Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. 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.
Pennsylvania State University 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. Penn State football games draw more than 100,000 fans into Beaver Stadium and the sport came to overshadow the university itself. 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.
“I’m not Joe Paterno” he said, adding, “nobody can keep me quiet.”
One alleged victim said Boeheim saw him in a hotel room on a trip with the accused assistant coach. When evidence came out buttressing some of the charges, Boeheim’s credibility plummeted. The basketball program at Syracuse is a smaller universe than Penn State football. Probably sensing the threat, the head coach changed his tune, saying he regretted the angry charges he had leveled at the alleged abuse victims. The assistant coach was fired, but so far the Syracuse chancellor is vowing support for Boeheim and the lucrative program.
Although there are no suggestions that the abuse of kids was involved, the cherished college basketball programs in Kentucky offer other examples of lack of accountability.
At the University of Louisville, Rick Pitino, one of the game’s more successful coaches, stresses family values, travels with a priest and in another job featured the Pope in his basketball guide. In 2009, he admitted that he had sex with a woman in a local bar and to later giving her $3,000 either for, in his account, health insurance or, by her account, for an abortion. The woman later was convicted of extortion. He was depicted as the victim, and she went to jail. He’s still highly compensated and celebrated by the university.
In Lexington, 76 miles away, the University of Kentucky’s coach, John Calipari, is treated like a god. Before coming to UK, he took two other teams to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Final Four Men’s Championship. Both successes were later vacated because of cheating violations. Kentucky is now a basketball factory, bringing in great high school players who stay for a year, win games and turn professional. The president of this academic institution showers praise on the coach.
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 Senator 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, U.S. Representative Bobby Rush, a liberal Illinois Democrat, has likened the governing body of intercollegiate athletics to Al Capone and the Mafia. He called the NCAA “one of the most vicious, most ruthless organizations ever created by mankind.” Representative Joe Barton, a conservative Texas Republican, and Representative 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 U.S. 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.
With all the money at stake, that’s unlikely. Several years ago, well before the sex abuse scandal broke, the president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, went to the home of Paterno, who was then 77, and asked him to retire. He was sent away.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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