SPORTS

Maryland's Curl case a sympton of big-time college sports hypocrisy

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OPINION:

By Skip Wood

How do these people – these enablers -- sleep at night?

While the nearly three-decade old case involving former University of Maryland swimming coach Rick Curl – sentenced last week to seven years in prison for child sexual abuse – doesn’t come anywhere close to registering on the scale of the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal and its subsequent cover-up, it nonetheless is a reminder of how the system operates.

Court documents in Curl’s case revealed that then-Maryland officials quickly but quietly demanded Curl’s resignation after receiving information about the abuse that occurred while he was with a nationally known swimming organization prior to his arrival in College Park. An assistant attorney general was consulted as to whether the school should report the matter to legal authorities, and the conclusion was that inasmuch that the accuser no longer was a minor, there was no need to report, and so Maryland happily did not report.

But why not? You know there’s a suspected child sexual abuser that returned to his swim center and you don’t feel an obligation to report? You’re using the ol’ we-just-did-what-we-were-told-to-do dodge?

First, here’s what school spokesman Brian Ullmann told the Washington Post this week: “It is not the university’s intention to place or deflect responsibility. We believe we acted responsibly at the time, but but I think we all understand that we are going to be judged for our collective actions made 25 years ago. The decision to release all of the documents in our possession was made so that those judgments could be made in the context of full disclosure and transparency.”

Such malarkey. On the one hand, Ullmann tries to spin this is into a long-time-ago spiel, and on the other he tries to spin the university’s releasing of all documents related to the case as well, noble.

But this isn’t so much about Maryland as it is about higher education itself, and the near-universal impact athletics has on the academic mission itself. It’s so easy these days to point an accusatory finger at the culture of big-time college football or basketball, quasi “student” athletes or even the presidents of universities.

Look higher, though.

So says Frank G. Splitt, 82, a former Northwestern University professor (Ph.D.) who has spent the past 10 years researching and writing about what he believes are the dangerous aspects of big-time college sports for the Drake Group, a think tank devoted to studying the integrity of academics as related to big-time college athletics.

“You’ve got to look at the Penn State case,” he said via phone this week. “I mean, what do you think that board of trustees was doing all those years? It was rah, rah, rah, and that’s how they built up Happy Valley, and it was happy indeed, so long as people were ignorant of the kinds of things that were going on. And so that’s the name of the game.”

In many cases, if not all cases, the presidents’ hands are tied when potentially scandalous information is presented to them. Either that, or they go along to get along – and to keep their jobs. After all, they have their marching orders.

“The presidents are selected by the board of trustees,” Splitt says, “and the guys and women who are most vocal, they pick the president – and believe me, no president is going to be selected to be president if they are going to say anything negative about their sports.

“They don’t want any reformers to sit in as the president. So it’s these very vocal and sometimes very rich people, very well-to-do, that control what goes on.”

Here’s what Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University, wrote for the Drake Group in 2011.

“As long as there are large financial stakes involved, college presidents will put dollars  before academic values, and continue to demonstrate that the term “higher education” increasingly is an oxymoron—there is less and less “higher” or  “education” about it,” he wrote. “These big scandals will never stop, partly because of the financial gains possible through cheating, but more understandably because of the  inherent unfairness in the present rules.

"Highly talented 21-year-old kids are severely punished for wanting a small share of what they would receive if labor markets operated freely in college football. The current system allows adults (coaches and
their assistants) to get rich by exploiting children—a form of financial child molestation.”

Actually, it’s more than that. It’s a bastardization of supposedly institutionalized nobility. Of all things supposedly scholarly.

“People will do anything they can to keep the image,” Splitt said. “It’s like the Catholic Church. I’ve written on the analogy for the Catholic Church to college sports. That’s one of the things they did with abuse there. . .And it’s a big money-making business, that’s what it is.”

And for reformers such as Splitt?

“This is like pushing a wet noodle, because the public is so enthralled with this entertainment that they get that it’s just hard to get anything done,” he said. “You can’t get the people behind it. . .In working on reform, I thought I could get the Catholic schools to set an example. No way. There’s too much money involved. You can’t fight the money.”

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