Morici: After Paterno scandal, rethink college football

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno pauses during

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno pauses during a 2008 post-game news conference. (Credit: AP)

The report into the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University, undertaken by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, revealed former President Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno turned a blind eye to sexual abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

According to the Freeh report, the motivation was clear and reprehensible: "to avoid the consequences of bad publicity."

At many universities, false and corrupting loyalty to football and other marquee sports reaches deeply into the community. In 1998, a mother accused Sandusky of molesting her son. To the woman, he declined to deny touching the boy's private parts and said, "I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness."


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Sandusky admitted to Department of Public Welfare and police investigators other wrongful acts, yet Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar did not prosecute, and saw no reason to use the threat of it to require Sandusky to discontinue his programs for boys.

Universities contort admissions to recruit talented young athletes, and faculties are asked to make special provisions. Small, transparent transgressions beget bigger and more opaque sins. Morally rudderless faculty shade grades, and coaches and presidents like Paterno and Spanier do even worse.

Many athletes get used -- they end up with no degree or a worthless diploma. A good deal of the money raised goes back into athletics; donors who could be approached for academic purposes are diverted to sports.

The Penn State affair marks an opportunity to restructure the relationship between big-time athletics and universities.

Universities could disarm and take the route of the Ivy League or military service academies. Less money would be raised overall but more would be available for academic programs.

All universities are not going to disarm, and it may be the lesser evil to admit that big-time programs in football and a few other sports are farm systems for pro leagues.

Permit 30 or so major universities to affiliate their teams with a pro franchise, but require those programs to be strictly self-financing based on ticket sales and contributions from their sponsoring pro team. Pay the athletes, offer the opportunity to earn a degree over five or even six years, but don't require them to enroll if they are not capable or are simply disinclined.

Then other universities could have non-scholarship athletic programs for genuine amateurs. Those programs, in a manner similar to the Ivies and military academies, could compete at a level that complements a decent university education.

After all, a quality education is why young people should go to college.

Writer Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His email address is pmorici@rhsmith.umd.edu

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