Every so often, the septic tank that is major college athletics overflows, forcing us to cover our mouths and noses lest we be overcome by the stench. So it is in the wake of revelations at Penn State University at which it is alleged, and credibly so, that over a period of years an assistant varsity football coach, now retired, sexually molested young boys both on and off the Penn State campus.
The story here is not that a pedophile turned up at a high level in a high-profile organization. That can literally happen anywhere at any time. The story is that people at the very top of Penn State University, both in the athletic department and in the university administration, knew that young boys were being molested and chose to keep it quiet.
One can guess why. A police investigation and resulting criminal trial of a Penn State coach would very possibly have negatively impacted alumni support and recruiting. And in college sports, given that the millions of dollars that are at stake have completely corrupted nearly everyone involved, these considerations trump all others.
At their best, athletics build character and teamwork and a sense of purpose for both participant and spectator. But college athletics have not been at their best in a long, long time.
College athletics as an enterprise long ago became far removed from its self-proclaimed identity as being about amateur “student athletes.” Just about every public relations communiqué that the National Collegiate Athletic Association puts out to that effect is met with derisive laughter.
Major college athletics is a multi-billion dollar industry that, more often than anyone will admit, makes a mockery of the sanctimonious mission statements of the participating universities.
On most major college campuses, particularly those in the Southeast Conference and the Big 10, the salary of the head football coach is a multiple of the president’s salary. Prior to recent revelations, if you were to ask a hundred randomly chosen people to name the president of Penn State, it is doubtful that as many as ten could have done so. But ask the name of the head coach and the name Joe Paterno would have come easily to mind.
That Penn State’s program had a pedophile in its midst is not the felony. The felony is that upon discovery of that horror, considerations other than what was right for the victims of unspeakable crimes carried the day.
This is an extreme example of a deeply embedded pathology that affects much of major college athletics. Examples are so numerous that space precludes listing them here.
But the pathology is real and it’s terrible. Put simply, very nearly any measure may be taken and any moral restraint may be swept away in pursuit of a winning program. The only imperative is to avoid getting caught and to avoid accountability for the human cost.
Let’s just examine a generic yet very common example of major college sports departing from its lofty ideals in pursuit of the victories that bring in the bucks.
Every year, in a frenzy of recruiting zeal that culminates on National Signing Day – usually the first Wednesday of February – coaches from major college football programs entice kids to play for them. Cash, cars, sex and God knows what else are passed under the table while those doing the recruiting smile and wink.
Many (but admittedly not all) of the most heavily recruited high school kids are black and come from impoverished homes and many were kept academically eligible to play high school football by a wink and a nod. But for their athletic abilities, no one would seriously consider these kids to be college material or capable of pursuing a career for which a college degree is prerequisite.
But before Labor Day, hundreds of such kids are somehow magically transformed into “student athletes” (by the NCAA’s insouciant definition of the term). A charade of a college curriculum is then cobbled together and a charade of pursuing a college degree ensues.
Recruiting an impoverished, poorly educated black kid – promising him an education while arranging his participation in a sham curriculum, broadly implying that an NFL career awaits despite overwhelmingly long odds, extracting four years of financial benefit from his God-given athletic ability, and then casting that kid aside having provided him absolutely nothing in the way of an education that will actually allow him to make a living – is morally and ethically bankrupt.
If being intellectually honest, one cannot abhor the victimization of young boys at Penn State, and be outraged by the institution’s willful blind eye, while simultaneously ignoring the all-too-common plight of our example “student athlete.”
Despite pedophilia being infinitely more appalling than crass exploitation, it is nevertheless true that in both cases the individuals involved are victims of a cosmically corrupt system.
Thus I stick by my “septic tank” metaphor.