In light of the burgeoning scandals involving the athletic programs at Penn State and Syracuse, it's time to think about the purpose of a university education.
While appropriate moral outrage has been well-documented regarding the allegations of child molestation by Jerry Sandusky and Bernie Fine, no one seems to be talking about how colleges and universities have lost their way.
Sure, there have been calls for a National Collegiate Athletic Association "death penalty" for football at Penn State, and people have been fired for transgressions on their watch. But the reality is that we keep reading how Penn State and Syracuse will "get through this" and emerge stronger with new ethical sensibilities and a renewed commitment to educational excellence.
Do they even know what that means?
Football and basketball coaches generate millions of dollars and get paid millions of dollars. Because they are by far the highest-paid people on campus, does that give them the power of imprimatur over important educational decisions?
Boosters donate millions of dollars and are rewarded with access to the best seats, the opportunity to pal around with players and coaches and the false pride that comes from living vicariously through adolescents in school logo spandex. It is nauseating. Supporting big-time college football and basketball is not charitable giving -- it is self-aggrandizement of the first order, roughly akin to "my country right or wrong" ethnocentrism.
Colleges and universities associated with televised sports have become financially bloated and dependent on TV contracts and booster giving. Visible coaches, athletes and programs reduce their presidents to back-slapping dunderheads who spend an inordinate amount of time massaging donors, negotiating contracts and worrying that the impotent NCAA will do something about poor graduation rates and even poorer behavior.
So now our national attention is focused on Sandusky, Joe Paterno and his retinue of administrative yes-men and the developing story of Fine. All over the country, university presidents are holding their collective breaths, praising the heavens that it is not their turn in the media glare and reassuring donors, boards of trustees and state governors that they have everything under control.
Over the past few thousand years, the importance and availability of schools and education has continued to evolve and grow. With origins in preparation for Confucian exams, ancient Greek academies, Egyptian libraries, seminaries in Europe, the rise of colleges and universities during the Enlightenment and land-grant colleges in the United States, higher learning has a revered place in history.
Since the ancient Greeks tied "a healthy body and a healthy mind" together, intercollegiate and intermural sports have been an integral component of the fabric of educational institutions. Big-time sports, no doubt, has its appeal and its important role as a change-agent in society.
Texas Western "upset" Kentucky in 1966 and changed the racial dynamics of college basketball. In 1970, Bear Bryant's all-white Alabama team got pounded by an integrated Southern Cal squad. After the embarrassing loss, the Bear is reputed to have growled, "I got to get me some," and he aggressively integrated his team. The Bear's racial integrating of his team had a profound impact on easing the long-term history of segregation in the South.
But the value of college sports does not include moral lawlessness by coaches, players, boosters and administrators. Because this group operates in the rarified atmosphere of team worship and loose money, these people feel invincible and not subject to expectations for respectful and positive relationships. The coaches live in McMansions and the teams travel by charter jet and stay in five-star hotels. No wonder Sandusky and Fine truly believed they were untouchable. Coach and player worship has reached epic proportions.
Our collective culture of narcissism continues to grow unabated, and college sports add fuel to the fire.
What to do?
If college alumni/alumnae would stop living in the past ("Oh, how I loved my time at fill in the blank U" and "Gee, I wish I were still there cheering for the good ole U") and begin tying their giving dollars to ethical education, a quality world studies program and expansive community service, then maybe we could get on track to real educational excellence.
If boards of trustees didn't exclusively view colleges and universities as businesses, and instead stood for and modeled ethical growth and eager learning, then perhaps the values of every college's mission statement would trickle down and be authentic.
If university presidents would spend time with students and faculty, visiting classrooms, teaching a class (gasp) and serving as real, tangible role models of lifelong learning, perhaps excellence would grow.
If televised college sports were actually populated with student-athletes, and universities valued learning as much as winning, then perhaps our support would not be misplaced.
If university leadership would take back authority from high-priced coaches and make certain student-athletes an integral component of "regular" student life, then maybe coaches would become teachers and student-athletes truly students.
As long as ESPN, Fox, CBS and ABC throw ungodly amounts of money at universities, boosters and coaches remain in charge, and university presidents wring their powerless hands in private, we will never be free of such episodes.
But maybe, just maybe, if those same presidents rally faculty and collectively decide to regain authority and return colleges to being places of learning, service and conscience, we might be able to cheer for the right reasons.
Arthur Scott, a longtime educational leader, teacher and coach, is now a Florida-based education consultant.