What Ohio State Can Learn from Penn (and Harvard and Yale…)

It's time to end corrupt college sports and make everyone follow the lead of the Ivy League

“The fundamental difference between intercollegiate football and professional football is that in college, the players are supposed to be students first and foremost.” — Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, President, Notre Dame (1954)

Father Hesburgh is still living, although recent kidney surgery has prevented him from continuing his tireless work in the community on behalf of the needy. That’s what happens when you reach your 94th birthday; the body begins to give out a little.

While advocating for the poor over the past 20-plus years, Hesburgh has no doubt observed a rapid movement away from his philosophical stance. Truth be told, the sport had been at odds with Hesburgh’s sentiments for decades before he made the proclamation. Even his esteemed university was known for occasional rules bending when it came to the relative importance of football versus academics. (See Gipp, George.)

As Hesburgh was setting straight the record on the role of intercollegiate sport, the eight members of the “Ivy Group” were preparing to take a drastic stance. In 1956, no longer willing to do what it took to maintain national profiles, they abolished spring practice, refused to schedule Eastern powerhouses (largely for fear of slaughter) and ended the practice of recruiting players who could not handle the institutions’ academic rigors.

For those of you too young to remember the days when Penn football games drew 80,000 people to Franklin Field or when the Quakers, along with Princeton, Yale and Cornell, appeared regularly in the top-20 rankings, this was indeed a big deal. It was left to Yale president Dr. A. Whitney Griswold to put the decision into context: “In the total life of the campus, emphasis upon intercollegiate competition must be kept in harmony with the essential educational purposes of the institution.”

This was not entirely a popular perspective, unless you owned the Philadelphia Eagles, which in a year went from the second most popular football team in town to the top dogs. “Ivy League football is not going to be what it used to be,” former Yale coach Herman “The Bard of the Great Smokies” Hickman said. “Maybe the once-great rulers have grown weary of winning or have become too civilized.”

From 1956 on, Ivy League football has existed on the periphery of the national consciousness, a raccoon-coated nod to the Olden Days. The Ivies won’t even let their champion take part in the I-AA playoffs, choosing instead to let the season close with The Game between Harvard and Yale. Fans who pack stadiums around the country chuckle at the quaint Ivy way of life -– and likely pray their school presidents never decide to de-emphasize football.

All of this matters today, of course, thanks to the most recent controversy surrounding the sport. This one comes to us from Columbus, OH, where cash and prizes were awarded to athlete-students willing to part with cherished personal memorabilia and the star QB was found to have a fleet of cars at his disposal that wouldn’t even fit in an NBA player’s garage. The fallout from the mess has been the “resignation” of Senator Cheaty McSweatervest and an NC2A investigation. The familiar cries to pay the players have also been heard, as we try to find a way to stem the tide of graft, greed and deceit that pervades big-time football.

Of course, as we wring our hands over the best way to stop the exploitation of the players and bring some measure of integrity to football, the obvious solution isn’t even mentioned. God forbid college presidents consider the goals of their institutions and come to the obvious conclusion that operating multimillion-dollar athletic programs is at odds with the mission of educating students. Instead, they try to find ways to corrupt the process further by adding even more money to a cash-soaked enterprise, all in the name of marketing their schools to a country for which education becomes less important every day.

According to the Texas Athletic Review for FY 2009-10, the Longhorn football program took in $93,942,815, a jump of more than $30 mil from ’05-06. When expenses and transfers were removed from that figure, UT was left with a windfall of $70 mil, about $4.5 million of which was given back to the university. The rest went to support other intercollegiate programs at the school and continue to expand the institution’s colossal facilities footprint, the better to perpetuate success in future endeavors. That’s how it works at nearly every other I-A program, at least in theory. Middle Tennessee State isn’t quite at Texas’ level. Neither, for that matter, is Temple.

But they aspire to such good fortune. And that’s the problem. As schools fight for more success -– and more money -– they make compromises. When taken separately, these concessions seem harmless enough. When they combine to create a culture in which athlete-students are shunted into majors that don’t help them a bit once they graduate, should they graduate at all, and when nine-figure budgets begin to anger participants who feel used and undercompensated, there is a problem.

There is a problem in collegiate athletics right now, and paying players a few hundred dollars a month won’t solve it. If schools are serious about ending abuses, they can make a call to Hanover, NH, Cambridge, MA, or even Philadelphia, PA to find out how it can be done. Otherwise, they ought to end the sham of appearing to want reform and go all out. Sign the players to contracts and don’t force them to take criminal justice or kinesiology courses. Let the athletic departments chase the buck as hard as their professional counterparts do. Just stop trying to make it sound as if the goal is to create an extracurricular adjunct to university life. That ship has sailed.

I leave it to Dr. Griswold, speaking from the 1950s, to bring it home.

“Standards that should have been pure have been compromised and corrupted,” he said, “and this is common knowledge among our college students and their faculties. Deliberate departures from principle of this sort cannot fail to damage the reputation of an institution consecrated to truth and excellence by its very charter.

“The double standard as applied to education and athletics has already caused woeful moral and intellectual confusion in the minds of young men who found themselves subjected to such policies, not to mention cynicism and disgust in the minds and hearts of their fellow students. This is meager fare from higher education, scarcely worth its salt on any pretext.”

But certain to bring in a lot of money.

* Show of hands: Who believes Charlie Manuel when he says “this lineup is going to hit?” That’s what I thought. Remember, folks, the goal is a World Series championship and nothing else. Right now, this lineup can’t deliver that.

* Speaking of the Phillies, don’t worry that the team’s debt is above MLB’s stated ceiling. Just get ready to shell out a few more bucks for that 12-ounce beer next time you’re at the Ritz, er, ballpark.

* Thanks for stopping by, Dallas. Looks like the Heat will get its championship after all. And LeBron James will be hailed as the greatest player in NBA history. Let the hype begin!