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Penn State scandal: Reforming university athletics

By Peter Morici
web posted July 16, 2012

The report into the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University, undertaken by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, revealed former President Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno turned a blind eye to sexual abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

After allegations of misconduct first surfaced in 1998 and later in 2001, along with Vice President with responsibility for campus security Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley, these officials "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade."

In fact, these officials facilitated this abuse by permitting Sandusky, recently convicted of attacking 10 boys, continued use of athletic facilities after he retired for his work at a nonprofit youth organization that he used to attract and abuse young boys.

According to the Freeh report, the motivation to turn a blind eye was clear and reprehensible. It is "reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the University -- Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley -- repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities, the University's Board of Trustees, the Penn State Community, and the public at large."

At many universities, false and corrupting loyalty to football and other marquee sports, reaches deeply into the community, as illustrated by the inaction of Pennsylvania law enforcement. In 1998, a mother accused Sandusky of molesting her son. To the woman, he declined to deny touching the boy's private parts and said "I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness."  

Sandusky admitted to Department of Public Welfare and police investigators other wrongful acts, yet Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar did not prosecute, and saw no reason to use the threat of prosecution to require Sandusky to discontinue his programs for boys.

Universities bend admissions to unbelievable contortions to recruit talented young athletes, and faculties are asked to make special provisions. Alumni and community leaders rationalize sports permit disadvantaged youths opportunities they would not otherwise enjoy and bring in lots of cash to their alma maters -- but it is simply not worth the corrupting consequences or very profitable to the academic mission of most institutions.

Small transparent transgressions beget bigger and more opaque sins. Morally rudderless faculty shade grades, and coaches and presidents like Paterno and Spanier do even worse. Every several years, scandals like Penn State's emerge -- gambling, sex or otherwise.  

Many athletes get used -- they end up with no degree or a worthless diploma from a soft program. A good deal of the money raised goes back into athletics, donors that could be approached for academic purposes are diverted to sports, and academic programs on a net basis profit little and perhaps get penalized.

Fundraising for a major academic program at the University of Maine in the 1980s, so often potential donors told me they could not give anything or much because they supported the Black Bears NCAA Division I national championship hockey program.

The Penn State affair marks an opportunity to restructure the relationship between big time athletics and universities.

Universities could disarm and take the route of the Ivy League or military service academies -- less money would be raised overall but more would be available for academic programs.

All universities are not going to disarm, and it may be the lesser evil to admit big time programs in football and few other sports are farm systems for pro leagues.

Permit 30 or so major universities to affiliate their teams with a pro franchise, but require those programs to be strictly self financing based on ticket sales and contributions from their sponsoring pro team. Pay the athletes, offer the opportunity to earn a degree over five or even six years, but don't require them to enroll if they are not capable or are simply disinclined.

Then other universities could have non-scholarship athletic programs for genuine amateurs. Those programs, in a manner similar to the Ivies and military academies, could compete at a level that compliments a decent university education.

After all, a quality education is why young people should go to college. ESR

Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. Follow him on Twitter.


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