Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2019

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Guest column:

The problem of the ‘football culture’ at universities

I have watched with a combination of horror and sympathy as the unraveling of leadership at Pennsylvania State University has commenced.

I write because, as a former president at two institutions over a 17-year period, I am well aware of the responsibility the president bears for actions that occur under his or her watch. There is no question in my mind that coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier needed to step down immediately or be removed from office as they were last night: The buck stops with the two of them, period.

But I also have a couple of additional observations to share.

Spanier began his presidential career at PSU in 1995, the same year I became president of UNLV. In addition to parallel presidential experiences, I served with Dr. Spanier on the NCAA Division I board of directors and on the NCAA Executive Committee (2000-2006). Indeed, when Spanier became chairman of the board, he directed and oversaw action that made it virtually impossible for the 40 or so football teams not in the Bowl Championship Series — including UNLV and UNR — to stay indefinitely outside the BCS structure and thereby fail to share in the extraordinary revenues football bowl games and national rankings ultimately produce.

In fact, as chairman of the NCAA board, Spanier unilaterally proclaimed that there would not be any discussion among presidents on the board regarding a national championship or opening of the BCS to other conferences than those already firmly entrenched there. And, because there are always enough BCS presidents on the NCAA Division I board to have a majority vote, the structure of the NCAA itself assures that the unfair nature of the collegiate football enterprise will continue unabated.

I raise this history to point out how overwhelming the pressures are on leaders who buy into the “football culture” of many universities. Whether Spanier knew of the repeated and obscene behavior of one of his assistant football coaches right in the midst of the university’s football enterprise, he should have known. So he was either guilty of failing to engage law enforcement, guilty of denial or guilty of an unforgivable ignorance.

Spanier did many splendid things for PSU as president. But his Achilles’ heel, or tragic flaw, or whatever one calls this sad professional demise, is surely a product of the “football culture” that has so dominated major university life nationwide and seems to get more out-of-control every day.

When presidents count on wins on the field at any cost, actively keeping other good programs out of the structure and counting on the revenues athletic programs produce to support university programs, thereby becoming beholden to coaches — even iconic ones — and their staffs, we are bound to face impossible moral choices and tragedies such as those that happened to many children over a long period of time in the belly of the football empire at Pennsylvania State University.

What more do we need to change our ways and treat football (or basketball) as important and wonderful parts of our academic enterprises, but not as the be-all and end-all of university and college life?

Carol Harter is the president emerita at UNLV and executive director of the Black Mountain Institute.

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