BENNER: Most college sports programs are scandal-free

June 4, 2011

I have long been an opponent of the idea of paying athletes to play college sports.

My reason is simple: By receiving scholarships, athletes already are paid in the form of a free college education.

My wife and I financed two such educations, including one at an out-of-state institution, so we are acutely aware of the costs and the sacrifices necessary to be able to write those checks.

But there was a payoff. Both our daughters graduated and successfully joined the work force. Those educations, as costly as they were, were worth every penny.

Anyway, the other day, I looked up the current annual cost for out-of-state tuition, fees, room and board at a prestigious, public Midwestern university.

OK, it was Ohio State. Excuse me. It was The Ohio State University.

Total annual cost in the categories I mentioned: $33,000 and change. Times four, that would be $132,000.

Oh, there was one other cost I felt I should look up. It was the sticker price on a new Nissan 350Z sports car. Depending on how loaded the car is, it’s about $35,000.

That, by the way, is what Ohio State University quarterback Terrelle Pryor has been tooling around Columbus in lately. In fact, that’s what he drove to a players’ meeting in the aftermath of Coach Jim Tressel’s resignation, forced by Tressel’s coverup of allegations that Pryor and current Buckeye teammates had been selling OSU memorabilia in return for favors, including, allegedly, sweetheart deals on cars.

Bleeding hearts, however, want you to think poor Terrelle Pryor and his teammates are being exploited by a system that compels them into a form of “indentured servitude” and spits them out as hapless, hopeless and helpless victims.

Again, never mind the value of the opportunity—and it’s no more than an opportunity—to be the beneficiary of higher education that would otherwise cost well into six figures and can deliver benefits that last a lifetime.

Whenever one of these “scandals” comes along with the predictable reaction in the media—the rules are arcane, the rules are draconian, everyone breaks the rules, the athletes are exploited, the athletes receive nothing in return—what I get really steamed about is the collateral damage to the perception of the enterprise of intercollegiate athletics. An example would be the headline on a USA Today editorial in the wake of Tressel’s resignation:

“College sports gets a black eye.”

This wasn’t “college sports.” This was the football program at Ohio State University. Its players broke rules. Its coach covered it up. He’s been forced to quit. NCAA sanctions are sure to follow. And I hope the penalties are swift and severe enough to discourage the next guy from hiding the truth.

But college sports isn’t just Ohio State football, Tennessee basketball or the father of a quarterback (Auburn University’s Cam Newton) seeking out the highest bidder for his services.

It is thousands upon thousands of young men and women—some on full or partial scholarships, some not—juggling the rigors of academic achievement and athletic preparation and competition. They’re going to class, going to practice, getting their grades, earning their diplomas, representing their schools, and serving in their communities.

Let me put it another way: The scale tips more toward the Matt Howards of the Butlers riding bicycles around campus than it does the Terrelle Pryors hunkering down in a 350Z.

And even in the uppermost echelons of the power conferences and the big-money sports of football and men’s basketball, I strongly submit that there are many more student-athletes (and their parents) who are grateful for the chance their God-given skills afford them and who will depart four to five years after their arrival on campus having benefited greatly from the experience without having broken the family bank.

Are there problems in balancing commercialism and amateurism? Of course. Do some coaches and administrators sacrifice integrity in pursuit of victory? Yep. Are there rules that could be refined to make it better? Absolutely. Are there some athletes who arrive ill-prepared academically with no intent to do anything other than to become better prepared athletically? Sure.

Mine is simply a plea for perspective. As I’ve written many times, I just wish there was as much focus on the successes as the excesses.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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