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Cleaning up college sports…in 1954

On June 22, after a jury convicted former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky of multiple counts of child molestation, Penn State released a statement that concluded as follows:

Now that the jury has spoken, the University wants to continue that dialogue and do its part to help victims continue their path forward. To that end, the University plans to invite victims of Mr. Sandusky’s abuse to participate in a program to facilitate the resolution of claims against the University arising out of Mr. Sandusky’s conduct. The purpose of the program is simple – the University wants to provide a forum where the University can privately, expeditiously and fairly address the victims’ concerns and compensate them for claims relating to the University. Counsel to the University plan to reach out to counsel to the victims of Mr. Sandusky’s abuse in the near future with additional details.

When CBS Sports published this press release, the majority of reaction was negative. Nova Goodman stated the problem succinctly:

Paying money is easier than doing the right thing.

As the commenters discussed “the right thing,” various temporary suspensions of the football program were bandied about. But in a November 2011 post, The 312 shared a more radical concept that would probably floor the most rabid Sandusky hater – eliminate intercollegiate sports at Penn State altogether. Why would The 312 share this concept? Because a University in The 312’s area – the University of Chicago – actually did this in 1939, under the leadership of then-President Robert Maynard Hutchins. Today the University plays football, but does not award scholarships.

Was this self-imposed “death penalty” controversial? Well, here’s what a Chicago Tribune writer said:

There’s a school down in Arkansas called Commonwealth College which never has had a football team. . . . It was found by and is operated for communists. . . .

And the athletic director at one university said the following:

“Since he [Hutchins] has the physique of a Sir Galahad, he is convinced that he speaks with authority…. Many [college presidents] share your fears, but they have not run away from the problem or washed their hands of it.”

And which football party school shared that sentiment? Harvard University.

Which brings us to 1954, 15 years after the University of Chicago eliminated its football program. In that year Robert Hutchins wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated. One paragraph of that piece elaborates on the reasons why intercollegiate sports will never be cleaned up, and why scandals will continue to occur.

Are there any conditions under which intercollegiate football can be an asset to a college or university? I think not. There are conditions under which it can be less of a nuisance, or a less infernal nuisance. These conditions are hard to bring about and still harder to maintain. If you should succeed, you will do so only with an expenditure of time and effort that could more profitably be devoted to other things. The first requirement is agreement on the part of your constituency that the institution is to be represented by students, and by students who have come to the college in the ordinary way, with no special inducements, and who are staying in college following the regular curriculum, with no special treatment. The second requirement is even more difficult; you have to find convenient rivals of about the same size, whose constituencies have the same convictions. For if they have not, you will be continuously and unmercifully defeated, and this is something that your constituency will not be able to stand indefinitely. On this rock all the great attempts of the last 30 years to “clean up” or “de-emphasize” football have split; intercollegiate football is no “cleaner” or less emphasized now than it was in 1925 because the temptation to break the rules of a conference becomes irresistible sooner or later to some of the members of it. You then have a scandal, a clean-up, new resolutions, and the process goes on as before.

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