There is no doubt that there are many great things about major college athletics. It gives students, alumni, and in some instances entire states a sense of pride and togetherness. It provides thousands of young people with scholarships and helps to fund institutions of higher learning. These and other benefits to our current system of college athletics should be recognized and saluted. There is, however, some collateral damage that has occurred in the midst of our current system of major college sports that should be acknowledged and addressed. The recent scandal involving the Penn State football program that has garnered so much media attention is but the tip of a much larger iceberg that carries economic, educational, and social ramifications with it.
The Penn State scandal is a great example of a coach and a football program superseding everything else in importance including the well being of the young boys who were victimized by the heinous actions of Jerry Sandusky and the cowardly cover up by a number of university officials including Joe Paterno. This fiasco is just one aspect of the collateral damage that has accompanied the development of big time college sports into a financial juggernaut. Television networks, athletic conferences, coaches, school administrators, and sports apparel companies are amongst the financial beneficiaries of major college athletics. To be fair, the majority of the athletes themselves get the cost of their tuition, room, and board out of the deal.
Billions of dollars in public funds have been used to build mammoth stadiums and arenas for college and pro sports teams. These types of capital investments are very controversial given the fact that this money could be used to fund infrastructure, schools, roads, programs, and other endeavors. The highest paid public employees in many states are university basketball or football coaches. Examples of this include Alabama's Nick Saban, Louisiana's Les Miles, and Kentucky's John Calipari.
In the current system, coaches and athletic departments are almighty while the players are often treated as cogs in a massive money making machine where strict penalties await them if they attempt to gain any slice of the economic pie beyond the cost of their university attendance. The current NCAA is a system where schools can deny players releases to transfer to another school but coaches are free to leave at anytime for a better opportunity. Where many "elite" academic institutions use their basketball and football teams as their primary diversity programs.
Thus, many young people see sports as their best route to a college scholarship. This is encouraged by an admissions process that admits sub-par academic students into prestigious universities on a full scholarship based on their athletic prowess. This bolsters the belief that a low or middle income student who aspires to go an expensive private school like Georgetown, Duke, or Vanderbilt might be better served to go to the gymnasium and work on his jump shot than to go to the library and study.
The scandal at Penn State should serve as an opportunity for us to reflect on the messages that we send when we show up by the thousands at high school football and basketball games but are absent at Parent Teacher Association and school board meetings. When we shower our young athletes with trophies, awards, and adulation but do not duplicate this sense of value and appreciation in other arenas. When we jump to correct a young man for dropping a pass or committing a turnover but turn the other way when they are reading five grades below their grade level and bringing home D's and F's on their report card.
This article is not meant to be anti-athletic. It would be hypocritical for me to do that considering the fact that I am an avid sports fan and initially went to college on a basketball scholarship. What I am saying is that we need to reexamine the role that sports plays in our educational institutions at both the college and secondary school levels. The "sports over everything" mentality has produced serious collateral damage that we need to pay attention to and address in a meaningful way.