Major-college athletics: So powerful, so vulnerable

Ohio State scandal shocking, yet not surprising

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer reacts during the fourth quarter of the Buckeyes' 55-24 loss to Iowa at Kinnick St
Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer reacts during the fourth quarter of the Buckeyes’ 55-24 loss to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium last Nov. 4. (Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports)

An easy thing to say right now is the Big Ten Conference needs an exorcist.

What has happened in the conference during this decade, and what has happened in the past that became public knowledge this decade, is beyond belief and beyond horrible.

The short version:

Penn State: Football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted in 2012 of 45 charges sexual abuse of minors. Head coach Joe Paterno was fired in November 2011 after the university’s board of trustees determined he had concealed information involving Sandusky.

Michigan State: The university agreed to a $500 million settlement with 332 women and girls who were sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar from 1979 to 1997. Nassar was a USA Gymnastics team doctor who worked at an on-campus clinic at Michigan State. School president Lou Anna Simon resigned under pressure last January because of the scandal and criticism over how she handled it.

Ohio State: Over 100 former male students, many of them former Ohio State wrestlers, have come forward this year to claim OSU team doctor Richard Strauss was guilty of sexual misconduct toward them during medical examinations. The alleged abuse occurred between 1979 and 1997. Strauss committed suicide in 2005.

This week, OSU head football coach Urban Meyer was placed on paid administrative leave while the school investigates what Meyer knew about spousal abuse allegations made by the ex-wife of one of Meyer’s assistant coaches. That was Zach Smith, who was fired last month after an Ohio judge issued a protection order forbidding Smith from getting within 500 feet of his ex-wife.

Ohio State has convened what it called a “special, independent board working group” to investigate how the school responded to the allegations.

These things happened at three separate schools in the Big Ten, a conference that more or less has presented itself at being a model of what major-college athletics should be.


In a matter that’s purely trivial compared to the listed incidents, fans of the Big Ten and the league itself should never hold up the conference as a paragon of virtue despite containing many of this nation’s biggest, best and proudest universities.

Had the Southeastern Conference or Big 12 Conference been plagued with this recent amount of horrific episodes instead of the Big Ten, surely some Big Ten loyalists would have clucked with disgust at those leagues.

What happened at PSU, MSU and OSU isn’t a Big Ten thing. They are individual nightmares that happened to occur at Big Ten institutions.

The nightmares involving Penn State and Ohio State football, however, reflect a reality that comes back to bite time after time. Which is, college football programs at major universities are enormously powerful entities that feed a lot of people, and the protection of those empires sometimes comes with heavy costs.

When you turn state universities into athletic-entertainment complexes, as we have in this nation, there will be scandals. There always have been. There will be more.

Now, no one expects horrors like the ones at the three aforementioned Big Ten schools. But there always will be ambitious people with a lot to lose who will break rules, trusts and even laws to build or guard their status.

In 2016, the highest-paid state employee in 39 of the 50 U.S. states was a football or men’s basketball coach. That was the case in all 11 states with Big Ten universities.

The average salary of U.S. state governors is about $200,000. But they’re only in charge of a state, not a big-time football program.


That Paterno looked away from Sandusky’s sins and Meyer may have done likewise regarding what is alleged of Smith was all about protecting the empire.

Those domains didn’t get propped up without public approval, and they aren’t coming down. We want major-college football to remain the mega-spectacle it is, played in gigantic coliseums that stand out as focal points on so many campuses though they’re used just a handful of times per year.

We want our school to have the best-possible coach and best-possible team, so that means building the best-possible football complex and continually renovating the coliseum to keep up with the Joneses.

None of that means most people in athletics are the type to avoid bringing misconduct and abuses to light should they encounter it. If I had a dollar for every genuinely decent, right-thinking person I’ve met in college sports, I could pay for a new car with cash.

But human nature being what it is, if you give 100 people great power there’s not a particularly good chance all 100 will handle it properly. Especially in the most-challenging moments.

That we have given such importance to college athletics — and I certainly can’t throw stones about that — is something that baffles many people from other nations. There, educational institutions are for education. Athletics for college-aged people have their own homes.

Ohio State football, again, is in a scandal-induced tailspin. Again, it will pull itself out of it one way or another and continue to be iconic nationally and a religion of sorts in its own state. If Meyer is fired or resigns, the school will pay someone else several million dollars a year to keep the Buckeyes rolling.

It’s all too big to fail. Even when it fails miserably.

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