Opinion

After Penn State scandal, Congress should make NCAA put students, education first

In light of the scandal at Penn State, which reveals how big-time college sports often overwhelm the core values of higher education, Congress should closely examine whether the NCAA is running a not-for-profit enterprise or a commercial entertainment empire.

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    Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill stretches during NCAA college football practice in State College, Pa., Aug. 21. Op-ed contributor Allen Sack observes: 'Penn State is obviously not the only university that has compromised core values to defend its interests in revenue-driven sports....College sports has to keep an eye on the bottom line. But profit maximization is not its mission. That message has been lost in recent decades.'
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In 2009, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held congressional hearings on the fairness of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) – the holy grail of college football. At issue was whether it was fair for six major conferences to receive automatic bids to the five most prestigious and financially lucrative bowl games, even if teams from other conferences had better seasons. President Obama even weighed in, saying he favored a playoff over the current system.

Senator Orin Hatch (R) of Utah, a member of the Senate Antitrust Committee, defended government intervention in college sports on the grounds that Congress should not hold colleges and universities to lower standards of fairness and ethical behavior than it would a commercial entity. In other words, when the issue was how to disburse the significant spoils of the college sports industry, Congress did not hesitate to enter the fray.

In November of 2011, a grand jury in central Pennsylvania revealed the worst scandal in college sports history. A report revealed that top leaders at Penn State, including beloved coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier, had covered up sexual abuse of children by former Penn State football defensive coach, Jerry Sandusky, in order to protect the PSU football program. This scandal has implications far beyond Penn State and has shaken the ethical foundation of college sports to its very core.

But so far, there has been no outrage from the White House, no call for a congressional hearing. Yet nothing I can think of would provide greater leverage for getting the NCAA to pass rules that truly put educational and ethical values above its current obsession with building a commercial entertainment empire. Such a congressional hearing is long overdue.

The NCAA and its member institutions are the architects of the “athletic culture” that by NCAA President Mark Emmert’s own admission has become “too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge.” As recently as 2006, former NCAA president Myles Brand extolled the virtues of commercialism in collegiate sport in his State of the Association Address. What he did not explain was how to keep the profit-hungry monster from devouring education.

In universities that dominate the race for the college athletics pot of gold, celebrity coaches and their entourage of athletic boosters, alumni, and sports-addicted board members have gained considerable influence over university governance issues, especially in the area of athletic policy. College presidents, who are supposed to run the NCAA, are often more concerned with keeping these constituencies happy than defending academic integrity – or in the case of Penn State, the welfare of children.

Penn State is obviously not the only university that has compromised core values to defend its interests in revenue-driven sports. To become athletically competitive, universities routinely recruit athletes who do not meet minimum admission standards and strip them of their scholarships if they are injured or fail to meet coaches’ expectations. Academic fraud is rampant. Faculty who blow the whistle on such practices are often ostracized and sometimes fired.

The only way the NCAA will cure the problems endemic to commercialized college sports is by actually following its stated mission of “maintaining athletes as an integral part of the student body and retaining a clear line of demarcation between collegiate and professional sports.” College sports has to keep an eye on the bottom line. But profit maximization is not its mission. That message has been lost in recent decades.

Mr. Emmert, the NCAA president, has already demonstrated his commitment to education-oriented legislation by supporting the reinstatement of multiyear scholarships. However, even though a watered down version of this policy passed the Division 1 Board of Directors, it barely survived a membership override vote. Despite Emmert’s efforts, substantive reforms will only occur if external pressure is brought to bear on the NCAA and the sports powerhouses that dominate its culture.

In 2006, Bill Thomas (R) of California, then chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means asked then-NCAA president, Myles Brand, to justify the NCAA’s and it member institutions’ not-for-profit status. Mr. Brand responded with the usual platitudes about amateurism. Not long after that, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York took over as the committee’s chair and never followed up on the investigation of the NCAA’s tax exemption.

I know of no one, including myself, who wants college sports to lose its tax exemption. But in light of the scandal at Penn State, which reveals how big-time college sports often overwhelm the core values of higher education, it seems only reasonable for the House Ways and Means Committee to closely examine whether the NCAA is running a not-for-profit enterprise or an unrelated business.

Allen Sack, a professor in the College of Business at the University of New Haven, played football at Notre Dame and earned his Ph.D. in Sociology at Penn State. He is the President of the Drake Group, an organization committed to academic integrity in college sports.

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