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.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “Where is the college sports nation?”

  1. I was going to go into a long thing about how athletes get used too (I was amazed to find that ex NFLers only got 5 years of health coverage … say WHAT?…) but the other thing this reminds me of is, it’s too bad everyone made fun of those Iron John people banging drums. We have some serious issues with masculinity in this country (and every other no doubt). It’s time to get under the hood.

  2. The problem is that everybody knows how things work in college sports, and almost nobody cares. I don’t see how sunlight is going to disinfect anything–it will only create more flackery and “compliance” positions. (The word “”compliance”” ALWAYS belongs in scare-quotes: a fact well known on Wall Street.)

    1. Exactly. These things are not secrets. A lot gets covered up, no doubt, but enough gets out that no one should be in any doubt about the big time programs operate. As long as athletic success trumps all other considerations nothing will change.

  3. Having attended North Carolina, I acquired a deep love for college basketball–though, let me say, only after learning about the type of program Dean Smith had built. Despite my great love of the game, if given a magic wand, I’d wave it and eliminate big-time college sports entirely. It *could* be done right, and sometimes is; but until the NCAA gets serious about enforcement, it’ll continue to be, largely, a moral cesspool. Let me also say that, at the risk of sounding partisan, when people like John Wooden and Mike Krzyzwski are regarded as paragons of virtue, something has clearly gone wrong somewhere.

  4. The NCAA almost by definition is a problem rather than part of the solution. When your regulators are paid out of the profits of the regulated entities, corruption almost always sneaks in. Or just walks through the fronts door and plunks itself down on the sofa.

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