By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Around the mid 19th Century, Southern separatists coined a name for the commodity that guaranteed their region’s prosperity and defiantly signaled their immunity from the control of the despised central government controlled by Northern industrialists – “King Cotton.” “King Cotton” became a reason and a battle cry, emboldening the separatists to strike out at Fort Sumter against perceived injustices. The slogan served as a wedge between two regions whose cooperation just two generations earlier had forged a new nation. King Cotton was deposed at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865 and the country was spared his influence for the time being.
A new king arose on those same Southern cotton fields, now perfectly re-invented as measured, marked, and manicured line-bound rectangles with iron posts commemorating each end. King Cotton was replaced in the Southern psyche with a sport borrowed from the ivy-covered walls of the Northeast colleges. In places like Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge and Knoxville and Athens, a new king was born, and his open-air castles holding 75,000+ subjects spread through the “fly-over states,” into towns with funny names, and even to the tiny central Pennsylvania town of State College. King Football reigns supreme in the minds of many today — it’s the nation’s most popular and lucrative sport, if combined with the professional ranks, or merely in second place if you’re talking about the game played on the campuses.
And, according to CBS Sports’ Senior College Football Analyst, Dennis Dodd, the shock of the Freeh Report on the criminality at Penn State has finally made it “Louie XVI time” for King Football. Supporting Freeh’s finding that the culture of football led as much to Penn State’s Waterloo as anything done by its leadership, Dodd chronicles the litany of fatal sins of King Football in his fine article. And like that of the Bourbon kings, Dodd agrees that King Football comes complete with its own self-decapitating culture:
It is a culture that awards mere mortals royalty status. It is a culture that has grabbed hold of our youth and wrung some of that youth out of them. It is a culture that winks at a supposed 20-hour weekly work “limit” imposed by the NCAA that we all know is a joke. It is a culture that (until recently) allowed head coaches to “cut” players on an annual basis simply because they weren’t good enough.
It is a culture that tacitly supports academic fraud and “clustering,” the practice of guiding athletes to easy classes that produce the least friction against their athletic lives. It is a culture that allowed five Ohio State football players to participate in a bowl game in the middle of a major infractions case primarily because the school argued in favor of it.
King Football stands supreme (and undefeated) in battles with the likes of mere university administrators or their surrogates and now requires a strong national opponent if its culture is ever to be controlled or dismissed. As Dodd laments, consider its record of wins. At Ohio State University, its football coach lied under oath on an NCAA compliance form. Oh, the coach was gone, but his benefited players still played in the lucrative holiday bowl game because, well, the school argued for it and the players all promised to come back next year to serve their penance. They didn’t.
Of course, King Football won that round easily over the timid gatekeeper of sports ethics — the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). That’s the hoary round-table of guardians of the student-athlete, that busies itself with such important questions as whether student athletes can be provided cream cheese with their bagels, but when faced with a member university permitting a child molester to hunt freely on its campus, dutifully ponders its mission and requests information that the whole world already knows by virtue of the comprehensive report from the former Director of the FBI. “Penn State’s response to the letter will inform our next steps, including whether or not to take action,” wrote Bob Williams, the NCAA’s vice president of communications. “Whether or not to take action”? Really? There is some question yet unanswered in your institutionalized, bureaucratic mind about this mess? As one blogger (whose name I can’t recall) astutely observed, the only ones defending this are “friends, family, and fools.”
Chalk up another one for King Football. 2-0 sounds good?
And lest you think the King reigns only in the football mills of the major universities, consider the recent goings-on at the tiny (by Penn State and Ohio State standards) University of Montana (UM) that boasts 15,000 students but ranks fifth among public institutions for producing Rhodes Scholars. Such a citadel of academic achievement would seem immune from the legions of King Football — much like it’s intellectual cousins, The Ivys of the Northeast, who saw the sword hanging above their heads years ago and de-emphasized the sport they founded. Oh, but not so, even in remote and scenic Missoula.
In April, the perennially FCS play-off bound UM Grizzly football team was rocked by a sex scandal that ended with the non-renewal of its conference winning coach’s contract and the ouster of its Athletic Director. How did the administration react to the courageous allegations of a UM co-ed who came forward with a claim of drugging and rape by four Grizzly gridironers? Why Vice President of External Affairs, Jim Foley (who headed public relations for the school), embarked on a vigorous four-part plan to handle the situation for King Football:
First, by banishing the word “gang-rape” from university press releases. Apparently, it was too strong a term for holding a young woman down after drugging her and then, as the drug took effect, forcing her into sex with four men. All allegedly, of course. Then, suggesting that the milder term “date rape” be used for PR purposes in university press releases. (Never mind that the college town of Missoula, Montana has earned the nickname “rape capital” of Montana, or that the Justice Department has opened a probe into the 11 rapes of UM students in the past 18 months and possible discrimination in the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of these alleged crimes. Nope, King Football tolerates no dissent nor unpleasantness.)
Second, he complained to the Missoula town mayor and later demanded an apology for the school from a local police officer who, on his own time, asked Foley to “stop this spiraling PR mess and take action instead of trying to defend your actions.” (Take on King Football? Come on, officer!)
