"On the heels of numerous recent scandals, the higher education world is finally (again) examining the role of athletics in academia. And every time a new scandal erupts, we are shocked—shocked—that such things go on within the halls of academia. Ah, but there’s the rub: In many schools, and especially those with a proclivity to horrific headlines, the athletic department is acting as an autonomous fiefdom."
I wrote those words eight years ago this month for a story about a slew of college sports scandals—amateur sports—including rape charges against players, illegal payments to athletes, academic fraud, point shaving, and more. And following each instance, higher education administrators and NCAA officials alike promised that, this time, things would change.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Now we have yet another sports scandal, this time at Rutgers. Basketball coach Mike Rice was fired in April after a video showing him shoving, grabbing, throwing balls at players, and using derogatory slurs during practice went viral. The scandal also brought down Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, who had known about the abuse for months.
But don’t feel bad for them. Pernetti reportedly left with a $1.2 million payout, while Rice got more than $1 million under the terms of his contract. No, the loser here is Rutgers, itself no stranger to sports scandals, which is now trying to placate wealthy donors who, this time, have had enough.
As was the case two years earlier at Penn State when defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sexually abusing children on and off university property, knowledge of the abuse apparently reached to the highest offices and went unaddressed—until it became public. The fallout from that scandal not only destroyed the career of legendary coach Joe Paterno, but also ultimately led to the firing of Penn State President Graham Spanier, Senior Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley. Sanctions imposed on the university itself included a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, cancelled sponsorships, and a loss of scholarships. This time, they said, things will change.
To be clear, I’m talking about a tiny fraction of athletic programs among thousands. The majority are well-run and honorable. But the sad fact is that college sports scandals have become, if not commonplace, certainly not surprising. When coaches make more money than the presidents of the universities that employ them, they will protect their territories at all costs. When the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics reports that NCAA Division I schools typically spend up to 10 times more money per athlete than they do to educate students, something is wrong. When USA Today’s NCAA Athletics Finance Database shows that fewer than one in eight of the 202 Division I schools generate more money than they spend, one has to ask:
Is any of this worth it? Is it worth the damage to personal, professional, and institutional reputations? Or will it take another bruising scandal to finally, this time, again, change things?