Emphasis on Amateur

Football Ghosts at Penn State – Paterno’s Statue was removed in early July.

I got in trouble with another on-line comment string this week.  When it happened before, I found the silver lining, but this time I should have known better.  I should have kept moving.  We all have those friends – the ones kept via social media that you haven’t seen since high school.  I usually practice the scroll down – stopping only for photos or baby/wedding/divorce news – on my way to the snarky nerd humor and political irony further down the screen.  But I let my vehement opinions get the best of me.  Again.

My childhood friend let it be known that he felt bad for Penn State and the much reported NCAA sanctions.  Its old news, really – old, but no less horrifying.  Former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is a convicted serial child molester and it seems that everybody in the Penn State program covered for the good ol’boy.  The NCAA threw the proverbial book at Penn, enacting “unprecedented” sanctions that include a sixty million dollar fine (one year’s gate revenues), banishment from bowl games, five years of supervised probation, and scholarship reductions that may result in current athletes leaving Penn for other programs. But I suspect that what really bothers football fans is the NCAA’s headfirst destruction of a sports legend.  Football’s winningest coach, Joe Paterno, was stripped of all victories between 1998 and 2011. His winning record no longer stands.  This week Penn State replaced Paterno’s campus statue with spindly summer trees.

Admittedly, I might over simplify the economic repercussions of the NCAA’s treatment of the Penn State cover-up, but I’m not sure it matters.  And I’m not sure the sanctions are harsh enough.  The University will feel the reduced gate revenues throughout the school.  The loss will affect women’s teams and non-football programs – it may even trickle down and affect funding for actual academics.  I can’t begin to project all of the possible fallout.  But what I do know is that priorities at Penn got totally out of whack and hitting the pocketbook is sometimes the only way to send a strong message.

I know college sports are big business.  I even sometimes pretend to understand suggestions about reforming athletics, but I’m usually lost to bad sports analogies long before the end game.  I didn’t get the rabid sports gene, but I married a jock who became a coach and I have two sons.  I am surrounded by sports and sporting equipment.  It’s not quite a classic case of bookworm meets football captain, but we’re close.  I have learned from my jock of a husband what Joe Paterno and Penn State football fans seem to have forgotten:  college sports are about building people.  Good coaches and teams grow kids into adults.  They cultivate work ethic and perseverance.  They hone competitive instincts and self-confidence.  They occasionally even ask kids to think.  They should demand the highest level of integrity and competence. This is not professional athletics (though the way scholarships and money works in college that may even be in question).  A good athletic program is academic.   College athletes and athletic programs cannot become separate from the academic realm.  This should be obvious, but it gets lost quickly as we begin to consider gate totals and trademark jerseys.   We – coaches and college instructors – are, in many ways, teaching the same lessons: asking students to hone thinking skills, test their abilities, and practice making independent, successful choices.

I do not feel sorry for a school sullied by the unthinkable actions of one man when so many knew there was a problem and consciously chose to protect an athletic program that forgot that amateur sports are about growth and learning.  There is no sanction big enough to make up for this loss.


7 thoughts on “Emphasis on Amateur

  1. A couple observations on a great article, my dear:

    1. It’s really, really difficult to hit Penn State in the pocketbook. That school and its trust fund(s) are full of old money and lots of it. They will never, ever hurt for funds, no matter what happens. It’s sort of lame, but I guess with the history and tenure that school has, it’s bound to happen, so good for them. I think the NCAA sanctions were more about sending a strong message to other schools less storied and wealthy. “Imagine these sanctions and penalties within your *own* program. The damage would be absolutely irrevocable, so fly right.” Before Penn State has a chance to even experience many of these consequences, about all of the evil and corruption will have been rooted from the program. People will see significant prison time and will never work in the NCAA again. I was a little perturbed by the sanctimonious, self-serving, and even pleasing way the NCAA levied these penalties (it is, at best, an incredibly questionable entity itself) – but understood that it was primarily about sending a message to other institutions, distancing themselves from the scandal, and about PR cleanup, and secondly about punishing a program that became too relaxed and insular.

    2. Yeah, college and even college sports are about academics, but even academics are a means to an end. Whether it’s a professional career, wealth or financial independence, or causing good and positive changes on a large scale – or all of the above – “academics” is a vehicle. So if college sports are helping athletes become professional athletes, then sports *is* their academics, just as much as medicine or journalism is an academic discipline. Of couse, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the other virtues you mentioned – work ethic, perseverance, competition, self-confidence, integrity, and competence – but their curriculum is on the field. Yes, it happens to get these universities a lot of money, and yes, a small percentage of these kids make it big in the world of professional sports. But it’s also these over-achievers that pay for and subsidize (because of their popularity and success on the field) the education of so many other athletes who will never even sniff professional sports. So that’s why I have a problem with the football program itself being the target of sanctions and discipline (well, too many sanctions and discipline). It eventually hurts more innocents than the guilty.

    • Thanks Wes – I think those of us on the “academic side” of college life often overlook the benefits of athletics. We tend separate the games from the brain in binary, shortsighted way. It is a very gray business – you’ve given me even more to sort through!

  2. Well said. The sad thing is that we all thought that was what Joe was about (building people). What is tragic is the seeming lack of thought for the victims. I graduated from PSU and I am glad that there have been serious consequences.

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