I've actually thought so for some time, and not just because I spent some time today reading the report of the special investigative counsel (the "Freeh report") on the way Penn State handled (or rather, didn't handle) the investigation of allegations that a former football coach had sexually abused minor children on the university campus. However, the conclusions of that report and, even more so, the investigative findings that it presented, certainly lend new weight to my belief that it's time to do away with college sports--at least in their current form. Follow me below the squiggle and I'll tell you why I think so, and what I think things should look like.
There are any number of seemingly plausible justifications offered for the existence of the anomaly known as "college sports." Alumni donations and pride are perhaps the most common of these, but there are many others. Unfortunately for the hopes and dreams (and the Saturday television viewing habits) of many, those justifications turn out to be a lot less plausible upon reflection--to say nothing of rigorous investigation.
Most college athletics programs lose money. And in the rare cases when a program turns a profit, chances are better than even money that the success is entirely due to one solid program that keeps all the rest from going under...for a time. And while people don't tend to think of it, donations to athletics programs go to support the athletics programs--not the school that sponsors them. So if you give money to your favorite college sports team, not a dime of that donation goes to make the school a better place. It just goes to make the team better.
It's also true that success on the playing field tends to promote awareness of a college or university, and often a spike in applications will follow a championship season or even a reasonably splashy bowl appearance. That's nice, but could there possibly be a less logical way of picking the place where your parents will be sending tuition checks for years to come? Anyone who would choose a college or university on the basis of having an outstanding (fill in your favorite sport here) team, assuming s/he isn't planning to be a sports management major and hopes to gain real-world experience by working with it, would be better off taking their tuition payments and flushing them down the toilet for the experience in how to repair plumbing: at least then they might come out of the game with a marketable skill.
The idea that there are collegiate coaches (usually in football, but some in other sports as well) that earn considerably (sometimes to the tune of an order of magnitude) more than the university presidents they work for simply boggles the mind. In what kind of warped and twisted world does that make sense?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association uses the term "student-athletes" to describe the individuals whose lives it scrutinizes (and supervises). That has a nice ring to it, but, certainly at Division I schools (i.e., the powerhouse teams), the emphasis in that compound noun is decidedly almost always upon the "athlete" portion, and far too rarely on the "student" bit.
While it is true that athletic scholarships make it possible for some individuals to get a college education who might not otherwise have the chance to do so, that chance is offered only to a tiny fraction of students in any given year, and then only if those students are willing to attend a school that (a) is allowed to offer such scholarships (Division III schools, for example, like my alma mater, are not), and (b) has an open slot available on a team for which that student is qualified. And when you factor in all the other costs associated with maintaining that team, it seems to me that we'd do better simply to take all of that money, stop wasting it on stadia, practice facilities, equipment, coaches' and trainers' salaries, and, yes, athletic scholarships, and simply hand it out as grants to qualified but underprivileged students. We'd be able to make college a reality for a lot more people than we do now, and there might even be a few bucks left over to support giving the faculty a raise to teach those students well, and perhaps even to buy a few new books, or a journal subscription, for the library.
The Penn State situation, and in particular the Freeh report, shines a very strong light into some incredibly dark corners--and what that strong light reveals is far from pretty. I found it instructive, for example, to compare the reaction of Penn State President Graham Spanier and his staff to allegations that Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted a minor child in the university's athletics facility and to an incident involving a sports agent who violated an insignificant NCAA eligibility rule by buying a football player $400 worth of clothing. In Sandusky's case, the university did as little as possible either to investigate the allegations or to ensure that the proper authorities were brought in to do so, and that those authorities were kept abreast of all pertinent information. In the latter case, which is detailed beginning on page 52 of the Freeh report, Spanier stated publicly that the agent had "fooled around with the integrity of the university, and I won't stand for that." The university swiftly conducted an investigation of the matter, and provided the details of that investigation to both the NCAA and to the cognizant law enforcement agencies. Within a short time, the president took action to ban the agent from campus--an action that was never taken with Jerry Sandusky up until the moment he was arrested last year: fourteen years after the first incident of molestation was reported to university officials. Buying clothes for a football player in violation of an NCAA eligibility rule will get you kicked off campus. Raping innocent boys in the coaches' shower, not so much.
Athletes in American society have it pretty good. They are looked up to. Behavior is tolerated from them, to a large extent (and not just at Penn State, though for the moment theirs is the most egregious example of the problem that is rampant on college campuses across this country), that would get any other student expelled or severely disciplined. Because they're skilled at throwing a ball or handling a puck or hitting home runs, they get a free or mostly free college education. There are always people who are willing to do for them pretty much anything that they want--whether or not it's either legal or appropriate. The end result of that state of affairs is exactly what the Freeh report describes: a culture that says it's OK to do anything as long as it's to protect the reputation of the team and the good name of the university. Somebody gets injured in a fight? Hush it up. Somebody gets raped? Hush it up, and maybe send the responsible party or parties to a few counseling sessions so it looks good.
I think we should just go ahead and admit what we all know or suspect to be true. To wit, that college sports are little more than unpaid farm teams for the professional leagues (at least for the sports that "matter": and the ones that don't don't generate enough revenue--or interest--to cause many problems). We should acknowledge that reality, and divorce the teams from the colleges and universities. That lets the universities get back to concentrating on what they're supposed to be good at, which is teaching and research, and lets the pro teams concentrate on what they're supposed to be good at--and what they want to get--which is better incoming draftees for their own leagues.
Junior hockey offers what I think might be a reasonable, and reasonably effective way of getting the best of both worlds out of this mess. When a young man (so far it's only men, but that may change some day--and I'd argue that it should) plays for a junior team, he gets a small stipend (on the order of $100 per week, which basically covers food and his phone bill, and maybe a few bucks once in a while for equipment and such). He stays with a "billet" family, who make sure that he's got a place to stay when he isn't on the rink, and that he isn't out getting into trouble when he's supposed to be sleeping. And the league puts money into an escrow account for the player, for him to use toward furthering his education when he's done with hockey. As I recall, for each year of junior the player plays, the league ponies up the equivalent of a year's tuition, or something close to that. When the player's done--whether because of a decision on his part (or that of the profession) that he's not good enough to play at the next higher level, a career-ending injury, or, in theory, because he's retired and wants to go back and finish the education he interrupted to have a hockey career at all, that money is available to him. I presume it garners interest, and I don't believe there's either a requirement or an expectation that the money has to be spent on a university education (i.e., if the former player decides he wants to go to a trade or a professional school, he can).
To me, that sounds like a much better way of integrating sports and higher education. I think it might also help make sure that nobody ever gets to do what Jerry Sandusky did to all those young men over the course of so many years. No professional team, dependent for its success on the loyalty--and the dollars--of its fan base, would ever countenance keeping something like Sandusky's abuses secret for more than a decade. It would absolutely ruin them if they did. And, frankly, I think that's what should happen to Penn State's athletic programs, at least until the university demonstrates that it's mature enough to handle them again.