If Obama wants a fair playing field for America, he can start with college sports

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo News

It is the premise of President Obama’s re-election: We have a choice to make between a candidate who favors the privileged, the comfortable, the powerful, and a candidate who wants a country where, as Obama has said repeatedly, “everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

As Obama sees it, the more affluent should pay higher taxes; big banks should stop playing fast and loose with exotic, risky bets; tycoons shouldn’t be allowed to put their thumbs on the scale of political campaigns with unlimited, untraceable money.

But there’s one arena, dominated by a privileged, insular few, where rampant hypocrisy and exploitation reign, where an obsession with conquest overrides the most basic standards of fairness, and where Obama has stood somewhere between indifferent and complicit. It’s the arena of big-time college sports. And therein lies a tale.

[Related: End of the Penn State football season?]

The Penn State horror, while unique (one hopes) in the sheer magnitude of criminal negligence, fits a pattern that has scarred campuses from one end of the country to another. Joe Paterno brought international fame and tens of millions of dollars to the campus, so the presence of a serial child rapist had to be hidden, lest the revelation jeopardize the legendary coach’s reputation and the astronomical broadcast fees for football games.

The very awfulness of this case conceals a broader but less dramatic issue: at root, big-time college sports is a sham that exists in substantial measure to enrich a handful of schools, coaches and athletic conferences while happily exploiting the talents and bodies of young men—a disproportionate number of them African-American.

[Related: Title IX at 40 -- most schools still not in compliance]

We’re all familiar with stories of under-the-table payments to star college athletes and of sports cars mysteriously materializing in the driveways of homes they don’t pay for. But as the great civil rights historian Taylor Branch wrote in the Atlantic last year, the real scandal is that schools and conferences rake in billions of dollars while the athletes themselves sometimes lack the money for a bus ride home. If you have read Joe Nocera’s terrific op-ed pieces in The New York Times, you have also heard stories of athletes whose futures are held prisoner by a coach for having the temerity to seek another school or who lose their legal rights to the NCAA’s version of a kangaroo court.

College sports is a subject on which the president is more outspoken than any president at least since enthusiast Richard Nixon. But when he discusses it, it is less as a public official concerned with the corruption of a major American institution than as a sports junkie who can’t wait to catch the latest highlight reel.

When the Penn State scandal broke last fall, Obama made sure to highlight the positive aspects of college athletics: “I think that when it’s kept in perspective,” he said, “college athletics not only provides a great outlet for competition for our young people, but helps to bring a sense of community and can help to brand a university in a way that is fun and important.”  

[Related: Women outnumber men on U.S. Olympic team]


Where Obama is heard more often--much more often--is in his genuine enthusiasm for the contest: whether it’s filling in his brackets for the NCAA “March Madness” tournaments, or humorously boasting of his crossover dribble or three-point shooting. He’s a frequent presence at major sports events. Just last night, he attended the USA v. Brazil exhibition game in Washington, D.C., and he has given an interview to ESPN superstar columnist Bill Simmons. He will even risk the wrath of Massachusetts voters by tweaking them about the loss of Kevin Youkilis to his White Sox.

I have no doubt that Obama comes by this enthusiasm honestly. I also have no doubt that his campaign team sees his enthusiasm for sports as a very useful asset in presenting him as a regular guy with the same passion for sports as tens of millions of others. And I can testify to the power of sports mania in a campaign. In 1969, embattled New York Mayor John Lindsay was helped greatly by his embrace of the last-to-first New York Mets, even having champagne poured on him in the locker room the night the Mets won the National League pennant. (In reality, baseball bored him to tears; aides nearly had to lash him to his seat to keep him from leaving in the late innings.)

It may be understandable that Mr. Obama does not want to offend the sensibilities of diehard football fans in Pennsylvania, a state crucial to his reelection, or around Ohio State, where coach Jim Tressel left after a string of stories involving illegal payoffs and cover-ups. But when it comes to college athletics in general, the broken system precisely resembles the vision of a plutocratic dystopia that his campaign suggests will result from a Romney presidency.