Sports have always been a huge part of my life, whether it was as a competitor or a fan.
Athletics played a major role on my choice of a college.
I met my wife at a basketball game. And I have spent more than half of my professional career covering sports.
I saw so many admiral qualities that sports can develop. From encouraging a strong work ethic to setting and striving for goals to the importance of teamwork, sports can foster so many important life lessons. And, to me, amateur athletics were also the most admirable.
What could be more pure than someone putting his heart and soul into an endeavor, not for monetary gain but simply for the love of the game?
Just being a fan can be a positive as well, as it has the power to unite communities.
But over the past decade, my perspective on sports and their relevance to our society has slowly begun to change.
It started in 2003, when three schools – Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech – bolted the Big East Conference for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Miami and Virginia Tech were somewhat understandable. They were a better geographic fit for the ACC and could argue that the time and money saved in travel made the switch worthwhile. Boston College, on the other hand, had no such argument. The closest league member for the Golden Eagles was the University of Maryland, which is 435 miles from Boston.
The moves, pure and simple, were about the money the university’s football teams could generate.
The Big East, fearing that it would be left out of the big-money Bowl Championship Series if it didn’t act quickly to bolster its football league, raided Conference USA by taking Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida.
That was far from the only money grab being made. In fact, everyone in big-time college football seemed to be tainted by scandal in one form or another.
In addition to regular appearances in the police blotter, star players have made headlines off the field for accepting money or improper gifts from agents and/or boosters.
Coaches were no better, whether it was Jim Tressel being forced out at Ohio State for lying about NCAA violations or Todd Graham scurrying out of Pittsburgh after just one season with the Panthers – and informing his players of his decision via text message – they have hardly been the ideals of morality and sportsmanship they should be.
Even the games themselves haven’t been able to escape the cloud of pestilence, as former Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker pleaded guilty for his role in a fraudulent campaign-contribution scheme that rewarded politicians who supported the bowl game.
Little by little, with each scandal stacked on top of another, my passion for college football began to wane.
When the latest round of conference roulette, which started when the Big Ten accepted Nebraska as its 12th member, my affinity for the sport turned to disdain.
The Big East added Central Florida and Texas Christian, only to lose TCU to the Big 12 before the Horned Frogs ever played a down in the conference.
Pitt and Syracuse left for the ACC, the same league that supporters blistered a decade earlier for plundering the Big East. West Virginia, which wasn’t content to stay in a weakened Big East, came up with arguably the best landing spot it could in the Big 12.
Then the talk started that ACC stalwarts Florida State and Clemson would join the Mountaineers in the Big 12.
The more the rumors swirled the more nauseated I became.
But all of the scandal, all of the conference gerrymandering and all of the twisted routes run in pursuit of the almighty dollar could in no way prepare me for the most sickening example of sports gone awry to date.
That came on Thursday, when former FBI director Louis Freeh released his report on how Penn State handled the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case.
According to Freeh, Penn State not only turned a blind eye toward the allegations against Sandusky that first surfaced in 1998, but President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Tim Curley and legendary football coach Joe Paterno actually worked to conceal Sandusky’s actions.
Penn State’s leaders were more concerned about bad publicity for the football program and the school than they were about the fact that a predatory monster was lurking within their football complex and using the very product that they were trying to protect to lure his victims.
That tells me that this country, and specifically that institution, has gone tumbling down the wrong side of the slippery slope that is sports idolatry.
When anyone puts a football team ahead of the safety and well-being of innocent children, we’ve gone too far.
It’s time we all take a step back and recognize college football for what it is: Young men playing an entertaining game.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Eric Knopsnyder is editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091.