Penn State made a football coach bigger than the school itself, accountable to no person and no moral imperative, and now we see the devastating consequences.
North Carolina sold its esteemed academic soul for the pursuit of greater athletic glory, and now we see a proud institution embarrassed and divided.
Yet amid these raw cautionary tales about the dangers of misplaced priority on college campuses, along comes this news item: Oregon is dumping $68 million of Nike kingpin Phil Knight's money into a new "football operations center." Among the accoutrements you get for $68 mil, the (Eugene) Register-Guard reported, is a private hot tub and steam room for the coaches, "each with a waterproofed video center … so they can watch games while taking a soak."
While taking a soak in that absolutely necessary hot tub, I suppose coach Chip Kelly could cue up the largely useless video his school paid $25,000 for from "talent scout" Will Lyles, who was closely tied to Ducks running backs Lache Seastrunk and LaMichael James. That's part of an ongoing NCAA investigation into Oregon football – but who really wants to think about that when Kelly has won three consecutive Pac-12 championships? On with the building projects.
This is the inherent problem with college athletics: No amount of scandal and no level of embarrassment seem capable of stopping the charge to make sports programs wealthier, more powerful and more disconnected from the universities that give them a name, location, identity and built-in following.
We've seen so many scandal cycles filled with so much consternation and followed by so little change. There is no convenient opportunity for introspection or self-examination when BCS dollars are there for the grabbing.
But here is the thing: If we're ever going to get the athletic genie back in the university bottle, this is the time. The re-examination has to come now. While delivering the worst storyline in college sports history, Penn State ironically also has provided the lever by which the enterprise can save itself.
The Penn State scandal is so bad that it could do good. It could force a day of reckoning at colleges across America. Specifically, it could force a day of reckoning in the offices of university presidents.
Take back your revenue-producing sports programs, school leaders. Take them back or cut them loose from the university educational mission and declare them professional farm teams.
Last week, North Carolina history professor Jay Smith articulated to me the options facing his school and many others in an email: "The problems that have come to light [at UNC] thus far are not specific to 'athletics.' This is a university problem, a systemic problem, and quite obviously so. We clearly have a long way to go. UNC, and all other universities with good intentions, must refuse to walk this tightrope any longer."
You know the first school that should get off the tightrope? The first school to voluntarily fall, then get up and go in a new direction, daring others to follow?
It has to start there.
The school did take some steps last fall: It created a Center for the Protection of Children, pumping $1.1 million into the project. It donated $1.5 million in bowl proceeds to a pair of sex-crime advocacy organizations. But now it's time to advance the cause much further, using the football program as its change agent.
As the debate has raged about what the school and the NCAA should do with its scandal-rocked football program, friend and colleague Ray Ratto has had the best solution I've seen so far. As he wrote last week:
"Keep the football program and have it fight for something more noble than the Leaders Division of the Big Ten Conference. Make it a standing advertisement for what went wrong, and how it can be made right. Make the money a tool, rather than its own reward. Make Penn State stand for rebirth rather than degeneration."
Ratto's solution was to make Penn State football non-profit. Turn over the usual massive revenues to the victims of Jerry Sandusky. I love it.
In the coming days, this is the statement I'd like to hear from school president Rodney Erickson: "We're playing football in 2012, but we're not playing for glory or money. Every dime of profit over expense will go to victims of child sexual abuse in the State College area. Every Penn State helmet will bear the child sexual abuse blue ribbon symbol. Every home game will have a moment of silence before kickoff in recognition and support of those who have suffered from our school's failure. If we earn a bowl bid, every member of the travel party – including administrators and coaches – will spend an eight-hour day at the bowl site interacting with abuse victims.
"And we challenge our fellow Big Ten members and Division I schools nationwide to donate their first $100,000 of athletic profit this school year to the same cause in their communities. Who's with us?"
Would it be costly? Yeah. So what? Just make sure the cost does not come out of the school's non-revenue sports. This is a football issue; whatever slashing needs to be done to the Penn State football budget, just do it.
Instead of accepting millions in cash and gear from Nike, ask the company to donate that money to the cause. If the players have to wear last year's sweats and the coaches don't get a shoe bonus, they'll survive.
Instead of the entire team spending the night before home games at Toftrees Resort outside State College, try the radical notion of staying in the dorms like most non-revenue athletes do before they compete.
If the training table needs to be stripped down, so be it. If the travel party and travel method have to be downgraded for road games, so be it. If the Nittany Lions can only afford to offer 10 scholarships a year over the next couple years, so be it.
And if anyone associated with the school whines about any of it, remind them of a little boy in the shower in 2001.
Truth be told, a one-year de-emphasis of King Football would not require much courage from the Penn State leadership – it has to do something, and that something has to be substantial. The courage would have to come from Penn State's peers.
Would others join the cause? Would others step forward and question why the four-star defensive end who is borderline illiterate has to be granted admission to a school where he will struggle? Why the football program has to have another $100 million facility? Why the basketball coach has to have a practice gym? Why the offensive coordinator has to make nearly a million dollars? Why the recruiting coordinator has to have a private jet at his disposal? Why the jock dorm has to feature every creature comfort allowable under NCAA rules (and maybe a few that aren't)? Why a school has to abandon a conference of peers for a geographically nonsensical new conference to earn more TV revenue?
It's not just the money that is the problem. It's also the priority. It's the certainty that the only way to keep up with your rival is to further blow everything out of perspective – and that it's far better to lose perspective than to lose games.
That's the pervasive mentality university presidents must try to refute, then reverse. Popularity and profitability cannot be the sole guiding forces of athletics, not if colleges are going to stand behind their founding principles.
"If we can't be competitive by recruiting players who are capable of succeeding academically, and then holding them to high academic standards once admitted, then we have to quit the race," Smith wrote. "We have to admit we can't be competitive, and focus on the things that are supposed to matter to a university. Or, conversely, we can begin agitating for a revamping of the system and pursue a solution that would allow us to treat these athletes as the semi-professionals they are."
A revamping of the entire system would take years, but the reformation of a single school can start soon.
Penn State is uniquely positioned to be that school. Let it lead the way. And let its peers find the courage to follow.
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