By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Back in May I commented on the NCAA and what I see as exploitation of college students for the financial benefit of institutions (see my May 6, 2011 column). The recent discussion about Penn State and child abuse gives me another reason to revisit this issue and the role of the NCAA in the academic arena.

First, let’s be clear: what happened at Penn State wasn’t the NCAA’s fault—directly. The sickness of what has occurred at Penn State, which has an almost cult-like love affair with their Nittany Lions football team (not unlike many other colleges, including Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan, Texas, Boise State, and at least several other dozen places), can be placed on many people, but certainly resides squarely on the shoulders of Coach Sandusky*, Coach Paterno, and the President of Penn State. Sandusky will likely go to jail for the rest of his life by the time this is all sewn up, and Coach Paterno and President Spanier have already been relieved of their duties. One or both could end up with criminal records—depending on what the state is prepared to do—but it is unlikely.

But here is what is wrong with the NCAA. They have created a professional-level league that it is so driven by money that people are willing to turn the other cheek regardless of how sick the behavior is. The people at Penn Statedozens of themknew what was going on with Sandusky for years. This isn’t new information, only new to us on the outside. The fact that Paterno did originally notify school administrators of what was going on does not release him from his responsibility because it was serious enough (yes, giving falacio to a 10-year-old, for starters, in the team’s dressing room!) that he should have followed up on it. This isn’t watching porn on a university computer. This isn’t even watching child-porn on a university computer (or any computer). This is child porn live, in the dressing room, and in dozens of other places on and off campus.

Cover-ups occur only when there is a lot riding on the outcome. Yes, I’m sure those in the know thought of Sandusky and what it would do to him. But they seemed to care much less about the kids involved in this vicious game. Why? Millions of NCAA-related dollars. Money colors everything, and the NCAA has gotten far too big for its britches. And while they weren’t directly involved, they provided the catalyst for this situation to happen.

No other nation, in my knowledge, has a system like the NCAA. The closest is Canada, but the system is so small—the dollars so small—that there is no real comparison. No one cares that much about college athletics in Canada (at least in comparison). In fact, most Canadians who follow sports at all, watch (and bet on) NCAA!

Other countries have club systems. Even when I played both football and team handball in Canada, I played on a club system, separate from high school and college. It was a club team. I am an avid follower of sports, especially hockey and football. But I firmly believe that, with the exception of intermural sports or at least low-stakes intramural sports, that college is for academics and club teams are for sports. The two can coexist and college students can play club sports. It is even possible to still have scholarships through a club system, but athletics should be run by a club and academics by a college.

Let’s call this for what it is: the NCAA, at least for football, basketball, and hockey (to a slight degree), are semi-pro. And in the aftermath of the Ohio State fiasco, we should absolutely allow college players to be paid, because they are earning millions for their colleges. They are pro athletes for every reason except that they go to college.

As long as we have millions involved, there will be people trying to game the NCAA system. This is college, ladies and gentlemen. College. It is about learning first and playing second (or third or fourth). Students shouldn’t be going to college if all they want is to play football or basketball. They should be playing in their respective club teams. Those who really want to learn can go to college as well. I am not naïve enough to believe that this can happen: there is simply too much money on the table for colleges and universities. But it should. As the quality of our higher education continues to recede (IMHO), we should be focusing on improving our institutions of higher education. As much pride as college sports brings many, it also takes our eye of the prize.

For what its worth.

*To be fair, Sandusky is only accused at this time and his guilt is not proven until trial. Interesting, though, that Penn State apparently had enough information within to proceed with the firings of Paterna and Spanier.

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