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Are College Sports Hopelessly Beyond Redemption? Are University Presidents Responsible?

In which the NCAA implies giving up on an expectation of integrity, while paying lip service.

January 21, 2013

How reassuring. This week we were told by the head of the NCAA that crass commercialism and scandals were nothing new in college sports. It felt a little like a “what’s the big deal” moment, much like the all-too-familiar “there’s nothing wrong with conflict of interest” refrain in the increasingly scandal-plagued university research system.  During this same week we read that spending per athlete is three-six times greater than spending per student for academics. No biggy? Any connection?

As for the historical corruption of college sports, the NCAA director has a point. Intercollegiate athletics, especially football, has been characterized as corrupt since at least the early 20th century. During the 1930s, Henry Apple, president of Franklin and Marshall, wrote an impassioned series of nationally reprinted articles titled “Wanted: Honest Football” detailing the rampant, and today eerily familiar, corruption in college sports. Here was a President calling out to colleagues to do something. Ironically, given that The Pennsylvania State University (PSU) has become the poster child for lack of integrity in college sports, one of the people at the time who felt the same way as Apple was, yes, PSU’s president. In the late 1920s Frank Dorn Hetzel, PSU’s new president (who, like Graham Spanier, had previously been at Oregon State), worked to centralize authority over athletics in order to rein in unethical activity.

This is no easy task; when the potential for big money is involved, the pushback and tendency to rationalize is enormous: how else reach the state of fiscal irrationality and dilution of mission revealed by, to name a few, Shulman and Bowen, Clotfelter, or the less clinical Sperber. But presidents, of course, are supposed to be detached; their primary job is, to quote the late Philip Selznick, “the promotion and protection of values,” and they may “fail dismally while steadily growing larger” if they allow themselves to be led by the interests of administrators or outsiders.  As with PSU, and in other stories about football in particular but sports in general, presidents are deeply implicated and their speculative behavior questionable. They can choose to do something about it, or not.

Lip service doesn’t change anything, of course. So when the NCAA head announced the “principles” NCAA is considering (in the same breath as telling us about the commonplace corruption of sports), I just sighed.  In practice, “Principles” are what you put in place after scandal or public outcry when people won’t agree to enact anything actionable, let alone restructure a system; putting a lot of rules and arguable categories in place often is designed to allow, rather than prohibit, behavior and (always listen for this word) “flexibility” in application. So problems tend to grow, not decline, after reactive policy tweaking by those who write rules from a defensive standpoint.

More to come on ethical “principles” as lip service in the future. Meanwhile, the thing to watch is the claim that culture change is on the NCAA’s agenda. It’s unclear what is meant by the phrase used, “rules culture.” Rules don’t have a culture, organizations of people do, and the systems in which culture is embedded. That’s the level at which culture change occurs. And institutional leaders, like presidents, have to want it.


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