That little pigskin (Penn State and other musings)

I’ve been fortunate to have played in and administered intercollegiate athletic programs at the NCAA Division III level. Neither Swarthmore nor Oglethorpe will ever play Penn State or Ohio State for the national championship in football. Well, neither Swarthmore nor Oglethorpe even have a football team, but that’s not my point. We don’t live in the land of athletic scholarships or big TV contracts. Students don’t see our schools as a stopping point to the NFL, NBA, or MLB. An MBA, MD, LLB or PHD? Yes. The NHL? No.

Even competing at Division III, however, I will tell you that questions of priorities arise. For the most part, people prefer to win than lose, even when million dollar employment contracts or multi-million dollar TV contracts are not at stake. Should a great athlete but not so great a student receive an offer of admission to play women’s softball? Should a star athlete be dismissed from school for transgressions that would clearly end the academic career of a “regular” student? More than a decade ago when Swarthmore was considering ending its football program (with a century of history behind it), it was clear that every young man who had been recruited to play on the football team would not have been admitted but for his talent and interest in football. I mean every single one and there were eighty such young men playing. Now make no mistake. Getting into Swarthmore now requires something like 8000 on your SAT; the football kids who were admitted to play football were plenty smart. That wasn’t the issue. Rather, the facts simply were that they would have been denied admission but for football. In the end, given the very small size of the school and other competing considerations for admission, Swarthmore chose to end its football program. Best I can tell, it’s doing just swimmingly. My point here is a simple one. Even though little was at stake, or at least far less than is at stake with Penn State football, decision-makers can get swayed by the urge to compete and win.

This takes me to the recent revelations about Penn State. All the facts have not come out yet, but I certainly have the sense that when they do, the story will get uglier rather than prettier. More folks will lose their jobs than the two who already have. That’s my bet. I tend to think the President and the Coach will be among those that retire. People made the wrong decisions. That much is clear. And why? Well, that’s clear too. Too much was at stake, or at least they thought it was. We see this time and time again with big time sports and big time money, at programs we all would consider corruptable and at ones we have believed to be un-corruptable as well. Ohio State falls and now Penn State. We are surprised each time one of these big-time programs goes down, but there’s actually nothing at all surprising. Right or wrong, it’s all about priorities and not right or wrong. Joe Pa is not a bad man; far from it. I doubt the university president is a bad man. Joe Pa was paid to win, however, and if he didn’t win, he would have been paid to do something else somewhere else at a far lower salary. As for the president, unfortunately, given what’s at stake financially, he is also paid to win. That’s an awfully sad statement I think, but also the awful reality.

By the way, this past weekend, Oglethorpe’s men soccer team won its first conference championship in the 50 year history of the program. Go Petrels!

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