Alan Ryan

March 19, 2004

As fine US institutions are tainted by sporting scandals, some wonder if money-spinning jocks are given too much free rein

A sceptical colleague at Princeton University observed that we gave the name of "scholar athletes" to our modestly successful sports teams because we had struck a bargain with them. The faculty would pretend they were scholars so long as they pretended they were athletes. Athletes at less intellectually demanding institutions simply gave up the pretence that they were there to get a degree, and led the lives of professional - though theoretically unpaid - athletes.

In spite of periodic efforts at reform, there are college basketball teams in the US that hardly graduate more than one player in five years and football teams that would have trouble meeting the standards of a maximum security penitentiary.

The scandalous state of college athletics is a perennial of US higher education commentary. The top scandal last winter was the resignation of the president of St Bonaventure University: he was discovered to have misrepresented the academic qualifications of a star basketball player. The scandal itself was small beer, given the lengths that many schools go to to keep top players from flunking out; the excitement lay in the fact that a Franciscan had succumbed to temptation.

This winter it is more familiar territory: the University of Colorado at Boulder's football team is up to its neck in allegations - which the university strongly denies - that team members have committed rape and other sexual assaults, that its officials have been recruiting players with the aid of local strippers, that there have been "recruiting parties" where female students have been plied with sufficient drink to make them easy sexual targets, and that all of this has long been covered up by the allegedly cosy relationship between the coaching staff and members of the Boulder police.

The ruckus goes back to what, at the time, looked like a piece of enlightenment. A young woman, Katie Hnida, was, rather astonishingly, recruited to the university football team as a specialist place kicker. It ended in tears; she didn't do well as a football player, and earlier this year she accused a member of the football team of having raped her in 1999.

Gary Barnett, the head coach, responded with the mixture of gender sensitivity and political deftness for which football coaches are famous: Hnida, he said, was a lousy place kicker. Whether he meant to say that the sort of behaviour that was allegedly meted out to her was an appropriate penalty for missing place kicks is not known, but he was promptly placed on "administrative leave" and has no doubt been reflecting on quite what he did mean.

Then the floodgates opened. Six more women claimed they had been assaulted by athletes at the university, an "adult-entertainment" company in Denver was said to have provided strippers for recruiting parties at UCB and other universities. Even the Mormon stronghold of Brigham Young University was implicated in the stripper scandal. The scandal widened as similar stories unfolded all over the country, and it deepened as it was claimed that footballers at Boulder had for years been protected from the consequences of their misdeeds by a close relationship between team officials and members of the town police, although the police strongly deny this.

Of course, as one beleaguered administrator said, it's useful to have good relations with the police. You'd like them to tell you when your star player has been done for drunken driving because its unlikely that the young man himself is going to tell you what he's done for fear of losing his scholarship. On the other hand, it is less useful if, as is alleged and strongly denied, the police coach players in how to fend off charges of sexual assault, and give them advice on how to keep quiet and watch a case collapse for lack of evidence. In polite circles, it's known as tampering with witnesses and is itself a crime.

Interested readers will be able to follow this one for several months more - the state legislature has got involved, and now a Congressional committee is joining in. By the time it's over, a good university may be known only for the antics of its footballers and the political stupidity of their coach.

There is a moral for the UK scene. Such events are an illustration of the dangers of commercialising higher education; many US universities regard their sports programmes as essential in keeping alumni, state legislators and donors of all sorts on board. As a result, the mentality of "anything goes" permeates the programmes, and in many universities the head coach is not only vastly better paid than anyone else but can dictate to anyone on campus. What it does for intellectual standards, campus politics and general civility hardly needs spelling out.

There's much about US higher education we'd do well to emulate. Not this.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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