Commentary Magazine


Morality and the False God of Amateurism

The decision of the NCAA to impose draconian penalties on the Penn State University football program in reaction to the child sex abuse scandal is an attempt by the college sports authority to demonstrate the seriousness of what happened at the school. In that sense it is entirely appropriate and it is telling that the sanctions, which will reduce the former powerhouse to second-rate status for the immediate future, was meekly accepted by the university. The ruling, however, is interesting in that the NCAA’s policing of inter-collegiate athletics are, in this case, focused more on morality than nitpicking infractions of its arcane rules that seek to guard the false god of amateurism.

But while the sports authority is right to punish Penn State, the decision to vacate all of Penn State’s football victories since 1998, when evidence first appeared that the school was covering up the predatory behavior of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, strikes me as both inept and somewhat unjust.

As those who follow college sports know, the NCAA’s focus in most of its investigations is to prevent schools from compensating athletes with anything but scholarships. The aim of this is, at least in theory, to prevent schools from gaining a competitive advantage on each other by bidding for athletes. Yet the hypocrisy of the exercise undermines the moralistic nature of the NCAA’s vengeful efforts to ensure that no college recruit receives a dime’s worth of benefits that is not strictly listed in the rules.

College football is a big business, and the universities that seek to play at the top level of the sport generate enormous sums of money for their exchequers. While star coaches, like Joe Paterno, are paid king’s ransoms, the athletes get nothing but a free education. That’s a valuable commodity, but because many who play are “student athletes” in name only they derive little benefit from it. Penn State prided itself on ensuring that its players actually went to school, a practice that set it apart from many other football powers and, ironically, led to the self-righteous attitude that motivated Paterno to see the football program’s good name as more important than the lives of Sandusky’s victims.

The attempt by the NCAA to monitor recruiting practices has a faux moral veneer. It does little to cover up the fact that college athletics is a bit of a sham. Most of the players are to one extent or another, “ringers” brought in to boost the team rather than genuine students. The games are fun and the bands, old school loyalties and rivalries bring enjoyment to the fans and alumni, but professional sports is a lot more honest.

Unfortunately, the NCAA’s censure of Penn State is likely a one-off event rather than the start of the trend. College sports might be better off if its governing body were to focus more on genuine questions of ethics than its often absurd recruiting rules. But the only reason it was able to impose these penalties without even the pretense of due process or appeal is that Penn State is so eager to take its medicine and move on that it didn’t give a thought to a challenge. That wouldn’t apply in less notorious cases, and the result would tie up the NCAA in legal fights for years. Even so, it was heartening to see a group better known for a pretense of morality than any actual defense of good behavior seeking to punish actual wrongdoing.

That said, it should be pointed out that the erasure of Penn State’s football wins is still absurd. The great thing about most sports is that the outcome is determined objectively by the skill of the participants. Penn State derived no competitive advantage from Paterno’s cover up of his longtime aide’s crimes. Those games were won or lost by what happened on the field. Taking the wins away does nothing to compensate Sandusky’s victims. If anything, it would make more sense to penalize Penn State’s wins prior to 1998, not after it, because that is when they had a presumably active pedophile taking an active part in their football program.

This is a clumsy add-on to an otherwise principled attempt to remind the American sports world that there is more to life than wins and losses of their favorite team. Let’s hope Paterno’s moral failure stands as an example that coaches at all levels of sports and those in positions of authority in other endeavors will always remember. In the meantime, there is every likelihood that the NCAA will soon return to its main job: propping up the pretense that amateurism is alive and well in college sports.

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