WASHINGTON— Politicians love to celebrate, not chastise, big-time college athletics.
There were two exceptions: More than 100 years ago, when President Theodore Roosevelt intervened to clean up the brutality of college football, and almost 40 years ago, when Congress passed Title IX, requiring colleges and universities to allocate a fair share of their athletic budgets to women. Both worked.
Washington may be about to step in again. Top-level intercollegiate athletics, particularly football and basketball, are corrosively corrupt: cheating, paying players under the table and taking advantage of other athletes, while turning a blind eye to criminal activities, including, most recently, the sexual abuse of children.
The driving force is money; academic values are secondary. The term student athlete too often is a travesty. Powerful coaches run roughshod over academics, including college presidents.
Penn State is illustrative. The fabled football coach, Joe Paterno, the president and the athletic director have been fired for covering up the alleged systemic abuse of young boys by one of the former assistant football coaches.
What makes the story more astonishing is that Paterno and Penn State were considered among the better people and programs in college football.
At the core, it’s about a lack of accountability. Anything that threatened that money-making machine was swept under the rug. Penn State football was insular and arrogant. Coach Paterno was accountable only to himself.
Weeks after scandal erupted at Penn State, similar charges surfaced at Syracuse University. This time, they involved a powerhouse basketball team. An assistant coach was charged with sexually abusing boys. The omnipotent head coach, Jim Boeheim, called the accusers liars and implied it was all a shakedown.
When accusations of NCAA rules violations were leveled against Ohio State’s powerful football coach, Jim Tressel, a few years ago, the university president, Gordon Gee, was asked if he was considering firing him.
Gee’s reply: “I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
Ultimately, Tressel was forced to resign. Buckeye fans now are celebrating the hiring last month of the legendary former Florida coach Urban Meyer. When Meyer was at Florida, in addition to winning two national titles, 25 of his players were arrested during his tenure, half on charges of felonies or violent misdemeanors.
And then there’s the fiasco called the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS, where, based on financial interests, major universities and colleges decide who is going to play for the national championship and in post-season bowl games. Unlike almost every other college sport, there’s no playoff system. Defenders of the BCS say playoffs would hurt student athletes even though they would be held during the holiday season when schools aren’t in session.
Lawmakers led by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch successfully persuaded the Justice Department to consider the antitrust implications of the BCS and college athletics.
On the other side of the spectrum, Rep. Bobby Rush, a liberal Illinois Democrat, called the NCAA “one of the most vicious, most ruthless organizations ever created by mankind.” Rep. Joe Barton, a conservative Texas Republican, and Rep. Steve Cohen, a liberal Democrat from Tennessee, are forming an anti-BCS caucus.
It probably would be foolish for Congress to legislate. No one has devised a sensible policy initiative. Oversight hearings with the power of subpoena are likely and easier to justify. Some of the most prestigious universities are participants in a system that debases academic values.
The best palliative would be for university presidents to take charge of their football and basketball coaches and athletic directors.
ALBERT R. HUNT is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.