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Ridpath Discusses Ethics In College Sports


In his book, "King Football, the Vulgarization of the American College," Reed Harris accused colleges of valuing athletes more than academics. He deplored professionalism in college football, even drew up a table of the average yearly pay to football players at five colleges.

I would have liked to interview Reed Harris today, but he died in 1982. His book, which figured in his grilling by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his being driven out of the federal government, was published in 1931. That's how long people have been exposing the scandal of big-time college sports. In his time, Harris was writing about the Ivy League.

Dave Ridpath, who is an assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University, has been doing that in our day, writing about a broken system. He joins us from Athens, Ohio.

Welcome to the program.

PROFESSOR DAVE RIDPATH: Thank you very much, Robert. Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, you became an advocate for reform in college sports after you got caught up in a scandal involving football players at Marshall University; getting test answers in advance, getting jobs from someone close to the football coach.

Does what has happened at Penn State share anything with what you experienced at Marshall or other football programs have experienced?

RIDPATH: Well, I think it does maybe, Robert, in the broader sense. I mean, to be clear, this is possibly the worst scandal that I've heard of in college athletics and it takes a lot to shock me when I talk about college sports. But what I will say is it shows the lengths that very smart, very distinguished people, the lengths that they will go to to protect King Football, to protect the brand, to protect the image, to protect highly-paid coaches is immense.

And when you think that smart administrators - and these are smart people at Penn State - would act in this way when confronted with the safety of children, even the potential safety of children because Sandusky still has the presumption of innocence, is almost mind-boggling. But I always tell people that college sports makes very rational people behave irrationally. And I think that this is a situation that just amplifies that.

SIEGEL: Recent years have witnessed scandals at the University of Southern California, University of Miami, Ohio State, among other universities. Is there any sign of some systemic reform on the way, by which universities might control - to use an old word - perhaps even de-emphasize, to some extent, their big football programs?

RIDPATH: Well, I hope so, Robert. And I do think there has been a groundswell in the past decade of reform efforts, including within the NCAA mechanism itself. I rarely give the NCAA much credit but some of their recent reforms with regard to a stipend for athletes and multi-year scholarships, are things that I've been advocating personally and professionally for over a decade.

But I do think we're reaching a critical mass. We've always said - when I say we, people who are interested in cleaning up this corrupt system - we've always said there's going to be a tipping point. I think we might just have found one in Penn State because this is something that's outrageous to literally everyone, including groups that might be disinterested, people that might be disinterested or think it's not worth our time to address.

I think we need to look at higher learning and higher education in America, and find out if what we're doing with intercollegiate athletics, how we're trying to meld it in to the higher education system, is it the right way or have we been doing it wrong for a hundred years? And I think we have been.

SIEGEL: Is this simply about the revenue that the brand brings in; simply about the money that a big-time college football program nets for a university to pay for other expenses?

RIDPATH: Well, it's more of a value that's just not put on the monetary aspect of it. And I think we have overvalued the impact of athletics on higher learning. I think now we're starting to see many more potential negative repercussions of, for example, the cost of running athletics programs, the arms race that many departments are participating in.

And, frankly, most of these athletic departments run huge deficits that have to be repaid some way, that are usually repaid in the form of student fees or other subsidies within the university. So, we have to look and say is it all worth it or can we run athletics economically sound, and still have it be a very vibrant and effective part of the university?

And I believe we can, even if athletic programs were run economically sound, you still would have the connection to the university, alums being able to come back and cheer on old State U. We just need to realize that the purpose of athletics on a college campus is to maintain a clear line of demarcation between amateur and professional athletics. It's supposed to be students playing it as an extracurricular vocation. And we've gotten far away from that.

SIEGEL: Well, Dave Ridpath, thanks a lot for talking with us.

RIDPATH: I really appreciate it, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Dave Ridpath, assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University. He spoke to us from Athens, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.