Corruption in big-time college sports goes way back

It's hardly a reach to suggest that at some big-time sports institutions, the academic mission has nearly vanished beneath a never-ebbing wave of sports mania. Above, Buckeyes faithful pack the stands at Ohio State.
It's hardly a reach to suggest that at some big-time sports institutions, the academic mission has nearly vanished beneath a never-ebbing wave of sports mania. Above, Buckeyes faithful pack the stands at Ohio State. (Associated Press)
Posted: December 16, 2013

Turner Classic Movies, the cable network that is a welcome antidote to 24/7 news, reality shows, and ESPN's smarm, recently ran a half day's worth of old college football movies.

All were as awful as they were alike: State U. gets football hero. State U. loses football hero. State U. finds football hero in the nick of time.

Throw in the dithering dean's blond daughter, an intellectually challenged lineman or two, sneering gamblers, and the familiar plots were complete.

There was, however, one other recurring and relevant element to these cornball films, most of which were nearly 80 years old - the corruption of collegiate sports.

In 1934's Gridiron Flash, for example, a desperate college president imports a bank robber to jump-start his football program. (Yes, it worked then, too.)

Gamblers thoroughly integrate and compromise State's football team in 1937's Over the Goal.

That same year produced Saturday's Heroes, which not only employed the previous two themes but added references to the "basket-weaving" theory of jock education.

In a 1937 review of those last two movies, a New York Times critic said this about the genre and college sports in general:

"Another thing which binds them together with a certain timelessness is the way all of them are tinged with a rather melancholy note of cynicism and disillusionment concerning college football. This probably means that there is some truth to the rumor that commercialism is rampant in the athletic departments of our higher educational institutions."

Timelessness, indeed.

Throughout the sordid history of college sports, it's been popular and easy to bemoan the sorry state of State U.

In 2013, though, it's never been easier.

Pick any school. Pick any issue. The barbarians are no longer at the gate, they're inside the ivy-covered walls, making the decisions, shaping the mythology, confronting trouble with fistfuls of dollars.

The battle to clean up college sports has been lost forever.

The bloodied vestiges of integrity and educational principle - both now nearly extinct - lie scattered across America's campuses like buffalo bones on the Great Plains a century ago.

The "rampant commercialism" lamented by that Times critic 76 years ago has become standard operating procedure in money-hungry athletic departments from Tucson to Tuscaloosa.

ESPN and other networks pour billions into college football. Schools, in turn, eagerly spend those billions - and more - in their no-holds-barred quest for exposure and hollow glory.

And if TV, boosters, seat licenses, and egomaniacal donors don't provide enough cash, well, these schools are perfectly willing to dun students for athletic fees and to reroute money from the general fund to athletics.

It's hardly a reach to suggest that at some big-time sports institutions, the academic mission has nearly vanished beneath this never-ebbing wave of sports mania.

Consider the findings of the D.C.-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, In 2006, an age of Socratic scholarship compared with the collegiate sports scene just seven years later, the organization examined spending on athletics and instruction at 119 Division I colleges.

The outlay on sports at schools such as Vanderbilt, Duke, Stanford, Penn State, and even Temple amounted to between 6 percent and 10 percent of what was spent on instruction.

That was not the case elsewhere, particularly at some of the most notable football powerhouses in the Big 12 and SEC.

The ratio at Arkansas, for instance, was 56 percent, meaning that for every dollar that went for instructional expenditures, 56 cents was spent on Razorbacks sports.

By the way, Arkansas football's graduation rate - despite the fact that it's easily manipulated and virtually meaningless - is an SEC-worst 54 percent. That's no pedestrian feat. Finishing last in the SEC in graduating players is nearly as difficult as finishing first in football.

At Alabama, the spending ratio was 50 percent; at Nebraska, 46 percent; at Oklahoma and Auburn, 41 percent.

Those figures aren't just astonishingly depressing, they're obscene. Those schools have forfeited forever the right to argue that they're more concerned with turning out proficient engineers than professional athletes.

And I'm weary of the smoke that's always blown in the face of critics, the preposterous suggestion that football - and to a lesser extent, basketball - is just another piece of the student-athlete landscape, little different from gymnastics, golf, or wrestling.

So crucial is the myth of the "student-athlete" to this house of cards that in 2012, the NCAA - the watchdog agency rendered virtually toothless by the influx of TV money - paid a PR firm $1.25 million to perpetuate it.

Minor sports, it must be noted, do continue to play a significant role in 2013. More and more, it seems, they exist to provide (a) cover for the taint of football and basketball, and (b) fodder for the budget-cutters.

The latest minor-sport massacre occurred right here last week when Temple, with a swift and silent sword blow, eliminated seven of them.

In doing so, the school on North Broad Street again exposed one of the great contemporary conundrums:

Why is it that the more money we spend on college sports, the more college sports we eliminate?

The obvious answer is that TV isn't interested in the sports being eliminated. And without TV money, you might as well be the chess club.

As inviting and guilty a target as it is, though, TV shouldn't have to shoulder all the blame for what's become of college sports.

Back in 2001, Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike huckster who contributed greatly to the commercial corruption, was questioned in Washington by the Knight Commission, a group of educators who fancy themselves the conscience of intercollegiate athletics.

And while it wasn't a moment that would have fit easily into one of those football films TCM showed, their dramatic confrontation was wonderfully cinematic.

Dignified Bryce Jordan, the Penn State arena namesake who then was a president emeritus of that university, asked Vaccaro, a slick salesman, why colleges should serve as an "advertising medium for your industry?"

"They shouldn't, sir," Vaccaro shot back, beginning a response any screenwriter would love to have authored. "You sold your souls, and you're going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there's not one of you in this room that's going to turn down any of our money. You're going to take it. I can only offer it."

Fade to black.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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