The bad news from Penn State seemingly is never going to end. Staggering revelations about the extensive failure of leadership in Happy Valley risk destroying the school. All that had been accomplished by hardworking faculty, administrators, legislators and alums in pushing Penn State forward over the past two decades into the ranks of serious, quality academic institutions is now all in jeopardy.
As the grim news pours in, commentators and media pundits keep asking how this could happen? How could top university officials, including venerated football coach Joe Paterno, put the interests of the university and its football program ahead of protecting vulnerable children? What would make them believe that sitting on reliable information about child molesting by a longtime assistant coach and allowing him to roam freely through the university and his self-created program for at-risk kids mauling, raping and molesting boys for years like some sort of heinous Fagan was the right thing to do?
In one sense it is understandable that few seem willing to indict major college men's sports as the culprit. It is easier to wonder how Paterno could be such a hypocrite, how the former University president, Graham Spanier, could approve of a cover-up, how the trustees of the University could be so asleep at the switch and whether Joe's statue outside Beaver stadium will have to come down. But although these are serious questions, they don't get to the heart of the problem.
You do not have to be a sports fan as I am to know that at too many universities, the men's football and basketball programs are powerful enough to undercut the authority of university presidents and also leave many students, alums, faculty, staff and the media - who profit from the attention these sports receive - blind to the shenanigans and immorality that permeate these sports. Think about the scandals in men's football at institutions such as Auburn, Mississippi State, USC, Alabama, Colorado, Clemson, Miami and ... well, there are simply too many to list. That is the culture that allowed Penn State to occur.
Boosters and trustees at too many schools make it clear every day to university presidents and their administrations that the football team had better stay competitive no matter what it takes. No one had better gripe about renting out players for a year or two who have about as much interest in academics as the school mascot. Agents swarm around unqualified students, throwing around huge sums of money. Shoe contracts and media arrangements make the football and basketball coaches at a huge number of schools the most highly paid person on the payroll.
The business of football and men's basketball at many of our most visible universities is so huge - from the sale of sports paraphernalia, to TV and media rights, to gambling to stadiums filled with luxury boxes and corporate sponsors - that it is laughable to think that administration, legal staff or faculty would not think their primary duty is to protect those programs at any price. Looking to the NCAA and other self-regulatory bodies to take on this multi-billion dollar charade of amateur sport is to look but not see.
Penn State has a huge scandal on its hands. That is tragic. The United States has a bigger scandal to face. At too many schools men's football and basketball drive the campus culture and call nearly all the shots. That is unacceptable. Getting lost in the autopsy of Penn State's woes is to miss the bigger problem staring us in the face.