Major football universities have become so dependent on athletic departments to raise money and keep alumni happy that scandals like the one at Penn State won’t be enough to change sports’ influence on most college campuses, school administrators said.
Penn State’s trustees last night fired university President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno amid a child sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who was charged with the sexual assault of eight boys from 1994 to 2009. Athletic Director Tim Curley, 57, and Senior Vice President Gary Schultz, 62, were charged with perjury and failure to report the allegations. Paterno, 84, the coach with the most wins in major college football history, wasn’t charged.
The scandal won’t have a long-lasting effect unless schools feel that their brands are being affected, said Christopher Morphew, professor and chairman of the University of Iowa’s College of Education.
“If the perspective is that this is one bad apple and we didn’t handle the situation correctly, no change will take place,” he said in an interview. “But if there comes a need to recognize that they handled it poorly because of the influence athletics has over the rest of the university and there is some impact on the bottom line, then you could see change.”
The 1999 collapse of Texas A&M University’s bonfire also sparked criticism about lack of oversight, Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents college presidents, said from Washington, where his organization is based.
The collapse of the bonfire–which attracted as many as 70,000 people and symbolized the school’s “burning desire” to beat the University of Texas at football–killed 12 people and injured 27 others, according to the website of the College Station, Texas, institution.
“There have long been concerns that football programs were really in charge at some major universities,” Hartle said. “As the amount of money attached to having a successful Division I team has grown, so have the concerns.”
The University of Texas’s sports program generates the most revenue of the largest public universities: $143.6 million in the fiscal year that ended in 2010, according to information obtained through open-records laws.
Penn State’s crisis differs from scandals at winning football programs such as the University of Miami, Ohio State University and the University of Southern California. All three have won national championship games in the past decade.
Earlier this year, USC was stripped of its 2004 season Bowl Championship Series title because of violations that the National Collegiate Athletic Association said “strike at the heart” of amateurism. The infractions included a lack of institutional control over its sports program.
The school was barred from bowl games for two seasons and lost 30 scholarships for the violations uncovered in a four-year investigation into its football and basketball programs.
In August, Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, who is in jail for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, told Yahoo Sports that he gave money, cars and other gifts to more than a dozen current and former Hurricanes. The NCAA ordered eight players on the 2011 team to miss games and pay for benefits they received from Shapiro.
Ohio State vacated all 12 of its victories from the 2010 season in July after it was reported that five players, including starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, sold or traded uniforms and other memorabilia to the owner of a tattoo parlor in Columbus, Ohio. Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel resigned, and all five players were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season. Pryor left school and is a member of the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders.
Penn State tried in 2004 to get Paterno to resign after two straight losing years, with Spanier and board of trustee members twice going to the coach’s house with the request, according to Atlantic Wire. Paterno refused, and the Nittany Lions won the Orange Bowl the next season.
“When a school uses the athletics program to help raise money for more scholarly matters like fellowships and scholarships, it is playing into a vicious cycle that makes it dependent on athletics,” said Mary Burgan, a retired English professor from Indiana University and a former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
John Roush, president of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and a former assistant football coach at Miami University in Ohio, said he suspects that presidents will begin checking their policies to make sure similar incidents can’t happen at their schools.
But the “financial excess” of Division I sports is always going to be a magnet for problems like those at Ohio State, USC and Penn State, he said.
“Do I think this is going to result in some dramatic change in the excesses? No,” Roush said. “But some of the excess cause people to want to stay affiliated with those athletic programs, which is what this coach did. He continued to use this as his platform and that just adds to the unfortunate situation with the children.”
In 1999 Sandusky started a charity for boys called The Second Mile, where he allegedly molested some of the children. By early 2009, the Pennsylvania attorney general began an investigation when a Clinton County, Pennsylvania, teen told authorities that Sandusky has inappropriately touched him several times over a four-year period. In September of 2010, Sandusky retired from day-to-day involvement with The Second Mile, saying he wanted to spend more time with family and handle personal matters. On Nov. 5, he was arrested and released on $100,000 bail after being arraigned on 40 criminal counts.
At industry gatherings, presidents of Division I colleges often lament their lack of control over sports teams, whose coaches earn more than they do and can have more power and stature, said William Chace, former president of Emory University in Atlanta and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
“They know it’s a kind of live bomb that’s sitting in the middle of the campus,” Chace said.
Ken Julian, a former federal prosecutor now with Los Angeles-based Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP, said so much is at stake for the universities, there is a natural inclination to protect the money makers.
“There is a motive for all of these coaches and administrators to not want to damage the football program with these shocking allegations,” Julian said. “Then again that’s why you get paid the big bucks when this stuff comes up to do a full investigation.”
Presidents and board members often act as sports boosters, rather than fiduciaries who must protect the interest of the institution, said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
“These are academic institutions, after all,” Neal said in a telephone interview. “The tail shouldn’t be wagging the dog.”
The Penn State case could fuel the flames of discontent over how educational institutions handle complaints of sexual harassment and violence, Peter Lake, director of the Center for Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, said in a phone interview.
“There has been this climate this year of public outcry over the explicit failure of higher education to meet sexual assault issues,” Lake said.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in April wrote a “Dear Colleague” letter clarifying Title IX regulations of the Education Amendment on the obligation of colleges and universities for immediate and reasonable action when it comes to reporting, investigating and responding to charges of sexual misconduct. Although the Sandusky case differs in that he’s a former employee accused of misconduct on school property, it will still likely have far-reaching effect, Lake said.
“The undertone of that message is that there has been a tremendous amount of underreporting and the handling of victims is not adequate,” Lake said.
Penn State could face basic negligence claims from alleged victims and their families and because some of the incidents took place on school property there may be landowner responsibilities to look at as well, Lake said.
Curley and Schultz are charged with violating Pennsylvania’s child protection laws which requires school officials to report abuse to the Department of Public Welfare. That may have violated the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to report suspected criminal activity to campus police or local law enforcement, Lake said.
The Department of Education said last night that it will investigate whether Penn State broke that law. It can impose civil penalties against institutions for each violation and suspend participation in federal student financial aid programs.
At Arizona State University in Tempe, President Michael Crow said he had a meeting with the athletic department this week after the Penn State scandal erupted to ensure that directors and coaches understood their responsibilities and to make sure they understood that “nobody is above the law.”
“You have to hold everybody to the same moral compass,” Crow said during a higher-education event in New York last night.