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Legendary 84-year-old Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired last week in the wake of a child abuse scandal. After nearly 50 years of unparalleled success as a coach, educator, and mentor, JoePa’s Wikipedia biography now concludes with that dishonor, just months after he was nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

In recent years, athletic department scandals have ripped through U.S. campuses like hurricanes, leaving behind the wreckage of careers, lives and institutional reputations. Those outside higher education question how such events can happen at institutions whose primary work is supposed to be educating the next generation of corporate, community and national leaders.

In his 2003 book “Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education,” former Harvard president Derek Bok offers a keen insight: U.S. colleges and universities operate in a national environment that has become increasingly commercialized. “Despite their lofty ideals,” Bok writes, “universities are not above sacrificing academic values in order to make money.”

Like their corporate cousins and the Wall Street criminals who brought this nation to the brink of ruin, too many colleges and universities operate in a world wherein principles are blurred, morality is lost, as the drive to make more money overwhelms basic values and any inclination to do what is right.

As a longtime college educator, it would be easy for me to pile on and discuss the many ills of intercollegiate athletics. We cannot, however, overlook some of the positive attributes of university athletic programs. The most recent data, for instance, show that 82 percent of student-athletes graduate, far exceeding national graduation rates for all students.

In my interactions with faculty, I ask them to list qualities they believe are required to compete in intercollegiate sports. Their lists are impressive: dedication, commitment, willingness to work hard and delay gratification, teamwork in pursuit of common goals, resilience, the capacity to take criticism, and the ability to focus in moments of incredible stress to make that game-winning field goal, or free throw, in the face of thousands screaming for them to fail.

At the same time, educational institutions cannot ignore the reality that students participating in “big money” sports like football and men’s basketball graduate at the lowest rates. In major college programs, football players are estimated to spend 45-plus hours per week on athletic activities. Scholarship student-athletes are the only group of students who are required to miss class as a condition of scholarship.

The alleged abuse of children at the hands of a former Penn State coach is truly an extreme incident. However, only the U.S. relies on its young people for major sports 

entertainment. Dr. Paul Zingg, president of CSU Chico, which has one of the most successful Division II athletic programs in the nation, says adults have the responsibility to ensure that young people are protected. After all, the majority of college student-athletes are children, despite Big Mac diets or overactive thyroids that cause many of them to grow taller, bigger or faster than the rest of us.

One can only wonder, however, if the interests of young people are the primary focus of the NCAA, a “nonprofit organization” whose 2010 revenues approached $750 million. Broadcasting March Madness alone will earn $11 billion in the next 14 years.

For example, the NCAA recently agreed to allow campuses to provide $2,000 stipends to close the gap between athletic scholarships — which only cover tuition, room, board and books — and the “full cost of attendance.” However, an Ithaca College study reported the actual gap is closer to $3,000.

When student-athletes, like Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor, or Georgia Tech’s A.J. Green, sell their game jerseys to make a few bucks, the NCAA demands that they be punished. However, when university bookstores profit from selling those same jerseys, with the kids getting nothing, the NCAA remains silent.

Dr. Zingg sets forth some basic assumptions that should be a model for intercollegiate programs: First, student athletes attend college to become educated and to pursue opportunities to participate in competitive athletics. Second, universities should recruit athletes to develop successful — that is, winning — sports programs that favorably reflect upon their institutions. Third, he notes, there is a compatible relationship between the first two.

As Derek Bok asked universities: “Is everything for sale, if the price is right?” The public needs to hold institutions more accountable to their self-proclaimed principles and values. Otherwise, those institutions and the children they seek to serve may be at continuing risk.

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to:


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