Where is the college sports nation?

It has now been two weeks, and the PSU affair is still, almost universally, treated as a localized problem in a small town in Pennsylvania involving mistreatment of kids (not players, not students).  But that’s not what the Penn State crisis is: Penn State is just the place where a much more pervasive sickmess was forced to the surface in the form of a gripping and newsworthy incident.  USA Today conveniently packages some of the recent scandals (mostly about money), and there are more, especially involving athletes’ sexual exploitation and abuse of women and getting a pass for it.

Big-time college sports, with differences of degree at different schools, is a corrupt, entitled, exploitative, enterprise from the top of the BCS down to the doormat schools ambitious teams wipe their feet on in early-season warmup games.  I’m not going to detail this, as Taylor Branch and Charles Clotfelter have wrapped it up and tied it with a ribbon.  Please note: sports are good (though I’m not sure football can survive the repeated concussion problem as it seems likely to take shape). Indeed, I regret my own school’s willingness to loot our physical education and recreational sports program for the benefit of the money sports, making nearly all of our students out  of shape and also less smart (you think better when you use your large muscles) while they sit and watch a few hundred of their number compete.

What’s important about the PSU/Paterno story is what it reveals about the nature of the broader corruption, because Penn State preened itself (and was fawned over) as a clean, upstanding, model program.  It’s not a rotten-apple exception; it was the shining glory of the system. Big-time sports program flacks and TV announcer adulators blather endlessly about building character and selfless commitment to a larger purpose, but that’s not what they’re about at all, as we see every time a prof gets fired or punished for grading a star player with a deserved F, or a felony is covered up and smoothed over, or a chronically cheating coach is rewarded with a nice NFL job.  Men’s BCS basketball and football are unaccountable, secretive, institutions, isolated from the universities that host them, with a value system that rewards not taking one for the team, but being protected from taking one if you can add in any way to the score and the W/L.  The management culture is about reputation, not the facts on which a reputation might be based: as long as you can fake the facts, and especially if it scores on the field and the Nielsen meter, why would you want to risk a win or a single dollar of sponsorship to do the right thing?  Furthermore, as Carroll’s story demonstrates, even if you get caught, you are quite likely to step gracefully away from the wreckage without a mark on you, or on your portfolio.

The best program, by everyone’s judgment, turned out to be a slough of lies, enabled, encouraged and protected right up to the president of the university –  higher, even to the coach. What does that have to tell us about all the others?  Any idiot can make the obvious inference, so it would seem to be job one for presidents who haven’t had a dirt bomb explode under them yet to get in front of the mess, and tell us what they are doing in their own schools to make sure the future will be the way it’s supposed to be, not just made up and lipsticked to look that way.  Smarmy pieties about how sad we all are about Penn State and how shocked, shocked! we are to learn of this, and how much we deplore yada yada count for nothing here.  Penn State was managed so a whole stack of people believed the whistle was for the refs and not for them, and ordinary people with ordinary courage need active managerial demonstration that that rule does not apply in their own companies. To counter that belief requires public actions, of a type so far invisible to me.

In the last two weeks, then, I have seen absolutely nothing of the sort, from any big-time sports school including my own (granted my own chancellor is having a distracting couple of weeks with other issues).  The NCAA’s president, Mark Emmert, was president of the University of Washington following a particularly repulsive period of criminality, lawlessness, and gridiron success.  At the end of his tenure, he was being savaged by boosters who cared nothing about sportsmanship, but wanted wins again. A Seattle Times reporter summed up the problem: “Emmert wants an athletic director who will find a way to win — without sacrificing the university’s reputation.”  Interesting; we know how that’s done. Reputation only suffers if the facts get out.

Whether Emmert learned anything at all at Washington, except how awkward it is when you follow the rules and don’t win games, is in some doubt.  On November 10, this is what he had to say about Penn State:

Regarding the ongoing Penn State criminal investigation, the NCAA is actively monitoring developments and assessing appropriate steps moving forward. The NCAA will defer in the immediate term to law enforcement officials since this situation involved alleged crimes. As the facts are established through the justice system, we will determine whether Association bylaws have been violated and act accordingly. To be clear, civil and criminal law will always take precedence over Association rules.

The mealymouthed tone and vacuity is nicely set off by the condescension with which the NCAA deigns to submit to the law, isn’t it?  Apparently two weeks of intensive national news coverage have sufficed to make Emmert follow up with a letter reminding the new president of PSU about all the NCAA rules that don’t actually matter as long as teams win and dirty linen is kept in the locker room, and asking the school to investigate itself and report back.  Wow.  The letter, for anyone who has read Branch or Clotfelter, would be a risible melange of cant and hypocrisy if it didn’t appear Emmert really thinks he’s doing something.

It does contain the following: “It is critical that each campus and the NCAA as an Association re-examine how we constrain or encourage behaviors that lift up young people rather than making them victims.” Critical?  Anyone see any of that happening anywhere?  I see Rick Neuheisel, who oversaw the most scandalous (but winning) years at UW, is happily ensconced in a nice job at UCLA.  But I don’t see anything actually happening anywhere that indicates the big-time college sports machine is doing anything but circling the wagons.  At the end of From Here to Eternity, a new CO takes over a company that had been corrupted by its prior captain’s obsession with boxing. He demotes the catspaw noncom who maintained the boxing enterprise, and tells Top Sgt. Warden “from now on, nobody’s going to earn his stripes by boxing.”   College presidents, and Emmert, should get out to the movies more: it’s all there.