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C. Fraser Smith: Culture change comes hard in big-time sports

When Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication in 1986, then-University of Maryland football coach Bobby Ross called it a “distraction.”

Others, after lamenting the star basketball player’s loss, quickly moved on to worrying that it would damage UM’s intercollegiate athletic “program” — as if the real loss would be suffered by football and basketball.

Reactions of this sort go to the heart of what NCAA officials are saying about the “culture” of sports at Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The sports culture is fierce, defensive, protective and more passionate than that of any reformers. And, the record shows, the culture can be found at many “big time” programs.

Bias’ death, like the child abuse atrocities at Penn State, unmasked some of the damage done to young college athletes. For example, coaches and administrators knew players were failing miserably at College Park even as they hailed the scholar-athlete ideal.

In those days, the reform shoes were worn by the Knight Commission on Athletics, a panel of reputable and concerned university presidents such as the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., president of Notre Dame. The Knight inquiry was a broader-gauge version of the sharply focused inquiry led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh at Penn State.

The Freeh team and then the NCAA found almost everyone in charge had allowed the charges against Sandusky to go uninvestigated. Joe Paterno, the coach who had run what many said was the ideal program, did far too little to intervene.

It was all in the name of saving “the program.” This meant that a predator could go about his crimes for another decade.

Collateral damage

The NCAA has exacted extreme penalties on Penn State. But the forces that corrupted what then-Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell called a “beautiful” program at the time of Bias’ death do not go into remission.

They demand and demand and demand concessions in exchange for their loyalty, their money and their political influence.

Collateral damage is everywhere: the blameless current players, the student fans and the school’s reputation.

If we are ready to accept tragedy as the cost of doing business, we have not seen the end of these stories. Reform fervor fades with tragedy. Penn State will figuratively die for the sins of all.

“It isn’t ever going to be fixed totally,” Andy Geiger, who took a post-Bias turn as athletic director at College Park, told me years ago. “It’s no more perfect than any other enterprise that has the ambiguity of human involvement.”

The Bias scandal, though uncovered via cocaine use, centered ultimately on athletes who were anything but scholars. They were chronically ineligible academically — after basketball season.

At summer school and in the fall they struggled to regain playing status. In the winter and spring, they missed 40 percent of their classes. Even if they had been scholars, they couldn’t have succeeded.

This was the fraud of that era: Athletes were given scholarships they could not take advantage of. They were not prepared for higher education. Better than being on the street, it was said.

An experience they wouldn’t have had otherwise, it was said. But the experience they had was being shielded from “distractions” so they could concentrate on winning.

A stunning image

Even after Bias’ death, even after the shame of persistent failure, even after investigations and firings and endless other embarrassments, admissions authorities at College Park were being urged to allow pitifully unqualified audiences to enroll there. Political leaders and boosters and fans demanded and got audiences with the university officials. They resisted, but the pressure continues even now.

Near end of my 1992 book on the Bias story, I felt obliged to point out the difficult of changing anything.

I wrote, “Soon after completing the Knight Commission report, its staff director Kit Morris watched a film on the Normandy invasion. The 1944 plan had been dashed by high seas and uncounted unforeseen events. Utter chaos prevailed. Soldiers were caught in a murderous rain of artillery. The officer corps was decimated. Only individual heroes earned the beachhead.

“Morris thought balance between intercollegiate athletics and academics could be achieved. But in ways not unlike World War II battles, the effort would continue to leave ‘wounded and dying on the beach.’”

To shock the culture at Penn State and beyond, the school was fined $60 million by the NCAA for its lapses in “institutional control.” In truth, control was absolute — for the sake of the “program.” More than 100 wins were stripped away from Paterno and the school. Recovery could be a decade away.

A stunning image of the culture was on page one of The New York Times this week. It showed a hard-hat crew moving the statue of Paterno away from its position of honor on the campus. A blue tarp covered the body of the statue.

But the statue’s forefinger was left uncovered, inadvertently flashing the “We’re Number 1” sign.

Number 1, to be sure, in sadness and shame.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays and other days in The Daily Record. His email address is He is the author of ‘Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor: The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big Time College Basketball.’