UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At one time, Penn State athletics was part of an academic department.
While that may not come to pass again, university officials say it’s time to rethink how athletics fits into the overall picture, and to put greater focus on academics.
The question of whether athletics have too much independence and power isn’t new, and it isn’t unique to Penn State. University presidents in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, known as the NCAA, have discussed the need for reform. But the child sexual abuse scandal that toppled Penn State’s president, football coach and athletic director, and spurred multiple investigations, has sharpened the focus on the issue.
Even at Penn State, where athletics has operated as a largely independent arm of the university, there have long been debates about whether former football coach Joe Paterno had too much power. His influence stemmed in part from the key role that he and his team played in generating national attention for the university and keeping tens of thousands of alumni connected — and giving — to their alma mater.
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“The question is really one of is there too much tail that’s wagging the dog,” university President Rod Erickson said recently.
Exactly what change could look like, however, isn’t clear.
Erickson recently told the Penn State Faculty Senate that the role of intercollegiate athletics is a national, cultural issue that presidents and chancellors with the NCAA and the Big 10 Council of Presidents and Chancellors will tackle in the coming months.
Spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Erickson “has indicated that academics will be at the forefront of Penn State — and that requires striking the proper balance.”
“He has said that athletics is important for a number of reasons, such as student development and leadership, as well other measures, and sports has been part of Penn State for more than a century,” Powers said. “But Penn State, along with a large number of other schools are struggling to determine the appropriate role of sports in the academic institution and not allow sports to overshadow the core mission of education. Penn State is determined to find the right balance.”
She pointed to the inclusion of academics on the committee leading the search for a new football coach and the creation of an ethics officer as steps the university is taking toward achieving that balance.
Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said it isn’t a matter of downplaying athletics, but bringing it back into the fold so it isn’t isolated or perceived to be.
“I think it’s easy in a large institution like this with a very important and successful athletic program to have that balance become a bit askew, and perhaps we’ve come to recognize that in this instance it has,” Sims said recently.
Part of what has happened, Sims said, “is that athletics was allowed to operate unto itself to a degree that the rest of the institution wasn’t.”
Penn State’s intercollegiate athletics includes 29 varsity sports, along with club and intramural sports. It has its own budget, funded by the $116 million in revenue that the U.S. Department of Education says its athletic programs generated in 2010-11. Of that, $72 million came from football.
“It was isolated somewhat to itself,” Sims said. “Certainly the football program in particular within athletics was uniquely situated in that way.”
Whether the isolation and autonomy played a role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal is now being questioned. Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, with many instances of alleged abuse occurring on campus, where the former defensive coordinator was given an office and access in his retirement.
Athletic Director Tim Curley and retired Senior Vice President Gary Schultz are charged with perjury, the result of a grand jury investigation that alleges they were told in 2002 that Sandusky had sexually assaulted a young boy, and failed to take action. Paterno and President Graham Spanier lost their jobs because of questions of what they knew and what they did — or failed to do — about it.
Penn State’s football coach now reports to the athletic director, who reports to the president. That hasn’t always been the case.
In 1930, Penn State established the School of Physical Education and Athletics, and the football coach also served as the director. The school changed course over the years, but for half a century, athletics was part of an academic college.
Then, in 1980, the trustees removed Intercollegiate Athletics from the College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation and made it its own unit.
Bob Scannell, dean of the college from 1970 to 1980, said Penn State now has what is the most common arrangement — the athletic department rides independently and reports to either the president or another high-ranking official.
Scannell, who retired from Penn State in 1988, said his concerns with splitting athletics from an academic college were “a matter of tone.”
“When the athletic programs were a part of an academic college, the regular teaching faculty were the colleagues of the coaches,” he said. “Now, they’re in separate buildings.”
Ronald Smith, a recognized sports historian and Penn State professor emeritus, said presidents, more than anyone else, don’t want to reform college athletics. That’s something he looks at in his most recent book, “Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform.”
“Presidents almost never want to reform intercollegiate athletics at their own institutions,” he said. “What they do, like Spanier, is say, ‘We want intercollegiate athletic reform for the rest of you.’”
Penn State trustees have hired attorney and former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate the university’s role in the Sandusky scandal, which will include looking at athletics. Powers said the university will wait for the results of the investigation and then make decisions.
Not everyone is ready to see less emphasis put on athletics.
Wayne Nottle, with the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Alumni Association, noted football brings in a lot of money, which supports the other athletic programs. Nottle isn’t a Penn State graduate, but his sister is and he’s been a Nittany Lions fan since the 1970s.
He goes to the home and away games, including the upcoming bowl. In his view, football is important.
“That’s why you see so many people there seven weekends a year,” he said.