such a thing as stupidity.

We believe what we want to believe and we insist those things are true that make us comfortable. This seems to be human nature and we are all a bit guilty of this tendency. Instead of looking at the evidence and working through it with our critical faculties, we jump to the closest comfortable conclusion and cling to it for dear life. It’s hard to let go. But at some point it is just plain stupid to continue to deny the plain truth when it is staring you in the face.

Joe Paterno was involved in the Sandusky scandal up to his bushy eyebrows and thick spectacles. And while we can understand how difficult it is for those who held him in high regard to admit it, we must wonder at their unwillingness to succumb to a truth so glaringly apparent. There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.

What You See…

In addition to the famous statue of Joe Paterno on the Penn State campus, about which there is considerable controversy these days, apparently there is a gigantic mural downtown featuring Joe Paterno’s image. That image was recently retouched in light of the Freeh report placing Joe Paterno at the center of a giant cover-up that went on for fourteen years and involved the agony of numerous young boys whose cries fell on deaf ears.  A recent story on-line tells us that the picture of Paterno on the mural had a halo painted on it which the artist recently erased. In addition

Pilato [the artist] added a large blue ribbon, instead, on Paterno’s lapel symbolizing support for child abuse victims, a cause the artist said Paterno had endorsed.

I had to read the story, and especially that sentence, twice because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. To place a halo over the head of any ordinary person, no matter how highly we regard them, is what the medieval mind would regard as blasphemy and I would regard as presumptive arrogance. But to paint a blue ribbon on the man’s chest  signifying that Joe Paterno “endorsed” support for child abuse victims — after the recent allegations came out in the Freeh report — beggars belief, as the English would say. This is beyond hypocrisy.

I don’t doubt that Paterno did indeed wear the blue ribbon. I simply question how he could have done so knowing what he clearly knew about one of his own assistant coaches and what the man was doing in Paterno’s own back yard. It tells us something about the man that we might not want to know. Joe Paterno had immense power at Penn State and could have simply said “no” at any point during the fourteen years and the attack on young boys would have stopped. But it would have damaged the reputation of the football program and of the university itself. Ironically it would have embellished the image of Paterno himself as the coach who “did things right,” an image his family and former players are so eager to protect after the fact. However, by ignoring those boys and attempting to protect his empire Paterno compounded the problem and guaranteed that his reputation will be forever tarnished, as it should be, and the university and his former football program will take years to recover.

To make matters worse, it appears that as the Sandusky scandal was breaking Paterno managed to arrange a “sweetened retirement contract” between himself and the university worth $5.5 million that would guarantee him a comfortable retirement at the end of the year — had he not been fired.  While Rome was burning Paterno fiddled — and made sure he would be taken care of, regardless of what happened to Sandusky, the football program, or Penn State. His family will enjoy the benefits of that contract following the man’s death from cancer: the university does not plan to contest it.

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-then-life men and women built up by the media. We are all fallible humans and we make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are large indeed. And while it seemed at first as though “Papa-Joe” was taking responsibility for his failure to act when he said “I should have done more,” it now appears he was faking it even as those words were coming out of his mouth. He failed to act for fourteen years.

The halo is gone from Paterno’s portrait and there is a movement afoot to remove the statue of the man from the Penn State campus — though the Trustees recently said this would not happen, at least for now. There has even been the suggestion (In USA Today) that the entire football season should be cancelled for a year so the university can come to terms with what has happened. None of these steps seems to me to be appropriate, however. For one thing, they would involve a distortion of the truth. The destruction of the statue would be much like re-writing history in order to make people feel better about themselves. It is a vengeful act.

But a suggestion I heard recently that I would endorse involves the building of a monument outside the P.E. facility dedicated to the young boys who were attacked and abused in the building coupled with a fund to support groups that will help see to it that this sort of thing does not happen again in the future. What happened in this place is difficult to grasp. It is not only the campus that must come to terms with what has happened, it is all of us.

