The Shame of the NCAA

In a front-page editorial in Harrisburg’s Patriot-News today, the editors of the paper, published in central Pennsylvania, call for the immediate resignation of Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier. They also say that Joe Paterno, the iconic head coach of the Nittany Lions football team, should retire at the end of the year.

Unlike their colleagues, the college’s vice president for business and finance, Gary Schultz, and its athletic director, Tim Curley, they aren’t charged with crimes related to the scandal in which Jerry Sandusky, a longtime assistant coach, is charged with sexually abusing eight boys since 1994. But the paper argues they failed morally by not doing more than the bare minimum the law requires. They didn’t call police after the initial reports that Sandusky had raped young boys, and they didn’t follow up with the victims, the paper said. All they did was place an unenforceable ban on Sandusky that he not bring kids on campus. He still had an office and access to all university buildings, and that’s where he allegedly brought his victims and raped them.

“The attorney general has determined that Paterno and Spanier did everything the law required,” the paper read. “But a university president must be held to a higher standard. The most famous coach in college football history must be held to a higher standard.”

Add to that one other institution: The National College Athletic Association.

In the October issue of The Atlantic, Taylor Branch laid bare the myth that the NCAA was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect college football players increasingly hammered in a dangerous sport. Instead, Branch writes, “Roosevelt maneuvered shrewdly to preserve the sport -– and give a boost to his beloved Harvard.”

Since then, he writes, the NCAA has acted like a cartel, holding power over college athletics and making sure college sports does what its best at: earning money for colleges and universities.

Nevertheless, the NCAA perpetuates the myth that it’s there to protect student-athletes—the largest group of unpaid laborers in the country—and the integrity of college sports. To maintain that fiction, it spends its time suspending players, mostly poor students of color, for receiving gifts as meager as $100. This year, for example, the University of Miami started its football season missing eight players accused of being feted at South Beach nightclubs. Heaven forbid the players who actually do the work reap any of the rewards they bring in. That’s because the NCAA has decided that they have to pretend that college athletes are primarily students and, though they spend 40 hours a week or more practicing, training, and playing, are amateurs in sport. It’s one of the worst fictions we tell ourselves: that we’re granting poor but talented students access to college while, in reality, we’re exploiting them for our own entertainment.

Sandusky, who ran a charity for young boys called Second Mile, maintained his reputation while using it to earn the trust of his victims, and Penn State helped him by looking the other way until they were compelled by the law not to. The institution was more important to some of the university’s most powerful people than were children. Penn State was the NCAA’s star football program. The least the NCAA could do is kick Penn State out of college sports. Forever wouldn’t be long enough.