Money holds sway in college sports

I grew up not far from State College, Pa., home of the now-notorious Pennsylvania State University, and in fact one of my family graduated from there with a teaching degree.

This was around the time “JoePa” – Penn State’s famed Joe Paterno -was starting his 46-year run as, until recently, one of the most successful and respected coaches in college football.

Paterno led his teams to a couple national championships, several conference titles and numerous post-season bowl appearances, but the icing on the cake was that he recruited only high-school students who also had done well academically and were expected to do the same while playing for him.

(Since the vast majority of college players will not make it to the NFL, their careers are largely determined by whether they received an education beyond how to block and tackle, run and catch a ball.)

So Paterno became a legend, a mighty counterweight to the widely held view that most college athletes are exploited, used primarily for their prowess on the gridiron, court or diamond – then discarded like used Kleenex once their eligibility is exhausted, often with no degree and doomed to end up tending bar and talking about their glory days.

That, of course, is all over now, and he and the Penn State administration have been exposed as valuing the school’s status and the $70 million annual revenue generated by its football program over minor incidents like the alleged buggery of a 10-year-old boy by an assistant coach in the locker-room showers, reportedly witnessed by another of Paterno’s minions and reported to him. (No intervention, though, no, “Hey, stop that!”) The molesting coach who became known as a child predator years ago was then left to lead a “charitable” organization allegedly intended to help troubled kids. I’ll leave the irony and all the rest of it to the plenty of others who have and will have their say, however. Yes, Paterno had feet of, if not clay, cow manure, and those involved in the cover-up are contemptible beyond adequate expression.

But regardless of the outcome of this sad sensation, college athletes will continue to be exploited for their skills that rake in huge money for all the major NCAA schools, which along with the revenue from the games and post-season bowls, make many millions more peddling jerseys, banners, pennants, blankets, foam fingers – you name it, they license it for sale at inflated prices and keep the fingers of many little Chinese kids a-flying.

So here’s an idea that might make things a little fairer, if not for kids preyed upon by hormonal monsters, at least for the underprivileged athletes, many of whom have this one chance to fight their way out of the ghetto, barrio or small-town Appalachian ghost town and become the first in their families to get a college degree:

Outright hire them and pay them well for playing for “their” schools. No under-thetable bucks, no free cars, no automatic passing of classes they didn’t attend, none of the bullshit that now permeates college sports, including unearned degrees that any potential employer soon recognizes as a joke. During their playing time, they would not be expected to go to school, just concentrate on winning games for their employer.

Then, and perhaps most importantly, along with this honest arrangement would be a full-ride four-year college scholarship that they could use once their playing eligibility is used up. Those who don’t make it to the pros could actually study something that truly interests them and for which they have an aptitude.

And then they could reminisce about the glory days from behind a professor’s lectern, a surgeon’s mask or even a reporter’s desk (assuming the profession doesn’t go the way of the buggy-whip industry).

Let’s face it. College sports heroes no longer “win one for the Gipper,” they all do it for Mr. Big Bucks. And at least this way they wouldn’t have to do it bending over like a 10-year-old child.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with tending bar, by the way. Why, some of my best friends used to be bartenders.)

David Grant Long writes from Cortez, Colo.

From David Long, December 2011.