Several domestic and foreign media outlets have asked whether I see connections between the explosive Penn State sexual abuse scandal and the structural flaws I perceived in a recent survey of NCAA college sports.
The short answer is yes. (My inquiry first published in The Atlantic’s October issue, is currently available in an expanded Byliner.com ebook, The Cartel.)
Any prolonged exploitation demands aquiescence that can be imposed only by gross disparities in power. The governance of college sports is telling in this respect. By fiat, the NCAA has concentrated almost complete control in precisely those college officials alreay fired or indicted at Penn State: the coaches and chief administrators.
So far, the NCAA has remained almost silent on the periphery of an unfolding investigation at Penn State. “To be sure,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert in a four-sentence statement, “civil and criminal law will always take precdence over [NCAA] Association rules.”
This deference to law is proper. It is also strikingly humble in contrast to the NCAA’s customary posture of quasi-legal authority. Sports officials speak formally of NCAA “legislation,” and the enforcement process for college scandals mimics the judicial aura of regular courts.
The gruesome allegations from Penn State stripped pretense quickly aside. NCAA rules have no standing in law. Their enormous influence on college campuses, allocating billions of sports dollars nationwide, rest wholly on private collusion without sanction from any level of government.
I think the most positive development since the Penn State revelations has been a rash of spontaneous seminars to examine the insulated world of college sports. How could athletic officials conceal abuses so long at such human cost? What reconciles the diverse roles of student and citizen, player and worker, teacher and fan? Can big-revenue sports be compatible with quality education? Who decides?
There is a healthy new cry for accountability. Some professors argue that faculties must no longer abdicate their share of responsibility for the university as a whole. Some students realize that NCAA rules exclude them all from membership, denying players the basic rights of representation, due process, opportunity, property, and freedom, among others.
Inevitably, reform would grant NCAA players, like Olympians, a stake in sports governance. Newly established checks and balances could curb the corruptions of concentrated power, but change will not come easy. The NCAA system is deeply entrenched at more than a hundred schools where big-money sports are glorified. It promotes greed, punishes the weak, rewards the exploiters, and fleeces the players, all while claiming to police itself. An overhaul, while sadly too late for the Penn State victims, is long overdue.