Third, Foley sent an email that delayed the release of the UM’s final report on the sexual allegations because he feared it would look bad if they were released on the same day as news that a restraining order had been filed against the UM football team’s quarterback for rape allegations.
Fourth — and most dastardly — he made a veiled threat against the alleged victim for her temerity in coming forward against the King. Foley sent an email to Charles Couture, the then Dean of Students, asking, “Is it not a violation of the student code of conduct for the woman to be publicly talking about the process and providing details about the conclusion?” It’s no coincidence that Foley was hired by UM President, “King” George Dennison.
VP Foley has followed the coach and AD with a change of jobs but he’s only moving offices. He’s now the director of licensing and writing for federal research grants. King Football wins again! Wow, 3-0 entering this season.
Dodd makes the point that the culture permitting this flaunting of rules has got to end for educational institutions to have any credibility.
This is clearly a nationwide football scandal, a wakeup call that amateur sports must be cleansed by a Hazmat unit. If there were only enough reform-minded persons around willing to act. Among those working on reforms last year at an August NCAA summit were the CEOs of Miami (Donna Shalala), North Carolina (Holden Thorp), Ohio State (Gordon Gee) and … Penn State (Graham Spanier).
All four schools have been hit with recent scandals from the child rape at Penn State to the sleazy donor at Miami to the academic cheating at UNC and to the lying and special benefits at Ohio State. How’s that for the foxes working on fortifying the henhouse?
The truth is that King Football survives — like most tyrants — because good men do nothing to oppose him. Money seems to talk the loudest, the joy of the contest trumps all, and the frenzy of the mob is hard to resist. Some educators have the guts to take on sports royalty and regain control. Myles Brand took on and dethroned legendary hot-head basketball coach, Bob Knight, at Indiana. President Nancy Zympher would not tolerate hoops master, Bob Huggins at Cincinnati. But it seems the courage runs out right where the light first peeks above the tunnel opening leading to the 120 yard field where dreams are both lived out and die in spans of 40 seconds.
While a daunting dynamic, some valiant souls have tried to strike at the King. Take the case of president Gordon Gee, who led academic juggernaut, Vanderbilt University, in the early 2000s after matriculating from Ohio State via Brown University. Vandy incongruously (and typically unsuccessfully) fields a football team in the football-crazy Southeastern Conference. However in 2003, Gee grew disgusted by what he saw in big-time college athletics and vowed to end the culture of King Football at the Tennessee university saying, “There is a wrong culture in athletics and I’m declaring war on it.”
No more jock dorms, no athletic department, no AD, and no full ride scholarships for those with strong arms but weak intellects. Obituaries for Vanderbilt’s sports teams were written in most every newspaper in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains, and alums everywhere were wringing their hands, but something curious happened. The plan seemed to work and by 2007 Vandy enjoyed some unprecedented success. Vanderbilt turned out PGA Rookie of the Year Brandt Snedeker, Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, and Bobby Reynolds, then ranked No. 89 in the world in tennis. Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams earned No. 4 seeds in 2007′s NCAA tournaments, and the men knocked off archrival Tennessee — then ranked No. 1 — during the regular season. Football even got to break-even for the first time since 1982. Sports were no longer some money making, detached arm of the university because everyone became responsible for their success. The student body actually became invested in their fellow athletically inclined members who, now quite atypically, actually lived, studied, and moved among them. Instead of mere gawkers of some huge, muscle-bound mercenaries brought onto the campus for one reason only, the teams actually became Vanderbilt’s teams. Then, right on the precipice of a modern revolution in the marriage of academics and sports on college campuses, Gee left to return to football powerhouse Ohio State in 2007.
What a difference a state or two makes. Here’s Gee commenting on the football scandal he oversaw at Ohio State in 2010
where his coach, Jim Tressel, was charged with lying under oath to the NCAA about five OSU players receiving improper benefits for selling jerseys or trading them for tattoos. When asked if he ever considered firing Tressel for lying and then dressing ineligible players in the Buckeye’s big bowl game, Gee said, ”No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear. I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.” Gee later said he was joking after dismayed trustees and the press asked if he was serious, but as he spoke he never cracked a smile. So, the Lancelot of student-athletes everywhere had finally lost his nerve at the sword point of King Football, in of all places, Columbus, Ohio.
Despite the cold wind blowing from State College, from East to West, North to South, King Football still triumphantly looks over its vast playing field. That field is littered with the raped, the molested, the roughed-up, and even the specially benefited, but it stands ready for the next contest and the millions of dollars to be made. And, yes, we will show up by the tens of thousands every Saturday in the Fall at venues all around the land to cheer on the King.
But many are realizing now that with King Football’s confessor exposed for what he was, if we don’t stop the King now, we might not be able to stop him — and all the inevitable harm — later. Are we at our “Joe Paterno moment” now that we are confronted with a credible report of depravity that we can either accept or ignore?
Off with his head? It won’t be easy.
Source: Dodd, Dennis, Let Freeh’s damning report ring — King Football needs to answer for sins, and sourced throughout.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger