Unfavorable public attitudes about the way Pennsylvania State University officials handled a scandal alleging sex abuse of children may be influencing their overall judgment of college athletic programs and the institutions that house them, according to a new poll .
Forty percent of poll respondents said that, if they had a child preparing to go to college, they would be either likely (23 percent) or very likely (17 percent) to discourage him or her from choosing a Division I institution “that places a strong emphasis on sports.” That’s just fewer than the number of people who said they’d be somewhat unlikely (22 percent) or very unlikely (19 percent) to do so. Nineteen percent were unsure.
A full 72 percent of respondents said Division I college athletic programs have “too much influence over college life.” Only 3 percent said programs have too little influence; 16 percent said they have “about the right amount” and 9 percent were unsure.
The poll, conducted by Widmeyer Communications, surveyed 1,000 American adults online, stratifying the demographics to imitate U.S. Census data. The margin of error was +/- 3.1. Widmeyer works for some colleges and education groups, but said that it did not conduct the survey on a client's behalf.
A survey  conducted five years ago for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics explored somewhat similar issues, but in greater detail, so it’s difficult to gauge how much public opinion has changed. Back then, 73 percent of respondents agreed that “college sports as a big business conflicts with the values of higher education.” Although 83 percent had a positive overall opinion of college sports, 44 percent said they were “out of control.”
The Penn State scandal has permeated the media since news broke nearly three weeks ago that the storied football teams’ former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, had been arrested on charges of molesting and raping at least eight young boys over a 15-year period.
Penn State’s football team has – in part thanks to Sandusky – long stood as a top-tier competitor, and until recently, was thought to operate within a program of high integrity. But 83 percent of poll respondents believe that “the culture of big money that has developed around Division I college sports in the past 20 years” played a moderate (23 percent) or large (60 percent) role in “the officials’ lack of action.” Seven percent think money was a small factor, and 2 percent said no factor at all.
Three-fourths of respondents believe the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which recently announced  it will conduct its own investigation into administrators’ actions, should take one of the following actions against Penn State: ban it from post-season bowl games this season (18 percent); shut down the football program for the 2012 season (15 percent); bar the team from conference play for the 2012 season (15 percent); ban it from bowl games for the 2012 season (14 percent); or ban it from bowl games for the next five years (13 percent). However, 37 percent said no NCAA sanctions are necessary.
And finally, it appears that the frequent comparisons between the Penn State scandal and that of the Roman Catholic Church’s – in which members of the Catholic hierarchy have been accused of covering for priests who molested young boys – are not limited to the media. Just over two-thirds of respondents said the controversies are similar.