What Is Wrong With College Sports? 2011 Shows Why Accountability Starts at the Top


The recent firing of Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine is the latest in a series of scandals that has rocked college sports.

In the past year we have seen major scandals involving players at football powerhouses MiamiSouthern California and Ohio State. We have seen conference realignments throughout the country with Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virgina, Boise State, and others breaking commitments and forgoing traditions in search of bigger TV contracts. Most egregiously, at Penn State and now Syracuse, we have seen coaches violate the very kids they are supposed to teach and protect. 

In each case, signs of misconduct were ignored, evidence was suppressed and morality comprised.

Whether it was Ohio State coach Jim Tressel disregarding reports that his players were selling merchandise, Penn State authorities not acting on an eye witness account of sexual assault or Pitt and Syracuse bolting from the Big East because they didn't like the terms of the contracts they agreed to, each decision was based on protecting the school's marketable image rather than promoting and protecting the integrity of the game, the athletes and the fans.

Everyone is at fault, from the presidents of our public universities, the boosters and the coaches on down to the players. Even the media shares a significant portion of the blame.

At many schools, big time college sports (mainly football and basketball) are no longer a celebration of amateur competition and pure athletic achievements. That ship sailed long ago. But as this year has shown, the zealous pursuit of money and athletic prestige from the highest administrative levels has led to a diminishing concern with the integrity of the game.

The win-at-all-costs mantra may sell tickets or earn the prime-time slot on ESPN, but too often it is compromising the ethos of the university and cheating the majority of athletes that represent the school.

The structure of college athletics is deeply flawed. Its leaders are often misguided (at times dishonest), its fan bases too often complicit in their support and the student athletes betrayed. Failed responsibility is shared by everyone but reigns supreme with college presidents and athletic directors.

For starters, university administrators and coaches need to stop celebrating the accomplishments of their "student"-athletes if they have no intention of helping and pushing them to graduate. The title of "student" athlete is too often a farce, bestowed upon them by administrators hoping to convince fans of a commitment to a higher virtue.

In 2011 only 44% of Oklahoma football players graduated, 55% of Arkansas football players graduated and 54% of Oregon football players earned their degrees. All three schools are in the AP Top 10. (The majority of the AP 25 schools have similarly unimpressive records although Stanford and Notre Dame should be commended). 

College is an institution of learning, not a football factory. Over 9,000 students each year attend college with hopes of making the pros. Roughly 215 of them will reach their goals. An even smaller percentage will last longer than three years in the NFL.

Coaches must fulfill their obligations of preparing the 98 percent of their athletes who will never play on Sundays for life. If Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Arkansas' Bobby Petrino and Oregon's Chip Kelly can't graduate more than 60% of their players, a number far below their overall school averages, they shouldn't be allowed to coach. 

But many (again, it's important to stress not all) coaches seem not to mind and so long as they are winning and neither do the athletic directors and university presidents who are supposed to keep them in check. That's because the integrity and honor of commitment, responsibility and honesty no longer apply to some in college sports.

One such prime example, is Pittsburgh University President Mark Nordenberg, who in 2003 wrote the following regarding Boston College's decision to leave the Big East for the ACC: "This is a case that involves broken commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, the misappropriations of conference opportunities and predatory attempts to eliminate competition." Pitt, along with several other Big East schools, went on to sue BC. Eight years later, Pittsburgh followed Boston College to the ACC in the exact same manner.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma University President David Boren and its board of directors blackmailed the Big 12 member schools into firing Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe, giving them the ultimatum of choosing between OU staying in their conference and Beebe keeping his job. A few weeks later, Beebe was ousted.

Whether Beebe deserved to stay or not, he didn't stand a chance. Oklahoma means far more revenue to the Big 12 than a conference commissioner. Similarly, other schools disregarded geographic proximity (aka ease of travel for the students), historic 100-year rivalries, and past agreements in favor of bigger paydays as part of Super Conferences.

How are players — and students for that matter — supposed to respond when the very leaders who preach ethics, integrity and tradition openly ignore those very principles?

Yet university presidents' commitment to protecting their college sports’ gravy train has recently taken a much more dark and sinister turn. 

As we found out last month, neither coach Joe Paterno nor Penn State President Graham Spanier informed police or followed up on eye-witness accounts of purported sexual assault taking place on their campus by a Penn State coach. Both were ultimately fired nine seasons after they were informed of the incidents. 

This past week allegations have surfaced at Syracuse University that assistant coach Bernie Fine had molested two ball boys as well. Jim Boeheim made an impassioned defense of his coach going as far as to say that he knew (not believed, but knew) the accuser was lying and out for money.  

So far Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor has defended Syracuse's iconic coach saying, "We stand by him." Whether you believe Boeheim will or deserves to be fired, it's hard to imagine Chancellor Cantor offering the same support for a first-year coach in charge of a middling program who defamed a victim of sexual assault.

Going forward the NCAA must be vigilant and aggressive. It starts with holding the athletic directors and presidents more responsible for what happens at their universities.

If presidents and athletic directors can be deeply involved in the decisions to move conferences with little impunity, can be coerced by ESPN into playing week-night football games and hire and fire their coaches, then surely they should be responsible for scandals and improper benefits at their schools. 

More often than not, however, it is the head coaches and players who are punished while the board and top administrators remain.

If the NCAA really hopes to clean up the conduct of the big time athletic departments, it must severely punish the programs as a whole. Strict, but fair, graduation rates must be implemented and followed (particularly in football). Week night football games and week day basketball games — a recent but detrimental trend brought on by the rise of 24/7 sports networks — must end and schools must understand that they are bigger than one player or coach and must be punished accordingly. 

Only when schools are faced with the possibility of losing their beloved football and basketball seasons for a year or two (and not just scholarships) will accountability be taken seriously. 

Until then, expect more scandals and continued corruption in college sports. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons