As I did a year ago, I'm again using January 1 -- the traditional peak of the football bowl season -- to reflect on the state of college sports. We've had major scandals in college sports for several generations (the college-basketball point-shaving scandals of the late 1940s and early 1950s perhaps being the best known historically). However, 2011 seemed to be an unusually big year -- both in terms of number and severity -- for college-athletic scandals either coming to light or reaching their final adjudication.
There's the Ohio State scandal (summarized in detail here), in which several football players were reported "accept[ing] cash and free or discounted tattoos [and, with the parlor owner] ...trading money for sports memorabilia - championship rings and autographed jerseys and gloves." What seemed to escalate the scandal was Buckeye coach Jim Tressel's failure to forward warnings he received about the players' alleged receipt of improper benefits to the proper authorities. In the end, Tressel was gone, several players were suspended or gone, and the football program was banned from bowl participation next season.
There's the University of Miami scandal (details here), in which convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro alleges "he provided thousands of impermissible benefits to at least 72 athletes from 2002 through 2010." Shapiro details the supposed benefits as "includ[ing] but... not limited to cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion."
Most disturbing of all, many would probably contend, is Shapiro's accusation that this largesse was dispensed "with the knowledge or direct participation of at least seven coaches from the Miami football and basketball programs."
Then, of course, there's the Penn State football scandal (and similar Syracuse basketball scandal). The central elements of the Penn State situation -- former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of young boys and the apparent failure of many high officials at the school to report the allegations to authorities -- have already been covered and discussed extensively throughout the nation.
A lesser known, but still important, aspect of how former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno apparently handled misconduct in his program, in general, recently came to light. According to former Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Vicky Triponey, Paterno seemed adamant that football players accused of violating codes of student conduct should not have their cases go through the regular student judicial affairs office at the university. Instead, Paterno allegedly wanted to be able to handle football disciplinary matters himself (a video of an ESPN interview with Triponey and an article on the subject are available here).
Further, according to Triponey, "Many times, (because of) the pressure placed on us by the president or the football coach, eventually, we would end up doing sanctions that were not what another student would've got" ... "It was much less. It was adapted to try to accommodate the concerns of the coach."
It is this idea of an athletic team being separate from (and seemingly above) the general student population at a university when it comes to discipline and other matters that really carries the potential for trouble.
The main concern in the Penn State and Syracuse scandals must obviously be for the alleged sexual-abuse victims. Of secondary, though still significant, importance is the potential for the scandals to sour relations between students, alumni, professors, and staff members, on the one hand, and their schools, thus harming the universities' educational missions.
A year ago, I discussed how it seems to be a good thing for students to identify with and support their schools' sports teams and universities more generally. School identification (manifest through such behaviors as wearing school garb or putting a school decal on one's car) appears to be associated with extensiveness of students' friendships and even alumni donation rates.
In the aftermath of the Penn State scandal, numerous commentators have heaped scorn on the school (see here, here, and here for examples) and a 40 percent drop in sales of Nittany Lion paraphernalia has been reported. (Of course, some of the apparent boycott may emanate from students and others who don't think Paterno should have been fired, but the overall disarray involving Penn State is unmistakable.)
All of the above problems have concerned official violations of criminal and/or National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) laws and rules. Yet another aspect of collegiate sports currently creating controversy is the question of whether certain policies that are within the rules -- such as the concentration of huge amounts of money in certain pockets and the arcane restrictions under which everyone must operate -- are fair and healthy for our system of higher education. This latter topic is beyond the scope of the present column, but a recent Chronicle of Higher Education forum on the topic is available for interested readers.