Admit This

College Sports: A Magnificent Obsession

The outcomes of the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky child abuse tragedy have brought us closer to understanding that hero worship and sports idolatry can take some people right off the pier of rational thought. Unless you just parachuted in from another solar system, you no doubt know that Penn State University has been devastated by the saga of former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky's, decades-long molestation of young boys. In case you have just parachuted in, simply go to your favorite Web search engine and enter Penn State Sandusky and see what links appear.

The micro-nutshell of this horrendous episode is that Sandusky, now a convicted child molester, carried on his criminal activities over at least two decades, and the powers in charge at Penn State--the president, athletic director, a vice-president in charge of campus security, and the head football coach--all (allegedly, some still say) knew that Sandusky had performed some of his crimes on the Penn State campus and those four chose to do nothing to stop him. Why? All to protect the image of the university and, especially, the gigantic cash cow of the football team.

This whole mess broke into the open eight months prior to my writing this. The consequences have been severe. Sandusky has been convicted on more than 40 counts of child molestation. Penn State's athletic director and VP have been charged with perjury. PSU's president was fired and is on the edge of further persecution, if not prosecution. The football coach, Joe Paterno, was fired, too, and then died of lung cancer. Ultimately, Penn State was hit with a crushing list of sanctions by the NCAA. These penalties, couched as "corrective and punitive," will have a long-term effect on the success and profitability of Penn State football. Again, search for Penn State NCAA sanctions. Very significant.

So, what is my point? My point is that college sports have become, in some cases, more than the point than higher education. There are many so-called "jock schools" in America, where game weekends start on Thursday and don't sober up until Monday. The athletes sometimes don't graduate and go on to make millions in the professional ranks. Sometimes they just don't graduate. Period. Sometimes high school seniors choose a college because of its sports programs. Check out the application numbers for Penn State and UCLA, usually the two most heavily applied to schools in the country. Penn State now, though, may see a dip in those stellar application numbers, due to the Sandusky scandal. Think for a minute what that may say about the college selection mentality of high school seniors.

I guess to my way of thinking, collegiate sports can become (and is in many cases today) the tail that wags the dog of learning. What we think of when we see the name of a particular college tells us a lot about our college knowledge. Do we think of the same thing when we see the name "University of Chicago" as we do when we see "LSU" or "Florida State"?

It all might come down to what the marketers call branding. Perhaps the University of Chicago's "brand" might be "intellectual." Maybe in the case of The Pennsylvania State University, though, the brand may be (or was) "football" (or even "Joepa"). These days, unfortunately, maybe it's even "Sandusky."

In any event, my wisdom for today that's going out to all you high school seniors is to ask yourself this question about your college search: "Why do I want to go to this particular school?" If it's primarily because of a football or basketball team, I say, "Think again." The education you save may be your own.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.