The sanctions handed down to Penn State have been combed over with precision and judgment. However, the discussion about the NCAA’s actions has only begun, in large part because the shockwaves started by Monday’s announcement will be echoing for years. For better or worse, Penn State football has moved into a new era. The NCAA’s actions ensured that, as NCAA boss Mark Emmert put it, the Nittany Lions have plenty of time to build a healthy football culture that operates within the context of the university.
During the press conference announcing Penn State’s penalties, Emmert discussed the idea of culture at length. He did the same in an interview with the New York Times later in the day. He stated, in relevant part:
Well, I certainly hope it is a cautionary tale to all of us that we need to keep our eye on our values. We all have to remember that we can’t let our love of the games get ahead of the core values and we know that happens often. This is a painful, painful reminder that awful things can happen when that occurs.
When pressed about the connection between Penn State and the culture of college football as a whole, Emmert continued:
In many ways we have to be very careful about seeing this as a reflection as the state of college athletics. The fact is that this case is so shocking because its also so rare. That’s a good thing, thank God. Right? This case is anomalous in many regards and we want it to remain so.
Emmert is right. This case is rare and shocking. It’s those qualities that have made it a subject of national fascination. However, it is also those qualities that make it an opportunity to start an honest dialogue about the current state of college athletics. Though he stops short of saying it explicitly, I believe that Emmert sees these sanctions as an opportunity to send a message to the rest of college football.
College sports need a wake up call. There are many areas that demand reform, but one in particularly relevant to the present circumstances: at many major universities, academics take a back seat to athletics. The description of players as “student athletes” is naive, particularly so for football and men’s basketball. This perversion runs contrary to the intended role of sports in college life: to enhance, not define, the experience.
There are two reasons this happens. The first is public interest, which is focused mostly on athletics. The second is money. Athletic departments generate ungodly sums of money for their universities. As the saying goes, he who has the gold makes the rules. That truth, in many cases, leaves prominent athletic officials in a more powerful position than their academically-minded counterparts.
Nowhere was this more true than Happy Valley, where the school’s most prominent leaders made a clear choice in protecting the interests of the university and its football program over the welfare of vulnerable young men.
Even more troubling: the problem is pervasive. Misguided fans will tell you that academic subservience to athletics is a phenomenon exclusive to SEC country. That’s wrong. It happens in conferences around the country.
It’s debatable whether Penn State’s punishment will have the effect of changing the direction of college football as an institution, but it’s a start. There are myriad factors conspiring against such a course adjustment, the most notable of which is the aforementioned poisonous influence of money in college athletics.
Perhaps the most troubling factor in all of this is that we, as fans, have enabled this mindset. In Penn State’s case, Joe Paterno was close to deification. Indeed, if Jerry Sandusky had never been hired, Paterno would have finished his time in State College as the university’s homegrown god. This mindset was particularly potent at Penn State, but smaller iterations have popped up at schools around the country. One example: Alabama already has its own Nick Saban statue.
Another, albeit smaller, example can be found here in Columbus. Jim Tressel was revered by Buckeye fans. He still is by many. But it’s impossible to argue around the fact that he broke rules that he knew existed, no matter how stupid they were. In doing so, he hurt the very players he was trying to help. Still, making this simple statement of fact on an Ohio State blog is akin to treason for a substantial portion of our fan base, over a year after his resignation. That’s not to say that Tressel’s actions compare to Paterno’s. However, my interest is in the reaction of the average college football fan to charges of wrongdoing against their leaders.
One common reaction is to criticize such charges without respect to their merit. For example, Mark May caused outrage among the Ohio State fan base when he Tweeted criticism of Gordon Gee on Monday morning. Sure, his grammar was faulty, especially for a “journalist.” Yes, he’s been a consistent, and sometimes unfair, critic of Ohio State in the past. But his central point, that a university president should never suggest that a football coach is in charge of the university, strikes me as remarkably reasonable. But it’s criticism of Ohio State, so its merit wasn’t considered by us as fans.
If we still can’t scrutinize the leaders and institutions that we care about, have we learned anything from the Penn State scandal?
There is no virtue in blind loyalty. Wearing a team’s colors does not require you to defend them without serious thought. In fact, such knee-jerk reactions hurt the team in the end.They enable leaders to believe that their misdeeds will be unquestioningly forgiven by their fans. That enables further wrongdoing.
The best thing we can do as fans in these types of situations is hold our leaders responsible for their actions. If an Ohio State official does something you disagree with, call them on it.
They aren’t gods. They’re men. If they’re treated as such, it may be a long time before another tragedy like this unfolds.