Our True Religion

Brace yourselves! Here it comes again: The Super Bowl, once again reminding us what we truly worship in this country. It isn’t football, per se, or even this particular football game, which is merely a pageant. Rather, it is the Almighty Dollar that pulls the strings behind the pageants, professional and collegiate — and, increasingly, high school. Like any true religion, professional sports provides us with a deity, the Almighty Dollar, together with a panoply of saints in the form of the athletes themselves — who disappoint us from time to time, but we worship them just the same. And it’s not a once-a-week thing for an hour, it fills every nook and cranny of our empty lives, giving us something to talk about over coffee or beer during the week, including fantasy games we can play to keep us attuned to what is going on daily.

TV is itself a constant reminder of what really matters to us — not only in form of the games we watch, but also the inspirational shows, like “Fox News” that tells us 24/7 that money is what counts. So when we tire of talking with one another about last weekend’s game, we can commiserate with each other about the sad state of the economy, vowing to vote out the rascals who are taking money out of our pockets. Again, the Almighty Dollar reigns supreme. Our true religion fills our lives the way Christianity filled the lives of the poor Europeans during the middle ages when cathedrals were being built and church was attended every day — sometimes twice a day — by all and sundry. Religion provided the main focus of nearly every life and there were no unbelievers. This still appears to be the case; only the religion has changed.

To focus for a moment on one aspect of our true religion, the game of football itself is great fun to watch and the athleticism of the participants is remarkable and at times unbelievable. But the game has taken on a life of its own and now possesses a power over us that is deeply disturbing. We watch captivated by the sheer brute force exhibited on the field or the TV set. This may indeed be a healthy release of sadistic impulses, as some have suggested. But it does show us at our worst at times as we glory in the violent spectacle that these professional, and semi-professional, athletes put on for us.

But behind it all lurks the specter of filthy lucre: money. Buckets filled with it in the form of TV revenue, profits from memorabilia sales, food sales in the second largest feeding frenzy of the year, the obscene salaries of the players — not to mention the profits garnered by the owners themselves — and the sale of the TV sponsors’ products through the clever ads that we look forward to each year at this time. We tend to get wrapped up in the event itself and forget that this spectacle is being set before us to divert attention away from the fact that what this country worships above all else if the Almighty Dollar. And this deity holds sway each year at this time in all its glory.

It’s not so much that this one game each year sweeps us up in its dazzle and glitz. That’s not a bad thing in itself. We need diversion at times, especially in times of economic woe. But the powers behind the spectacle are insatiable. They influence not only the professional games at all levels, but also the “amateur” games at the collegiate level, bringing about innumerable examples of shame and disgrace (witness Penn State of late, which is only the latest in an extended series of scandals that go back beyond memory). And now, thanks to TV networks like ESPN, the reach of the profit-grabbers is extending to the high schools where games are regularly televised, including “All-America” all-star games sponsored by the armed forces. And we are asked to watch as high school players make the decision which college to attend — an event that is staged to increase dramatic effect as the high school student picks up the hat of his chosen college, to his mother’s chagrin. All are designed to dull our awareness of what is really taking place, as Tocqueville noted in 1831: “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” The Super Bowl brings in plenty!

In the end, the game will be played and discussed ad nauseam on TV for weeks and months to come. It will be enjoyed by millions here and abroad. It is well worth watching (yes, I will be watching). But it is also wise to remind ourselves from time to time what it’s all really about, namely, the Almighty Dollar. That is, truly, this country’s ultimate object of worship. The game is just a game.

The Cover-Up Culture

One of the things that has come out of the scandal at Penn State is the realization that there is a cover-up culture in large universities where Division I athletics reign supreme. That term was coined in the cover story that recently appeared in Sports Illustrated detailing the scandal at Penn State. But the notion that misbehavior, from simple cheating to felonies like rape and assault, need to be hushed up “to save the reputation of the university” is common. Not that all aberrant behavior, even at Penn State, manages to stay “in-house.” For example, it was reported by E.S.P.N. that in Happy Valley between 2002 and 2008, 46 players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes ranging from public urination to murder. The fact that these cases did not get national attention at the time is evidence of the immense influence the football coach at Penn State had not only at the university but in the region as well.  Until recent events surrounding the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State was generally regarded as “a haven of virtue,” as noted in Sports Illustrated.

