“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”
One sometimes hears or reads a statement that is so preposterous on its face that you wonder if the person making the utterance could keep a straight face. That’s the way I reacted when I read that New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that state government should take control of horse racing to fix what are still – three months later – unidentified problems. This particular statement was made by Mark Emmert, President of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, in announcing stringent sanctions against Pennsylvania State University for its handling of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by a former assistant football coach. Now, I do not dispute the need for severe sanctions against a college where the highest officials, including the University President as well as Head Football Coach, the widely revered Joe Paterno, did nothing to prevent a serial pedophile from using both university facilities and his connection with the university to rape and sexually abuse minor boys. Unless you are a member of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church – or, it seems Penn State – you know enough to report such matters to law enforcement, and certainly do not enable further such criminal behavior.
If Emmert left it at that, fine. But he had to go into his most sanctimonious posture and pretend that something beyond protecting the NCAA “brand” was at stake. Does he really mean that this action portends an NCAA that will place “educating” athletes above the enormous revenues generated by football and basketball programs? Or that the “nurturing” of young men and women will mean the NCAA will no longer enforce ridiculous rules that prevent said youngsters from continuing their educations in the event their athletic coach takes away a scholarship for reasons unrelated to misconduct? Perhaps Emmert’s sudden high-minded approach to the well-being of young people means that the NCAA will take the lead in eliminating the concussions experienced by so many football players (and other athletes) that can have such devastating life-long consequences. If they are serious about reforming the NCAA, they could start by responding to Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch’s piece in The Atlantic on the NCAA’s systemic exploitation of athletes, or to some of Joe Nocera’s columns in The New York Times, one example of which is here, in which he excoriated the NCAA’s abuse – albeit through bureaucratic mindlessness – of the “student-athletes” they claim to represent.
In a New York Times puff piece on Emmert accompanying their coverage of the sanctions, they cited sources “close to him” about the frustrations he had experienced in “enacting change in college athletics.” They proceeded to quote him as saying that the NCAA’s “membership, especially the presidential leadership, has done an extraordinary job … addressing some of the core problems that we have.” (Emphasis mine.) Let’s ignore Emmert’s referring to himself not only in the third person, but using a phrase that may lead one to think he is talking about Barack Obama. One of the “core problems” we think Emmert is referencing is the “failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution [and] the values of higher education.” Those are the words from the consent decree between the NCAA and Penn State that was signed by Emmert.
So how did Emmert himself promote those values when he was at a university? According to the Times‘ puff piece, when he was chancellor at Louisiana State University, he was “instrumental in hiring Nick Saban, who led the Tigers football team to the 2003 national title.” For those not familiar with college football, the same Nick Saban could very well be the poster boy for the imbalance between a football program and the values of an educational institution. His current employer, the University of Alabama, pays him the tidy sum of $4.7 million plus a potential bonus of $700,000 that he probably received when he led Alabama to this year’s national title. Lest you think that is unrelated to the mission of a publically-funded college, Chancellor Emmert would inform you, again according to the Times, that LSU’s success on the gridiron allowed him to “put a story about their physics program in the sports section.” As a long-time fan of college football, I can attest that when I think of LSU, I am thinking about quantum mechanics along with Billy Cannon.
Emmert’s success promoting LSU’s physics program led him to the presidency of the University of Washington. How much does Washington pay its football coach? According to USA Today‘s College Football Coach’s Salary Database from 2006-11, the Huskies’ mentor receives a piddling $2.2 million with the possibility of a million-dollar bonus. Since the Penn State resolution will ensure that “football will never again be placed ahead of educating … young people,” the coaches at the following institutions are probably in for significant salary cuts: Texas, $5.2 million; Auburn, $3.5 million; Iowa, $3.8 million; Michigan, $3.3 million; Oregon, $2.8 million; LSU, $3.8 million; Florida, $3.2 million; and, Oklahoma, $4 million. (All salary figures are from USA Today and omit bonuses.) You may note that each of these institutions is a taxpayer-funded public entity. Private ones, for the most part, are not included in the database.
We can also assume that the NCAA’s newfound zeal for education-over-athletics will carry over to the basketball programs. So Kentucky’s John Calipari, who had teams at two different state universities retroactively removed from their Final Four appearances, will no longer blatantly (as he acknowledges) recruit blue-chip high school players to attend UK for a year before moving on to the NBA so Kentucky can win the NCAA championship, as it did this year.
I cannot let a piece on hypocrisy go by without acknowledging that I am a long-time fan of both college football and basketball, and attended a university that has had its share of scandals in the basketball program (and pays its football coach $1 million per year). I agree with the NCAA that Penn State is deserving of severe penalties (although they will be appearing on television, and the football scholarships are being reduced to “only” 15 per year for a limited period). But let’s be honest. The NCAA’s sanctions are merely an effort to get past a major scandal, and do not portend a change in attitude to athletic programs that measure national TV revenues in the billions, and care not a whit about the educational experiences of so-called “student athletes.” While Penn State can be accused justifiably of “protecting its brand” in its approach to Jerry Sandusky, the same can be said about the NCAA, even if the NCAA is not guilty of protecting and enabling criminal behavior.
And we should not forget those who enable the distortion between football or basketball programs and the actual purpose of a university. We can look down our collective noses at the Penn State students who were so upset about the sanctions leveled against the university, but behind each of those students is a university administrator, member of the Board of Trustees, or a contribution-giving alumnus. When the Boston-based radio program On Point devoted an hour to the Penn State sanctions on July 24, one of the participants was Dan Beebe, a former commissioner of the Big 12 conference who became an investigator for the NCAA. When discussing the lack of a proper perspective on college sports, he described receiving calls from United States Senators complaining about calls by a referee. He expressed his satisfaction that the issues confronting our nation were in such good shape that members of the world’s greatest deliberative body could devote time to a call in a game.