By Steven Conn
By hiring Urban Meyer to coach its football team for $4 million a year, Ohio State University has sent a powerful message to the college sports world, higher education, and the nation as a whole: After a year of unprecedented scandal in college athletics, the show will go on - bigger, brasher, and gaudier than ever!
2011 has been an annus horribilis in big-time college sports. As we reel over the sordid situation at Penn State - as well as the one at Syracuse - it's hard to remember that this year of scandal began in Columbus, Ohio.
Several OSU football players were found to have sold some of their memorabilia for tattoos and cash. More significantly, head coach Jim Tressel - who demonstrated his supposed moral rectitude by wearing professorial sweater vests and publishing a self-help book filled with chirpy Christian bromides - covered the whole thing up, lying about it repeatedly. He was fired only after university administrators fumbled the whole affair badly.
That bit of tawdriness disappeared from national headlines pretty quickly when a bigger scandal was exposed at the University of Miami - the current home of former Temple coach Al Golden - involving more players and more money. But, hey, what else would we expect from Miami? When OSU played the school earlier this season, one wag called it the "Ineligibowl."
This past summer, Rutgers announced that its athletic programs were bleeding red ink - more than $20 million worth. Like most state universities, Rutgers is facing a severe budget crunch; my colleagues in the history department there saw their office phones removed to save money. But despite his supposed fiscal toughness, Gov. Christie said he saw no problem with the school's costly pursuit of sports glory.
All of the above seems trivial compared with the disgrace at Penn State. I suspect revelations of cowardice and corruption there will continue for months, litigation will go on for years, and the trauma suffered by the victims will last the rest of their lives.
As if this weren't enough to spur collective outrage, the Atlantic recently published an exposé of the NCAA by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, who likens the universities' making millions on the backs of unpaid 19-year-olds to a plantation system. At first, I thought the metaphor was hyperbolic. But by the end of his exhaustively researched piece, I couldn't think of a better way to describe big-time college athletics.
If ever there was a year when we might acknowledge that corruption in college athletics is a matter not of a few bad apples, but of a barrel entirely rotten, this would seem to be it. We have created a monster on American campuses - a beast beyond the control of administrators and even apparently the law. OSU President Gordon Gee said just a few years ago that "the system is broken," and he was absolutely right. It's only gotten worse since.
Unfortunately, much of the concern at Syracuse, Miami, OSU, and even at Penn State has been about how fast we can put this behind us - whom to hire as the next coach, how to keep the recruiting pipelines flowing, and how to keep the teams No. 1.
2011 could go down as the year when we stopped even trying to rein in college sports. I doubt we'll hear many of the platitudes about "integrity" and "amateurism" that have followed scandals in the past. Who could utter them with a straight face?
When OSU gave its new coach a contract worth roughly $25 million, the university's president called it "a mark of our dignity and nobility." That was as much Marie Antoinette as George Orwell. In this year of scandal, we're saying: Let them watch football!