Shame of US college sports
PRINCETON, New Jersey ― Young Koreans, having gone crazy over the college entrance exam and cramming madly for the scores and grades needed to get into elite universities, might have trouble believing the most outrageous scandal that’s hit any American college campus in decades.
Would it involve such perennial banes as cheating, plagiarism, collaborating with friends to produce papers that looked remarkably alike? Or might it have anything to do with a professor faking a resume to suggest illustrious but non-existent credentials.
Not likely. Who cares about all those mundane academic indiscretions when millions of Americans are totally transfixed by quite a different outrage that bears no relationship to whatever universities are allegedly for, namely to provide an education?
The top story for days on America’s non-stop TV news networks has revolved around the case of a former assistant college football coach arrested and charged with the rape of numerous poor young boys in a program that he had founded allegedly to give these kids ``a second chance” in life.
The word ``allegedly” here is critical. The scandal at Pennsylvania State University, a sprawling institution with tens of thousands of students in every conceivable discipline, raises the question of whether big-time college sports now supersedes academic accomplishment as the focal point of college life.
The dismissal of the Penn State president and the legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, for doing nothing to stop the wickedly, wantonly cruel behavior of the assistant coach was top news. So also were the lamentations of fans of Paterno, well into his 80s, who in 46 years of coaching saw his teams win a record 400-plus victories.
Would a Korean student, knowing nothing about the importance of major American college sports programs, imagine that people could be seen or heard saying stuff like, ``Joe Pa,” as he is affectionately, reverentially known, ``IS Penn State,” “Joe Pa is Penn State’s greatest man” and on and on.
How’s that again, one might ask. What does a sport involving kids playing a boys’ game with an elliptically-shaped inflated piece of pigskin have to do with any of scores of courses that students need to get through to begin their careers? And what’s the relationship of this wildly popular game to the esoteric research that professors need to conduct to show they’re deep enough thinkers to hold their jobs?
The answers are everything and nothing ― everything in the sense that big-time American college sports are enormous money-makers extracting tens of millions of dollars a year not only from football but also from basketball and other less lucrative pursuits. (For some reason baseball, big though it is as America’s historic ``national pastime,” has never been a great draw at the college level ― though any number of major leaguers played for college teams.)
So important are U.S. college coaches that salaries of a million dollars a year are routine, and many earn several times that amount from their regular pay plus commercial endorsements. Incredibly, these coaches often are ranked as ``professors” of physical education along with vastly more distinguished but far less paid colleagues in other departments.
And they thrive by exploiting young men and women who earn nothing other than the ``athletic scholarships” that cover their ``educations.” On top of all else, a high percentage of these athletes can’t possibly pass their courses and graduate, and those who do are likely to have made it thanks to tutoring in courses known to be easy.
No, I’m not really against college sports. Ask what I was doing while 110,000 fans jammed the cavernous Penn State stadium for a game against the University of Nebraska last Saturday amid sanctimonious kneeling and praying for those whom the disgraced Penn State coach had victimized.
The answer is I was watching Yale beat Princeton in a reasonably exciting game before about 15,000 spectators in the 25,000-seat stadium at Princeton. As an old alum, I have to say I wish the Tigers had done a little better. They won only one game last year and have won only one this year ― with a final tough meeting against Dartmouth coming up Saturday.
No way, however, would I want the Ivy League to compromise on its rules against athletic scholarships. These institutions if anything have gained in prestige and accomplishments while sticking to intercollegiate athletic programs that are excellent by any amateur standards. The University of Chicago’s great president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, pulled Chicago out of inter-collegiate sports in 1939. Chicago continues to rank among America’s best, most diverse universities.
The bright side of the Penn State scandal is that it calls attention to the deeper scandal of American college sports. If the Penn State trustees have any real guts, they’ll suspend their football program for a year or two ― time enough for everyone to think about the disgrace not only of the assistant coach but of an entire program that tolerated him before his disgusting past caught up with him and the university.
Donald Kirk, a Korea Times columnist, remains an occasional sports fan. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his website is www.donaldkirk.com.