Sat, Sep

What the Penn State Debacle Tells Us About the People In Charge of College Education


GELFAND ON … SPORTS POLITICS-My recent column pointing out that Los Angeles can do without a professional football team drew some interesting comments. One person went so far as to send me links to an article in The Atlantic that points out the advantages of abolishing high school sports teams. It's an interesting idea, particularly if it were imposed on, say, half the schools in the LA Unified School District, and it's worth exploring in another column.           

At the least, I think we should reconsider the questionable idea that we need to bribe kids to stay in school by making them into football players. 

Another assumption we ought to be questioning is the idea, implicit in our mass media, that our society is to be composed mainly of entertainment consumers who spend one-fourth of their waking hours watching sports programming or contests among would-be entertainers.           

In this kind of system, there is huge competition among those who hope to break into the ranks of the professional entertainers, whether the entertainers are pop singers or professional sports stars.           

We can question the wisdom of patterning our society along these lines, but we should at least concede that this is the situation as it now exists. Tens of thousands of Americans, young and older, vie for a few well paying positions. The very word Nashville conjures up that idea in terms of country music. American Idol does the same for rock music, and college football works as the Nashville and American Idol of professional football.           

When it comes to Nashville, Hollywood, or American Idol, there is at least a concept of a meritocracy. A large element of American literary criticism challenges the idea that any such thing exists, and points to violations of the spirit of the merit system. But as a culture, we relish the idea that a young person with talent and spunk can get off the bus in depression era Hollywood and make it into the movies. Some did, and others managed to find work in the mail room or behind a camera. As Americans, we like the idea that there is some concept of equity, no matter how distorted it sometimes gets, in the choice of who rises to the top.           

The same moral impulse ought to hold true for that vast NFL minor league system known as college football. Only here, the possible outcomes for the talented entertainer, be he a quarterback or a lineman, include the chance to develop a career in another field besides pro ball, if only he can achieve some level of name recognition during his college years. Mark Harmon has done pretty well for himself as the star of NCIS. Not too many viewers remember that he played quarterback at UCLA, but his name and recognized accomplishments obviously helped kick start his acting career. Does anyone think that Tim Tebow will go unpaid for very long, whether he ends up in broadcasting or car sales?           

And then there is Penn State. For decades, PSU has been a place for pro football wannabes, many of whom achieved mightily. The football program even managed to convince a large part of the viewing public that this was a different kind of program which held to academic standards in addition to building the world's best linebackers.           

It was a program that drew young athletes. They came with lots of hopes and dreams. Some were realistic candidates for professional football and knew it. Others were perhaps more the dreamers than the talented achievers, but they were allowed to hope. Others may have realized that they weren't headed to the Green Bay Packers, but the privilege of putting on the white jersey was enough. In other words, making the team was considered a great honor, and for some of these students, just being able to play and possibly to compete in a major bowl game were enough. It's something  that the vast majority of us will never achieve.           

The students who enrolled in Penn State and won a coveted position on the football team had a lot invested in that decision. They had worked unbelievably hard as high school students to build themselves into powerful athletes, they had worked endless hours to perfect their skills, and many of them had turned down offers from competing schools.           

In other words, we have to recognize that the football players had some interest -- call it ownership if you like -- in the program, considering all that they had sacrificed in order to join. You can also recognize the moral obligation not only of Penn State, but also of all the college football authorities, towards protecting the rights of the football players.           

What rights of theirs should have been protected? It seems obvious that they had a right to compete for a starting job on the team, they had a right to play their best to win football games, and they had a right to win fame and glory in a bowl game if their win/loss record were to justify it.           

That doesn't seem all that unreasonable, does it?           

And then came the Sandusky affair. We have no need to review it here, since if you have read this far, you know all about it. A former coach engaged in serious acts of child rape. It was brought to the attention of Penn State coaches and administrators. It was covered up. It was Felony city, and major felony at that.           

So what did this have to do with the football players themselves?           

Once again, we don't need to go into the details, because they can be summarized in one single word -- nothing.           

The football players themselves deserved no penalties. Their rights should have been defended by someone, and those rights should have included their chance to play football, to win games, and to compete in the post-season.           

Did the powers that be defend those rights? Not so much. Actually it was exactly the opposite. On July 23, 2012, newspapers around the country announced the penalties enacted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, aka NCAA. Penn State football was banned from bowl games for the next 4 years. Think about it. Players who were in elementary school or middle school when the felonies happened, and who could not possibly have had anything to do with them, were penalized in the nastiest way possible, by taking away their right to win a reward for their hard work and diligent play.           

It got worse. In addition to the bowl ban, the NCAA reduced Penn State football's chance to field competitive teams by reducing the number of football scholarships by 80. That means that Penn State players were in effect sentenced to play with one arm tied behind their backs, since winning football involves having equally adept players around you on the field.           

The NCAA tossed the players a small bone by agreeing to allow them to transfer to another program (in the jargon of college football, we don't even say "another university," we say "another program"). Some did, but this was itself another penalty applied to those who stayed. Not only did they lose the help of players who would not be there due to the lost scholarships, but they also found themselves taking the field in the absence of, for example, a star running back who transferred to USC.           

The NCAA also fined Penn State a large amount of money, whatever that might have had to do with the subject in question, which was felonious conduct by administrators and a former coach.           

When you look at things in the totality, the NCAA punished the people who had nothing to do with the crimes, punished the institution that had some tangential involvement with the crimes, and pretty much ignored the ongoing problems that the NCAA is theoretically supposed to solve.           

If you are willing to think about football players as underpaid workers in a dangerous profession, the policies enforced by the NCAA look weird to say the least. There is a mythology that the NCAA and its apologists like to push, that football players are privileged to have a free education in exchange for their participation. They even have a term for this notion -- "student athletes." 

Some football programs actually achieve a not-unreasonable rate of graduation among their players, but if you look for the doctors and engineers who played big time college football, you are going to have to look pretty hard. There are some, but they are the exceptions. 

It is fair to say that for a lot of big time college football programs, the system consists of quasi-professional football with an iota of education thrown in. The "free education" argument tends to fall flat for a lot of college football players, and they don't get to join in the proceeds of all those ticket sales and hot dog purchases.           

What should an organization like the NCAA do when faced with a Penn State type of situation? We should hope that we won't be seeing anything like this ever again, but a first answer would be, "anything but what the NCAA actually did." The NCAA violated norms of equity and morality that our society has developed over hundreds of years. They are concepts that deal with proving guilt vs innocence, and punishing the guilty. Why was this concept so foreign to the people who administer college football?


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch.)






Vol 11 Issue 84

Pub: Oct 18, 2013