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A Fan's Confession: We've All Fumbled the Ball

A Fan's Confession: We've All Fumbled the Ball

By Mark Salter - November 11, 2011

Among my many vices, I cherish most my obsessive regard for the Georgetown University men's basketball team. In good seasons and bad, I want and irrationally expect them to win every game. I'm often angry when they don't, and in my brief but intense disappointment, I don't think about much more than why didn't they rebound better or fight around screens quicker or get the ball to their best scorers.

In the aftermath of a hard-fought game. I don't dwell on the life lessons Hoya players might have learned from losing or the good sportsmanship they showed in defeat. I don't console myself with the knowledge that a fine group of young men represent my alma mater on the basketball court, and uphold the values of the school and the integrity of college athletics. My only hope is that they'll win the next game because, as is the case for many sports fans, I care more about my vicarious experience than their real experience of wholly investing their bodies and minds in a game, and coming up short of expectations.

Selfishness is something college sports fans have in common with many university presidents and athletic directors and television networks. In our defense, selfish indifference to anything but a win by our school is only a temporary, if juvenile, reaction to disappointment. But Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, believes selfishness as well as hypocrisy and dishonesty are the unavoidable requirements of his professional responsibilities.

He is hardly alone, as the entire world learned this week.

When the ACC raided the Big East for new members in 2003, Nordenberg, the most influential of Big East presidents in matters pertaining to football, denounced the move in the strongest terms, and encouraged the Big East to sue the ACC. Earlier this year, he encouraged the Big East to reject a $1.4 billion TV offer from ESPN -- in expectation that the conference would receive more generous offers from other networks. He also led Big East efforts to attract new football members to the conference. At the same time, however, Nordenberg was secretly holding discussions with ACC officials about Pitt leaving the Big East for the ACC, along with Syracuse University, a move that is rumored to have been encouraged by ESPN in retaliation for the Big East's rejection of their offer.

Officials of another Big East school, West Virginia University, denounced the Pittsburgh and Syracuse betrayal and promptly engineered the school's own departure from the conference. Presently, West Virginia is suing the Big East to evade conference bylaws that require a 27-month waiting period before a member can leave so that its teams can start playing in the Big 12 next year.

In college athletics, football is king. To maximize football's television revenues, school officials will abandon old and storied conferences for the greener pasture of super conferences. They'll betray the interests of their other sports programs. They'll dismiss the loyalty fans and athletes have to traditional rivalries within the conference, and the games that have for decades been the most anticipated contests of their season. They'll turn a blind eye to recruiting violations. They'll bestow scholarships on athletes who have no concern or aptitude for academics. In basketball, they routinely recruit kids who only intend to stick around a year or two to improve their stock in the NBA draft. They're perfectly willing for their conferences to serve as development leagues for professional sports franchises as long as they keep making money.

Their response to accusations of bad faith: It's nothing personal; it's only business.

Yes, it's only business. So, why then, do school presidents and chancellors not treat their athletes as employees? Why don't they pay them salaries and give them worker's comp when they're injured? They'll tell you it's to preserve the integrity of amateur athletics; to ensure athletes receive quality educations; and to impart on their playing fields and courts the hallowed values of their distinguished institutions.

What a crock. They care first and last about the return on their investment. All other considerations are secondary; least of all what kind of example they set for student athletes. Paying athletes would increase overhead and diminish return. That's the major reason they resist compensating players.

To protect their investment, officials at Penn State kept to themselves an eyewitness account of a former coach allegedly raping a child on its premises. They didn't report it to the police, leaving him free to do it again and again.

This is infinitely more serious than the other outrages we're heard about lately. But it's of a piece: Kids don't matter, winning matters. Money matters -- and only money. Whether it's breaking up historic conferences and ruining traditional rivalries, to trading jerseys for tattoos (Ohio State), paying a future Heisman Trophy winner's parents (USC), or letting boosters hand out cash to players (SMU, Miami and many other schools) or the unthinkable coverup at Penn State, there is a recurring theme: Values don't matter, NCAA rules don't matter, the law doesn't matter, common decency doesn't matter.

Penn State fans rioted in support of Joe Paterno, who could have ensured that justice was done but didn't. They are only concerned with the football program and their loyalty to a legendary football coach. Their outrage over the forced departure of an old man who made a damnable moral choice is greater than their outrage on behalf of the children who were allegedly raped by another once-beloved icon of Penn State football.

On Saturday, I'll attend the opening game of Georgetown's basketball season. I'm pretty sure they'll win. But if they don't, I'll try not to be so disappointed. It's only a game, right? Even if it has become something different and much worse to school administrations, television networks, a few athletes and too many fans.

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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