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Penn State and the University of Chicago moment

Mr. Dilettante's Neighborhood

Penn State athletics logoMany people don't realize this, but it's true: the University of Chicago was one of the charter members of the Big Ten. The school was the home of the legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and the Maroons won Big Ten championships and national championships, too. And the first winner of the Heisman Trophy was Jay Berwanger, who played for the Maroons. You can read a good, brief synopsis here.

In 1939, the Maroons said goodbye to all that. The president of the school, Robert Maynard Hutchins, had concluded that participation in big-time college sports wasn't compatible with the educational mission of the school and the school withdrew from the Big Ten. The U of C eventually went back to playing football, but they are now a non-scholarship Division III school. For a time they were a member of the Midwest Conference, which includes my alma mater, Beloit College.

There's a vast gulf between playing Bucky Badger to playing the Beloit Bucs. But once the U of C made the decision, they never looked back. And while you don't hear much about the Maroons on SportsCenter, no one thinks less of the University of Chicago because of it.

This brings us to Penn State. Penn State joined the Big Ten in the 1990s, mostly on the strength of two things -- the quality of its football program and the marketing advantages of having an eastern school in the league. For the better part of 20 years the Nittany Lions have been a great fit and welcome addition to the league, especially in football. Adding Penn State to the mix caused the other schools to compete even harder and it also effectively ended the "Big Two/Little Eight" dynamic that had existed for many years, with Michigan and Ohio State dominating the other schools.

Of course, now we know that Penn State had a secret and a terrible one. The Freeh report lays bare the whole sordid mess that the football program was under Joe Paterno. But how do you make it right? The Star Tribune argues that the NCAA should impose the "death penalty" on the school:

The NCAA is reviewing Freeh's report, and its top official has said a "death penalty" shutdown of the Penn State football program has not been ruled out. The NCAA will determine whether the school lost institutional control over its athletic program and violated ethics rules. Based on Sandusky's conviction and Freeh's report, that decision should be clear-cut.

Freeh concluded that Penn State's most important challenge would be to change the culture that permitted Sandusky's behavior. How can that possibly happen if the NCAA fails to levy its harshest penalty? 

I think this is wrong. Yes, the university needs to step away from the madness it has embraced. But it is precisely wrong to have the NCAA, an outside group, be an avenging angel/deus ex machina. It's especially galling because the NCAA is fundamentally corrupt in so many other ways. It hardly teaches the right lesson to turn things over to the regulators. If the school wants to atone, it shouldn't rely on an outside force to make it do so.

No, the way to fix things in Happy Valley is to look at the example of the U of C. It hasn't hurt the University of Chicago to play schools like Beloit, or Aurora, or Washington University. These are just some of the schools that the Maroons have scheduled in recent seasons. Perhaps the way out is for Penn State to play Juniata, or Franklin and Marshall, or Case Western Reserve. To regain perspective on what a university should be doing, that's the way to go.

Is there a Robert Maynard Hutchins available in State College, PA?

This post was written by Mark Heuring and originally published on Mr. Dilettante's Neighborhood.

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Comments (1)

I agree

Sports are fun. They're often physically challenging, and thus played more often by those that are young than by those that are old.

They're also, in the grand scheme of things, trivial.

No respectable university should be paying a football coach – or the coach of any other university-sponsored athletic team – more than it pays a tenured professor of physics or English or history. Public, private, big enrollment, small enrollment, national reputation or local, the place of sports in any educational program ought to be that of a pleasant diversion from the real work of the institution. Penn State (and a host of other schools, including at least on here in Minnesota) ought to find its own Robert Maynard Hutchins.