Penn State football needs a time out

The NCAA will 'examine' Penn State's loss of control over its sports program following the sex and coverup scandal. But the NCAA needs a robust solution to break the culture of sports dominance in colleges.

(AP Photo/Andy Colwell)
A father and son play with Penn State apparel on display in Rapid Transit Sports in downtown State College, Pa. The unfolding Penn State child molestation scandal has slammed the university's reputation, and part of the immediate fallout is economic. Purchases of hats, shirts, and other items emblazoned with the Penn State name have plummeted 40 percent overall compared with the same period last year.

The NCAA has finally sent an official letter to Penn State – two weeks after news reports of the school’s sex scandal and alleged coverup broke.

The letter only begins to hint at how much college sports in general needs a timeout from its dominance in many schools as a money machine and recruiting tool that distorts the moral purpose of higher education.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association says it will “examine” whether Pennsylvania State University lost “institutional control” over its total athletics program – and not just the Nittany Lions football team of dismissed coach Joe Paterno.

But what might the NCAA end up doing to deflate what its president, Mark Emmert, calls the “power of enthusiasm” toward college sports?

Should Penn State, for example, be banned from major-college football for a year to help the school gain needed perspective on the role of sports in academia?

Should it be barred from this season’s bowl games?

And what would send a message to the school without hurting current athletics?

The NCAA has been on a reform kick in recent years following a surge of scandals in college sports. But nothing compares to the alleged cover-up by Penn State officials after they learned of allegations against former defense coach Jerry Sandusky for molesting eight boys.

Penn State has much to protect from scandal – its reputation, donor and alumni loyalty, and millions of dollars from sports broadcasts and the sale of souvenir merchandise. Last season, the school was the third most profitable football program in the United States.

How much did all that play into the alleged coverup? And were some school trustees too close to the sports program to provide adequate oversight?

Such questions need to be asked at many universities with popular sports teams.

The body that guides college trustees on how to birddog sports programs, the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), has been stiffening its advice in recent years.

“Clearly, the impact of intercollegiate athletics on the higher education experience has challenged those responsible for leading America’s colleges and universities,” the AGB states. It warns of widening perceptions that “our society glorifies athletic accomplishment far more than academic achievement.”

The NCCA president, too, reminded Penn State in his letter that a “bedrock principle” of the NCAA is character development by adhering to values such as respect, honesty, and responsibility.

The NCAA probe is only one of many of the Penn State scandal. But this elite sports entity can have the greatest impact in fixing the culture of money, secrecy, and arrogance that pervades many schools that rely on powerful sports programs.

Penn State has until Dec. 16 to reply to the NCAA. It should take a deep breath and consider drastic ways to rein in that “power of enthusiasm” toward sports and restore the school’s educational integrity.

Individuals who have been charged will be held responsible in a court of law. But Penn State and the NCAA need to break a culture that serves an institution first instead of the values its stands for.

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