11/12/2011 12:29 pm ET | Updated Jan 12, 2012

The Arrogance of College Athletics

Every time there is a new scandal involving college athletics hope arises among observers that the latest incident will result in a wholesale rethinking of the entire "amateur" enterprise. When Woody Hayes punched a kid playing for Clemson and Bobby Knight choked one of his "student-athletes," the media seemed interested for the moment, but the games went on. When the father of a stellar quarterback attempted to "sell" his son's services to a university, when nationally prominent athletic programs became polluted by repeated rules violations, and when a booster paid off college players in cash, hope for reform was kindled anew. But nothing happened.

Maybe the Penn State scandal will be the exception that finally changes the rules. It has nothing to do with the illegal recruitment of athletes or the lasting physical abuse players experience playing a game for our enjoyment. It has nothing to do with the idiocy of institutions of higher learning operating sports franchises. It does have to do with allegations of the sexual abuse of young boys by a football coach. Those charges are so horrendous that maybe this time the results will be different.

Although the details of the events at Penn State keep unfolding daily, at its core the scandal involves an abuse of power by those who operate a college football program. That includes not only the miscreant who allegedly violated youngsters in the showers of the college gym, but it also includes a famous coach who failed to report these heinous crimes to the public authorities. Perhaps Coach Paterno hoped they would simply disappear. Perhaps the university officials who failed in their oversight of a athletic program were worried about losing the millions of dollars that their sports franchise produced for their institution.

The Penn State case does not involve the core of what is rotten about big-time college football, but it may be sufficient to tumble the house of cards. Sometimes the final straw has little to do with the bale of hay. Remember that Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion, not for the murders he ordered and committed. In the minds of many of his most ardent followers, Richard Nixon's most grievous crime was tax evasion, not his perversion of the American system of government. It really doesn't matter what finally focuses our attention on this can of worms. What does matter is that we finally clean up the monster we have created.

In many parts of the country, the fall is devoted to football played by young men in their late teens and early twenties. College football when played at the level of Penn State can be a wonderful public diversion. There is nothing to criticize about this obsession. The recent overtime game between Louisiana State and Alabama showed the game at its best. Yet there is nothing about that game that required that two state institutions of higher education be the promoters. If there is a market for college-age football, private entrepreneurs will discover it and exploit it. Most big-time college football programs are operated by state-funded institutions of higher learning with a few notable exceptions, such as Stanford and Notre Dame. One would think that those who rail against big government would cry out for dismantling these publicly-funded entertainments.

It is understandable that football-playing institutions would seek to reap the financial benefits of their Saturday sports festivals. They have used the National Collegiate Athletic Association to enforce regulations that lower the costs of mounting this product -- most importantly by regulating the salaries the entertainers receive -- while maintaining a level playing field among gridiron competitors. In large measure, the schools have been successful, and few have complained. The young men who they recruit to play their games are genuinely honored to receive whatever the colleges give them in return. They accept the status quo as do the fans of the games. The system is rotten, however. It is a perversion of everything that colleges were designed to accomplish.

Nothing shows the damage inflicted by big-time football any better than the reaction of Coach Paterno to the scandal. In recent years when asked by the University president to consider retirement as he reached and passed age 80, Paterno refused. When the recent disclosures included his involvement in what might turn out to have been a cover-up, Paterno preempted the University's Board of Trustees by announcing he would retire on his own timetable after the close of the season. The Board's decision to clean house by firing the coach and the University president was considered courageous because football had become synonymous with the University and Coach Paterno had long been the embodiment of the Nitanny Lions.

Football is not Penn State. It is but one of the University's ancillary activities and certainly not its most important. It is a great university that, like many others, had been led away from its essential mission decades ago and now finally may have been shaken into taking action. If it had acted decades earlier, the lives of some very young boys might not have been ruined.