NCAA crackdown shouldn't stop at Penn State: BCS uses students like gladiators

The Penn State scandal isn't the only injustice to plague college football. In fact, that damaging lack of transparency is endemic. The NCAA should continue to clean house by taking control of the Bowl Championship Series, which, driven by greed, uses college players like gladiators. 

Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/AP
A statue of former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno stands outside Beaver Stadium on the Penn State campus July 19 in State College, Pa. The statue has since been taken down, and the NCAA levied sanctions against Penn State after a report found officials there covered up Jerry Sandusky's child sex abuse. Op-ed contributor Rodney K. Smith says: 'As the Penn State scandal shows, big-time college football is a world where money speaks louder than morality.'

The NCAA has fined Penn State $60 million, reversed its football wins from 1998 to 2011, and the statue of beloved Joe Paterno has been taken down. Former FBI director Louis J. Freeh’s investigation of Penn State’s cover-up of Jery Sandusky’s sex abuse found a “total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims” by Coach Paterno, then college president Graham Spanier, and Athletic Director Mark Sherburne. The cover-up resulted in the devastation of the lives of many young men. It also blemished the university and big-time college football.

But it isn’t the only scandal or injustice to plague the world of college football. In fact, such damaging lack of transparency is endemic. The NCAA should continue to clean house by taking control of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which, driven by greed, uses college players like gladiators. As the Penn State scandal shows, big-time college football is a world where money speaks louder than morality.

In 2003, concerned by commercialization in college athletics, E. Gordon Gee, who currently serves as president of The Ohio State University, warned, “Nothing short of a revolution will stop what has become a crisis of conscience and integrity for colleges and universities in this country.”

Revenues and power in big-time college football have expanded dramatically since Mr. Gee’s warning. By recently adding two games and a “national championship” in big-time college football, the BCS and its members will likely generate an additional $300-500 million in revenue, furthering solidifying its power.

The operations of the BCS, like those of Penn State’s football program are shrouded in secrecy – the antithesis of trust and the mother of cover-ups. The BCS, which has displaced the NCAA in running big-time football, shares Penn State’s disregard for those adversely impacted by their decisions.

A few facts evidence how sobering this disregard for student welfare has become. Many football players will leave college lame or with latent injuries.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is credited with having discovered the first case of dementia related to football, has cautioned that, “The concept of permanent brain damage and dementia following repeated blows to the head is a very well established and generally accepted principle in medicine.”

Unfortunately, this accepted medical principle and the warning inherent in it has gone unheeded in the world of big-time football. Annually, one out of ten college football players suffers a serious concussion, with hundreds of others suffering major brain trauma or debilitating injuries during their collegiate careers.

The insatiable drive for revenues and glory has resulted in an expansion of the number of games, practices, and injuries suffered by so called student-athletes. The BCS and its member institutions effectively reject Article 3.3 of the NCAA’s Operating Principles – Student-Athlete Well-Being. The article mandates that, “intercollegiate athletics programs be conducted in a manner to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student athletes.”

What other than injuries do student-athletes receive for their efforts? Many receive little more than a moment of gladiatorial glory. A few sign professional contracts.

Colleges insist that players are paid with an education, an asset of great value. But graduation is often illusory, and academic values are regularly ignored in the drive to increase revenue and solidify institutional power.

Graduation rates have improved some in the past decade, but the record remains abysmal, particularly for players of color. With more televised games played during the week and with conference championships and added games, athletes are missing 40 percent more class time than they did in 2005.

The BCS allocates ever-increasing revenues among its members, co-opting coaches and presidents at smaller institutions with revenue sharing, crumbs from the BCS table. It ignores student welfare and academic issues in its allocation of burgeoning revenue.

Funds that could be used to increase safety and academic support for student-athletes are used to pay coaches and administrators more, build larger stadiums, and fund other extravagances.

In the decade since President Gee decried the crisis of conscience and integrity in the world of commercialized intercollegiate athletics, little has been done.

The hope that Penn State’s cover-up will awaken coaches and college presidents can become further reality if the BCS uses the funds primarily to deal with issues of student safety and welfare and help more student-athletes graduate. If funds are used primarily for other purposes, the lessons learned at Penn State sadly will have been quickly forgotten.

At the turn of the twentieth century, college football faced a similar crisis based on a disquieting record of injuries and deaths. President Theodore Roosevelt intervened.

Congress should intervene today and hold hearings to get to the bottom of this culture of cover-up, with its disregard for educational values and student welfare. Those hearings, together with the work of groups like the Knight Commission, could save big-time football from further crises that might lead to the death of big-time college football.

Rodney K. Smith is a former president of Southern Virginia University and current director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

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