The dangers of tribalism and callousness in college sports

By Jon Valant

College football season starts in earnest this weekend, ready to bring campuses to life on fall Saturdays. Yet, for all there is to love about college football—its drama, pageantry, rituals, loyalties, and rivalries—each season seems to bring a new collection of scandals and horrors. This year was no exception. In the Big Ten Conference alone, Ohio State knowingly employed an assistant coach with a history of domestic abuse, Michigan State mishandled sexual assault claims against several players, and the University of Maryland’s “toxic culture” likely caused the death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman. These stories follow past scandals at Penn State, Baylor, and Florida State, among many other institutions.

The reality is that the virtues of college football are, more and more, enabling its vices. The passions that stir up loyalties and rivalries also produce tribalism like the type infecting American politics. Enamored with the potential to win, fans avert their eyes from ugliness in their favorite programs and lash out at those who expose it. The result is that today’s premier college sports programs are largely composed of, and surrounded by, individuals with little incentive to uncover or address misconduct. And too often, those individuals have chosen to protect their programs before they protect victims of their programs’ abuse.

What is perhaps most maddening about the recent wave of college sports scandals is that so many people—including many in positions of authority—could have intervened and did not. Their callousness and cowardice are important parts of that story. However, it is useful to consider who is positioned to address unethical behavior in college athletic departments, and the strength of their disincentives to do so:

Stepping back, the situation looks bleak. Hardly anyone in position to act on suspicion of wrongdoing has incentive to do so, leaving us to hope that their consciences will intervene.

The reality is that the virtues of college football are, more and more, enabling its vices.

What can be done? I should confess that I write this as a disheartened fan, not a scholar, of college athletics, and I feel clearer about what ails college sports than what to do about it. Still, a few potential ways forward make sense:

  1. Culture change. The change that would be most beneficial might be the most difficult to make. The culture surrounding many of today’s college athletic departments is dangerous. Policy change can only take us so far without individuals in positions of authority taking their ethical responsibilities more seriously. Perhaps most valuable of all, but most fanciful, would be college sports fans becoming a little less concerned about how their favorite programs perform on the field and more concerned about how they perform off of it.

Many Americans spend months looking forward to this weekend, eager to immerse themselves in this year’s college football season. I am among them. However, as scandals continue to mount, that anticipation comes tinged with more and more ambivalence.

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