The Penn State Scandal and the Outsize Influence of College Sports

The U.S. is the only country that combines amateur athletics with institutions of higher learning. At first, the idea of that didn't seem noteworthy at all, until the case of Penn State made me question the beast that's been created.
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At Northwestern University, there's an almost alarmingly clear distinction between athletics and academics. While the school continues to rise in the ranks of higher education, including being named as one of the nation's "New Ivies" by the Wall Street Journal last decade, the athletic program has plodded along at a slower pace.

The football team and men's basketball teams have made the postseason four years in a row, a school record for each squad. However, the football team remains without a bowl win since Truman administration, and the basketball team has never reached higher than the NIT.

What's remarkable about all of this is that Northwestern is part of the Big Ten, one of America's power conferences in many collegiate sports. NU pales in comparison to dominant programs such as Ohio State and Michigan football or Indiana basketball.

But what's struck me the most about this situation is that while Northwestern maintains that distinction between athletics and academics, Penn State University, another Big Ten school, completely blurred those lines, leading to one of the greatest scandals in sports.

I remember reading somewhere that the United States is the only country that combines amateur athletics (which in reality is a multi-billion dollar industry) with institutions of higher learning. At first, the idea of that didn't seem noteworthy at all, until the case of Penn State made me question the beast that's been created.

Although the Jerry Sandusky trial ended last month, news continues to pour out of Pennsylvania about the cover-up, and how exactly university officials could allow Sandusky to be around children on campus for so long. Many of the signs point to a man once treated as a god, the late Joe Paterno.

While Paterno has probably forgotten more about football than you and I will ever know, recent reports have brought into question just how noble the former head coach was.

In emails released by CNN from an independent investigation into the Sandusky scandal, it is implied that Paterno convinced Athletic Director Tim Curley not to report Sandusky to child welfare authorities after the Mike McQueary-witnessed incident in 2001, but instead to handle the matter internally.

The problem with that besides the obvious stupidity on everyone's part? Paterno is Curley's subordinate. But then again, Paterno got paid more than Curley, and evidently had more power.

And Paterno's power exceeded more than just Curley's. Email records discovered by The Chronicle of Higher Education showed that in 2007, Paterno sent emails to Curley and then-President Graham Spanier indicating Paterno would handle the discipline of players involved in an off-campus fight himself, circumventing the entire discipline system the university had in place.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Paterno had former Vice President of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey fired after the two clashed on discipline responsibilities, with Paterno threatening the school with stopping his fundraising efforts.

While Paterno's power and the ultimate consequences related to Sandusky were sickening, the truth is, this type of power and deification occurs at many colleges.

Nick Saban, the head coach of Alabama football, is the highest paid government employee in the state, and has his own statue outside the team's stadium.

There was a time in Gainesville, Florida when you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing Urban Meyer's face, and no one minded him hocking local products while 31 Florida football players were arrested during his tenure.

From TV network deals to jersey sales, the revenue-generating college sports have become thriving billion dollar industries. At the same time, the media have hyped up coaches and players to legends in their own communities.

It's amazing that the Sandusky scandal, something much bigger than a football game, came down to sports, and that a seemingly unimportant part of this world has created such immensely influential people.

The result? You've already seen how destructive it can be when the sports figures are running the institution.

But the fact is, amateur athletics is extremely intertwined with the fabric of many of the nation's biggest universities, for better or for worse.

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