THE GOLD SHEET SPECIAL REPORT... THE IVY LEAGUE GOT IT RIGHT
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
A couple of years ago, we decided to include select book reviews on these pages. Included was an invaluable 1998 work by Indiana University professor Murray Sperber entitled Onward To Victory, a definitive study of big-time college sports and its disturbing underside.
Among the many fascinating chapters in Sperber's work were narratives regarding reforms presented in 1951 by the American Council on Education (ACE), which aimed at cleaning up college sports by removing its cheats and lessening the growing influence of (mostly) football on campuses across the country. The main committee, which included Notre Dame President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh (right) and Yale President A. Whitney Griswold among its members, was considering a platform that would use the threat of academic punishment by regional accrediting agencies to downgrade colleges that were caught usurping the rules in sports.
Unfortunately, among the committee members was also the influential president at Michigan State, John Hannah, whose school was at the forefront of the athletic revolution and was an innovator in cutting corners, a practice that was already well-established more than 60 years ago. Hannah and AD Clarence "Biggie" Munn had indeed perfected the art of skirting the rules, among other things the use of the off-campus Spartan Foundation as a vehicle (or a "slush fund") to funnel money to athletes, creating an underhanded template subsequently replicated at other schools.
Hannah (left), who wielded considerable power, effectively blocked any legislation at real ACE reform, reckoning that his Michigan State could operate more freely in the world of NCAA regulations than in one policed by the North Central Accrediting Agency, which could effectively fit MSU and the Spartan Foundation with a noose. The latter had no appeal to Hannah, and ACE's eventual recommended reforms in fact did little to slow the runaway college sports locomotive.
ACE's failed attempt at reform in the early '50s was one of the last chances college sports had to effectively police itself, as the growing influence of football made revisiting the original ACE proposal a moot point in subsequent years. Meanwhile, college sports scandals accelerated throughout the decade, including the demise of the old Pacific Coast Conference, which underlined many of the worst aspects that the original ACE reforms wanted to address. As outlined in ex-Notre Dame footballer Michael Oriard's 2001 book, King Football, the PCC scandal involved everything, from slush funds to grade manipulation to whistle-blowing among member institutions that destroyed the conference and created wounds that would not heal for almost a decade. In one year alone (1956), USC, UCLA, Cal, and Washington were all probation-ridden and banned from the Rose Bowl.
Football was the culprit; it had become too big for its own good.
But there was one collection of schools that thought enough of the original ACE reforms and other proposals in the '50s to actually implement them as part of normal procedure. As Oriard detailed in King Football, it was the Ivy League that decided to opt out of big-time pigskin dreams when its athletic alliance was officially formed in 1954. It was not a decision taken lightly, as a variety of Ivy schools had been big-time football powers in the previous decades. Penn, in fact, still had designs on as much in the mid '50s; for a while the Quakers tried to be both big-time and Ivy, but when forced to choose, picked the latter.
The Ivy plan, simply, was to opt out of the shenanigans perpetuating big-time football but maintain the sport at a highly-charged lower level. A new order of recruiting and subsidization as implemented by the Ivies, however, was not for everybody.
We mention all of this because scandal and influence in college sport has grown to such proportion that not even the 1950s-circa John Hannahs of the world would recognize what they have become. And, as big-time college sport (and football in particular) has become such a money-spinner, the repercussions are getting worse as well.
Indeed, we are in the midst of a new "golden age" of scandal, with the sordid tale at Penn State being the main headliner, all caused by college sport growing beyond its normal bounds. While the disturbing details of the Jerry Sandusky mess are not likely to be replicated, major programs continue to get sanctioned for other more-traditional nefariousness. Southern Cal has just come off two years of bowl probation related to the Reggie Bush scandal. Ohio State, North Carolina, and UCF are saddled with bowl bans this season for various transgressions; the hammer is likely to drop soon on Miami-Florida. Others, such as Oregon, are now on the NCAA radar as well. And we have some nice oceanfront property in Phoenix to offload to anyone who thinks those are the only locales where mischief is being perpetuated.
Indeed, while the Sandusky tale stole most of the headlines this summer, North Carolina's apparently blatant case of academic fraud has gone mostly unmentioned by the national media; in other summers, the Tar Heels' mess involving their Department of African-American Studies might dominate the sports news cycles. The specifics of the disturbing allegations regarding shady booster Nevin Shapiro threaten to stain Miami's athletic department even further. And on and on it goes.
As the season progresses, we will periodically revisit some of these issues, which we hope the college football fan base will begin to take seriously. While the public will always react with revulsion to Sandusky-like transgressions, for the most part fans care little about what goes on behind the scenes, instead viewing football from their own prism of enjoyment that likely includes tailgate parties, social events, and several hours of entertainment each week. Which helps create environments like the one at Penn State, where an autocrat like Joe Paterno can emerge and have access to the sorts of levers in the school and community that should be off-limits to any single-minded football or basketball coach.
Trust us, however, Paterno was not the only coach to have such influence. Almost as disturbing as the Sandusky details is the parallel track of over-the-top football environments that helped contribute to the Penn State mess in the first place and serve as incubators for other forms of lawlessness. And State College is hardly the only locale where football's influence is out of control. Aside from the Sandusky case, there are plenty of victims of other crimes committed elsewhere by football players who have no business being in college, yet are allowed to prowl because coaches want to win football games to keep their jobs. As demanded by the fans who fill the stadium.
What a vicious cycle college football has become. And as we enter our 56th publishing season at TGS, it's time for us to admit that the Ivy League really did get it right.
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