- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

What happened at Penn State is a tragedy, an outrage and a depravity. But that’s not all of the worst of it.

Jerry Sandusky, the one-time defensive coordinator of the Nittany Lions who is accused of raping little boys in the shower, is gone, perhaps to be measured for prison stripes. Joe Paterno, the head coach at Penn State for 46 years and a legend in college football second only to Bear Bryant (and maybe Amos Alonzo Stagg), is gone, too. His reputation lies in tatters as the years close in on a celebrated life. Lesser officials at Penn State, including the president of the university, are gone, too, doomed to spend the next few years with their lawyers.

But the system remains intact, and more scandal is surely inevitable. The big universities have become entertainment companies, like Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros., with similar ethical and moral codes. They’re pursuing the same dollars with the same passion and the same lack of commercial constraint. What would Hollywood be without sex, scandal, shame and calumny? It’s what makes Sammy run.


Scandal in collegiate athletics, particularly in the revenue sports, football and basketball, is not new. Last year, the NCAA, which pretends to regulate conduct in collegiate sports, sanctioned the University of Southern California and withdrew recognition of its national championship of 2004 and compelled Reggie Bush, an All-America running back, to return his Heisman Trophy. Bush is now a highly paid running back for the Miami Dolphins, so why should he care? Auburn was dogged by accusations that its brilliant quarterback, Cam Newton, was delivered to the university by his father, who received $180,000 from an agent. Newton was cleared, and Auburn won the national championship. Who cares about how they did it?

The real scandal is the behavior of the college presidents who know what’s going on, but won’t do anything about it, not only to avoid the wrath of alumni and fans, but because they dare not risk shutting off the golden spigot that dispenses millions, and even billions, of dollars brought in by the greatest show on campus.

The Southeastern Conference, which stretches across the football-obsessed South from Arkansas to South Carolina and whose teams have won the past five national championships, last year collected a billion dollars in athletic receipts, most of it from television. The Big Ten teams (actually 11, the college presidents being not necessarily better at numbers than their semi-literate coaches and players) followed by collecting $905 million.

A decade ago, the private Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics examined how the shoe companies - Adidas, Nike and Reebok - have spread so much money around, with contracts not only to the universities, but to the coaches as well. “We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes,” Sonny Vacarro, who has presided over “sponsorship empires” at the three big shoe companies, told the Knight panel, “and the best way to do that is to buy your school. Or buy your coach.”

“But why,” asked the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”

A good question, but the shoe man that Taylor Branch, writing in the Atlantic magazine, calls the “sneaker pimp” of schoolyard hustle, had a ready answer. “They shouldn’t, sir. 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.”

In his perceptive account, “The shame of college sports,” in the October issue of the Atlantic, Mr. Branch writes that a former president of the North Carolina university system recalled to him: “Boy, the silence that fell in that room. I never will forget it.”

The allegations at Penn State raise the outrage level a notch, maybe two, but nobody could be surprised. Outrage begets outrage, and eventually spins out of control. Corruption begets corruption, too. Money talks; big money shouts.

What the universities allow and even encourage is inexcusable, but the rest of us are to blame, too. Entertainment is all, and the saturation of the culture by cheap sex and gratuitous violence seems to be exactly what the public wants. You don’t have to be Grandma Grundy to figure out how the culture got taken to the showers at Penn State.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.