The recent destruction of the Penn State campus came as a welcome Wednesday night surprise for many in the sports media. A coach ousted after a sex scandal is below-the-fold stuff when it happens at also-ran’s like Kent State, but at Penn State, with the winningest coach in NCAA Division I football history? Ratings gold.
Student’s seemed to understand the media’s appetite for calling the play-by-play of last night’s activity. Some of them responded by keeping reporters sent to cover JoePa’s house well away from the property, forbidding them at times to take photos or roll their cameras. The ultimate coup for the student’s media-directed anger came later in the night when they toppled of a local news van. The van’s demise was ostensibly done to draw attention from the media they’d been protesting. The students even took care to film the scene from several angles and then posted the to YouTube and Facebook (maybe even Google+) where they were later included in posts at the New York Times and ESPN. This, Ms. Morrissette, is the definition of irony.
The media plays an important and primary role in both creating and understanding the crisis in college sports, but it’s only one portion of a larger moral malaise that’s plaguing the amateur sporting world. Setting aside the fault of Jerry Sandusky, the primary villain in the Penn State scandal, there are significant conclusions to draw about the power of money in college football and basketball and the need for reform in the NCAA. It’s apparent to me that naturally occurring sustainable sports like running, swimming and wrestling can be the leaders in re-establishing collegiate ideals that acknowledge a profit-making model, but whose primary construction is to uphold a diversity of athletic experience on college campuses.
College football has become unsustainable. Penn State footballers made $70 million for the University last season, a monumental amount of money, but an amount so vast that it carried with it an inevitable array of injurious consequences. Primary is the recent scandal, but secondary is the implied belief projected to other NCAA Division I programs that the money, and the benefit of that money, are worth pursuing at all costs. NCAA football programs are being run like gold mining operations in the late 1840′s with some schools becoming exceedingly wealthy, while others strike out and are forced into a sell off to make ends meet. Of course schools aren’t selling frying pans and donkeys – they’re forfeiting athletics programs, many of which are the building blocks to the sports they enjoy. What is football, but running, wrestling and some forward passing?
The loss of programs is only the most direct effect of an NCAA program’s money-crazed search for success. The moral bankruptcy eroding the foundations of the NCAA have lead to universities to construct tests of moral equivalencies, first with money (millions for new uniforms as other teams are cut) and now more disastrously in the cover up of a major sex crime. The Sandusky case feels unique, and for now it is, but there are certainly equally disturbing cases lurking among the institutions who protect their money-making ventures. ESPN and other major outlets feigned disdain and outrage for the improprieties of former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel last year when he allowed players to get ink on their chest in exchange for jerseys – it was the cover of ESPN the Magazine. That crime is one or moral ambiguity; the Penn State crime has true, innocent victims. Will the media persist and find more schools with similarly disgusting secrets, or are they too afraid to lose their connection to the contracts and advertising money? Where we could once rely on Woodward and Bernstein to uncover a plot by the President to steal campaign secrets, we can’t entrust Erin Andrews and Pat Forde to do anything but react to news stories. Sports journalism isn’t dead, it’s just been castrated by money.
Wrestling and other thousand-year sports are well-suited to fill-in this moral void and create positive attention for their representative student bodies. Every natural sporting pursuit, the ones who share a noun and a verb (swimming, running, wrestling) remind a school of athletic achievement that has less to do with the glimmer of an expensive helmet or the analysis of insiders and has everything to do with the virtues most people agree make for great athletes and leaders: discipline, commitment, sacrifice, teamwork. Games excite, but natural sports ignite passion and can be sustained throughout a lifetime. They create followings and embody the original ideal of sport to bring people together in apprecaition of another’s talents, and the purity of direct competition.
The most significant moments in sport will never be a 60-yard touchdown that won you a fantasy football bet, a triple overtime basketball game, or a World Series Game Seven. The real sporting moments in our lives come from watching the best among us do the basic human activity at a level we never imagined possible: Usain Bolt runs to a World Record in the 100-meters, Michael Phelps swim to his 14th gold medal, and Cael Sanderson complete an undefeated collegiate wrestling career.
Those athletes and those dominant performances are being lost to the culture of greed and moral corruption that influence the decision makers at every level. Americans with a passion for the beauty and challenge of simplicity and excellence need to voice their opinions and promote the beautiful naturalism that still exists in sport. The current model is broken, what will you do to fix it?