News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 13, 2012

TODD GOLDEN: Culture of college athletics has gone mad

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — I’m not normally one for navel-gazing. Generally, I think it’s a waste of time. Hairshirts aren’t my style.

But upon release of the Louis Freeh report on Thursday regarding Penn State’s cover-up of sexual abuse by former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, it’s crystal clear some navel-gazing is in order.

When I’m in a contemplative mood, I turn to the movies.

One of my favorites is Stanley Kubrick’s World War I masterpiece Paths Of Glory. In it, Kirk Douglas, who plays Colonel Dax — a French officer who is given the impossible task of defending his soldiers from a death sentence in a show-trial in which their fate has already been decided — speaks a line that always hit me to my absolute core. It’s a line that came to my mind when I read about Freeh’s report today.

“Gentleman of the court, there are times I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion,” said Dax in the trial scene.

That might seem to be a weird line for me to conjure. After all, I had nothing to do with anything that happened at Penn State. Why take it so personally?

I’ve thought, from day one, that the culture of college athletics created this monster, specifically, football at Penn State. That culture is all-pervasive, and as a member of the media, I’m a part of that culture. And I’m not terribly proud of that right now.

Boil everyone’s motivations at Penn State down for their inaction and it comes down to protecting the brand and the image of a university that defines itself by its football team.

Nothing — not even the monstrous act of molesting children — was too much to sweep under the carpet. Football is king. Joe Paterno is king. Love live the king.

It’s not just Penn State. The names that were shamed today were Paterno, Tim Curley [Penn State’s athletic director], Graham Spanier [former Penn State president] and Gary Schultz [former Penn State vice president], but let’s not be naive.

As long as the culture of athletics creates the desire to win at all costs and has sway over the better part of our angels, this could happen anywhere.

As long as there is a cult of personality built around coaches that win, the desire to protect that winning at all costs can make otherwise intelligent people completely blind to madness.

This culture extends to more than just the coaches and administrators directly involved.  This culture is perpetuated by alumni and donors, the media and fans. As a media member, a deplorable situation such as this gives me pause.

I’ve never had any illusions about the parasitic nature of college athletics. All of the parties — athletes, coaches and schools — use one another for mutual benefit.

Athletes use universities to further a professional career and/or get their education. During the recruiting process, when they have the leverage, they play coaches and schools off one another for their own benefit.

Once they get the athletes, coaches use them to be successful and raise their profile (and pay) within their own profession.

Schools use both to create a brand, gain exposure and solicit donations.

A side-effect of that, however, is that a successful coach can turn around and use his leverage to create his own power base that can sometimes overwhelm that of the university. He becomes a power all his own, as it was for Paterno, as it was for Bob Knight at Indiana for many years, as it was and continues to be for many others.

I’ve always been fine with all of it. It’s mostly a victimless arrangement that has some mutual benefit for all.

And as a member of the media, we’re a part of it too. We’re the mythmakers that keep the engine going. But we merely serve as the conduit of the fans’ interests, which can be rabid. We’re all a part of it. We all created this culture.

I never paid much mind to the consequences of this. However, when something as repulsive as the Sandusky case and its cover-up comes up, it makes you realize how dark the road is when the culture of college athletics compels you to drive blindly down it with no perspective.

I don’t think anyone could envision the moral bankruptcy of the Penn State case, but it happened, and could happen again. It could be happening right now somewhere else.

It’s a clarion call for all us to have some serious perspective introduced at all levels of college athletics.

Getting back to the movies, I recall Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson in Bridge On The River Kwai when he realized — too late — that building a bridge for the enemy Japanese wasn’t a justification of his principles, but a bankruptcy of them.

“What have I done?”

This is the Col. Nicholson moment for culture of college athletics. For one, Penn State’s football program should be shuttered either by its own decision or via the NCAA death penalty because the guilty must be punished harshly.

For the rest of us, it’s a matter of being vigilent in not aiding and abetting to create the same monster Penn State did.

Am I confident that will happen? Sadly, not one bit.

Already, reports have surfaced that the NCAA might not punish Penn State’s transgressions because they don’t fit under their definition of “lack of institutional control”. As such, their rules for potentially applying the death penalty might not apply.

It doesn’t fit the definition of lack of institutional control? Drink that in for a moment. There are no words. One can only shake their head.

I turn again to the movies and once again to Bridge On The River Kwai. The Penn State saga probably won’t be the Col. Nicholson moment for college athletics, it will be yet another Major Clipton moment.

Maj. Clipton, the prison camp doctor played by James Donald, has the memorable last lines of that movie epic.

“Madness … madness!”

Madness indeed.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.