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.

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.

It all comes down to priorities, of course, and it exemplifies, among other things, short-term thinking. But consider the irony: the cover-ups at Penn State that were supposed to preserve the university’s good name have resulted in a sullied reputation that will take years to clean up. The $1.5 recently pledged by that university to help abused children as recompense for the atrocities charged against Jerry Sandusky is a first step. But it is a small step in light of the atrocities alleged against an assistant football coach and the cover-up that followed.

The encouraging thing is that at least one other major university seems to have gotten the message. Syracuse University recently fired an assistant basketball coach who has allegedly abused young boys. This appeared, on the surface, to be a quick, no-nonsense response to allegations that would most assuredly taint the university’s reputation. We shall see if the effects of the Penn State scandal have long-term effects. Something has to give.

Sports Lessons

The recent debacle at Penn State has the world of sports in an uproar. Joining the fray is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, argued that the situation with the Penn State football team “shows a major university that has been more interested in protecting itself than in educating its students.” This is a bit of an overstatement, as the behavior of the coaches and administration at this university doesn’t prove quite that much, but it is certainly the case that is is a symptom of deep issues in higher education —  at the Division I level, at least at one of its most honored representative institutions. Penn State has been proven insular and it does protect its athletes from public scrutiny. The football team, for example, lives in separate dorms and team members are disciplined (?) for misconduct by the football coach, not the usual judicial system at the university. But that hardly allows us to draw conclusions about the whole of higher education or even about Penn State and its alleged failure in educating its students who don’t happen to be athletes or members of the football team.

At the same time, it does raise questions about the priorities at Division I schools where athletics has gotten out of control — at least in the “revenue” sports. Clearly, the priorities at these schools need to be reexamined and revised, as I have suggested elsewhere. Education must always come first. Unfortunately, however, educators are not clear about their goals. They hide their ignorance behind a wall of jargon and “theory” that consists largely of droppings from the table of pop psychology. Or, at the higher levels, they bury their noses in their areas of expertise and ignore the larger issues of education altogether. Education most assuredly has lost its way: it no longer knows what it is about — if it ever did.  Ironically, then, educators might do well to look to sports for a paradigm. Not Division I sports, perhaps, but sports at the “lower” end of the spectrum.

Consider: athletes must do things they don’t want to and they must do so with a smile. If teachers ask their students to read an assignment they don’t want to read, they often “blow it off.” They might flunk the test, but if they come up with a good excuse they will almost assuredly be allowed to take a “make-up.” Or they turn in their term papers late and take an “incomplete.” Athletes can’t do this. They must lift the weights, run the laps, turn up to practice every day, whether they want to or not. In addition, they know that failure is part of the game. No team always wins; someone must lose. In education, we don’t want our students to experience failure, and we protect them in any way we can. Everyone must succeed. “No child left behind,” and all that rot. Athletes learn about failure and they learn from failure. Athletes also learn about discipline, while in education this word has gotten a bad reputation and is to be avoided at all costs. Students learn to shift the blame (“she gave me a ‘D’ on my term paper!”) Athletes learn to accept responsibility for their actions (“My bad!”) Sports reflect life in ways that the classroom does not. And that is food for thought. Perhaps, despite the misplaced emphasis on Division I sports, sports at “lower” levels can teach us a great deal — as it can the athletes who participate in those sports.

It is a sad commentary on contemporary education to note that sports appears to be the last bastion for self-discipline and other-regard. In sports the team comes first and players know that winning depends on their playing a part and not, necessarily, being center-stage —  Division I sports and professional sports to the contrary notwithstanding. Self esteem is built around success on the court or the playing field, it is not a platitude that is mouthed by a well-meaning teacher to all students regardless of their accomplishments. There is something refreshingly honest about sports that is missing in the hype and hyperbole of educational platitudes.