Big sports, big stakes

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Kentucky may have difficulty relating to Penn State University, slammed with a $60 million fine and banned from bowls for four years because it covered up a sexual-abuse scandal. Football hasn’t been much of a winner around here since the glory days of coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. The University of Kentucky gridiron program has its moments – like the upset of Alabama that moved fans to tear down the goal posts a few years back – but membership in the football elite of the Southeastern Conference remains an improbable dream.

Substitute Kentucky’s basketball obsession for Penn State’s football mania and it’s easier to understand why Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno was inclined not to report information that former assistant Jerry Sandusky was sodomizing young boys in the showers. That sort of abuse hasn’t happened in Kentucky’s legendary basketball program, so far as we’ve heard, but it’s not unthinkable, considering the fanaticism with which the Big Blue Nation supports aggressive campaigns to lure the nation’s top basketball talent to Lexington in hopes more stellar freshmen can win NCAA championships, as this year’s team did.

Sports scandals often arise from the sneaky manner in which programs try to out-maneuver the competition in recruiting top players. That occurred in the 1980s when UK coach Eddie Sutton and athletic director Cliff Hagan got the ax after $1,000 was found in an envelope addressed to a prospective recruit. UK was barred from postseason play for two years. Happy days returned when Rick Pitino ascended the coach’s throne and led the university out of purgatory to win a national championship in 1996.

What distinguishes the Penn State affair is its disconnect from the typical recruiting tricks. Sandusky’s locker-room crimes didn’t win a single football game for his team. But his superiors’ failure to turn the matter over to law enforcement for investigation will nonetheless hobble the program for years to come.

The NCAA crackdown sets a precedent by ordaining that sports teams not only have to play by the rules of competition but also have to heed the laws that govern conduct outside their inner circle. Church leaders are being called to account for covering up the sexual abuse committed by priests decades ago, and college sports administrators likewise can no longer assume they’re exempt from standards that apply to everyone else.

NCAA President Mark Emmert told the Associated Press other members of the athletic assocation should take notice. “One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge,” he said. “The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs.”

Perhaps he did not – and cannot – go far enough. The bigger question is whether athletics on the whole hasn’t outgrown its collegiate sponsorship. The student-athlete is little more than a fading memory on campuses that serve as launching pads for the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. It might be more rational to drop the pretense altogether and convert college teams into professional training units.

That’s not going to happen, of course. Universities make too much money on football and basketball. Winning traditions instill alumni pride – and generosity. Politics isn’t the only endeavor corrupted by the infusion of big money.

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