Separate and Unequal: Changing Campus Culture Beyond Penn State

Since the publication of the Freeh report on July 12th, there has been a lively and healthy discussion of the role that sports should play in university culture. Penn State's willingness to open itself to independent investigation is a monumental act of self-reflexivity that should serve as model for other institutions in which sport culture overshadows almost everything else. With its sanctions and penalties, the NCAA has certainly joined the choir in condemning those who, intent on preserving the cult of leadership and brand association that issues from sports culture, covered-up the heinous crimes of a lionized coach.

Mark Emmert cited the Freeh report and argued that the intent of the NCAA was to create a structure that would ensure that Penn State comply with the Freeh report's recommendation to create a "sustained integration of the Intercollegiate Athletics program into the broader Penn State community." Whether the fines, bowl bans and losses of scholarships will help achieve this goal or whether they are disproportionate acts of sanctimonious symbolism (or perhaps, in the case of the Big 10 and its profitable TV network, opportunistic acts of disaster capitalism) should be an ongoing debate, but certainly this desire for a more equitable and proportionate integration of sports culture into the larger fabric of university life is one that could, and should, have ripples across the intercollegiate world. For the role that football played at Penn State is not, as the NCAA seemed all-too-eager to emphasize, a unique situation. Indeed, as the public support for university education in America dwindled over the last 30 years, the power and influence of big money sports over all aspects of university life grew wildly out of control.

American culture is very adept at focusing its outrage on specific cases but not very good at dealing with structural problems when powerful forces are involved. Just look at how we responded to the banking and securities crisis. Rogue agents of too-big-to-fail banks were condemned and some fines were levied, but the structures that enabled the disproportionate power of finance over the rest of culture remained virtually untouched. This too is a kind of cover-up. By not addressing the larger structural issues that help to contextualize what happened at Penn State, the NCAA's punitive actions help to enable the dominance of a golem-like sport culture over American university life. Everywhere, there are signs of what the Freeh report denounced as a "reverence for football ... ingrained on all levels of the campus community."

Just last week, the University of Missouri, whose football coach makes $2.7 million a year, announced it was cutting its academic press, several programs and 180 jobs to balance its budget on the very the same day it announced a $200 million plan to add another 6000 seats to its stadium. Last winter, Nick Saban received a $400,000 bonus and the players on the national championship team at Alabama were awarded garish diamond encrusted rings to commemorate their victory, but the Tuscaloosa campus received a $4.2 million cut in funding, slightly less than the $4.73 million Saban makes per year. These are symptoms of a warped system of values. The Knight Commission revealed that half of all top-tier athletic programs rely on at least $9 million in institutional funding to balance their budgets and in many cases fundraising for athletics actually competes with overall university fundraising.

Stated plainly, sports culture exists in a separate and unequal world on university campuses. Defenders of the status quo say that the university's general fund gets a cut of revenues from licensing logos and images, or from the trickle-down subsidiaries like concessions, but this financial order only increases the incentive to preserve the dominance of sport culture. What has the NCAA done to address this? The general funds of the universities that provide the spectacle and the brand appeal get little of the revenues the NCAA distributes each year. The money from sports largely goes to support sports. Football's BCS system, which rewards percentages of revenue to power conferences and Athletic department corporations based entirely upon on-field performance, is even more out of whack. If these immensely profitable arms of the intercollegiate sports complex (not to mention the TV networks) gave up power or kicked a greater share of revenues back to the general funds of the university communities that provide the brand names for their products, this would encourage greater integration between intercollegiate athletics. It would also make it easier to believe the aim of their punishment was true.

In this separate and unequal university culture where big-money sports have all the power and influence, are we really shocked -- shocked -- to find abuses of power? Ignoring the potential victims may indeed, as the Freeh report saw it, show an "utter lack of empathy," but is it incomprehensible that during a period characterized by yearly slashes in state support for education, a handful of powerful administrators at Penn State convinced themselves to look the other way so as to keep the football program profitable and preserve the legacy of a coach whose pristine persona was so tightly chained to the university's bottom line? In the coercive economic environment created by constant calls for market-based solutions to cuts in public funding for universities, they had more than enough incentive to preserve their best-selling commodity. All across America, a general economy in which higher education is under-supported has created a monstrous moral economy in which intercollegiate athletics operates under different budgets and lives by different rules.

So while the mob screams for another ounce of flesh from an already wounded Penn State, we should not let our collective indignation blind us to the systemic problems that that go hand in hand with our over-valuation of intercollegiate sport culture. Penn State now has every incentive to address these problems of proportion and to shrink the overbearing influence of sports over university life. Hopefully, this will mean greater transparency, more shared governance and more equal distribution of resources. In this sense, Penn State's situation is quite unique; elsewhere, the cover-up continues.