Even for those who are not fans of collegiate sports, what seems an increasing spate of scandals in some programs has sparked commentary not just on structural problems in the college athletics but how the wrongdoing may be indicative of deeper flaws in our social fabric. Is America, as these scandals seem to suggest, falling increasingly prone to greed, dishonesty, sexual immorality, sports celebrity worship and a desire to win at any cost? 

The latest scandal to erupt was brought to light by a 42-year-old “booster” of the University of Miami’s football team. In prison now for his involvement in a nearly billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, Nevin Shapiro gave some 100 hours of interviews to an investigative reporting team from Yahoo! Sports detailing how, contrary to NCAA rules, he gave millions of dollars worth of illicit benefits to players, including “cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion.”  

‘We decided our sports program, whatever form it took, would have at its core the formation of the human person.’

In terms of scope and magnitude, the Miami scandal is among the worst. But tales of financial compensation and other benefits dog too many college campuses. Early this year, for example, Ohio State’s popular head coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign after failing to report player violations. 

Some are tempted to view these scandals as a result of the application of anachronistic and byzantine NCAA rules governing players’ conduct. In the past decade, the number of NCAA cases involving “secondary infractions” — those deemed inadvertent or isolated — have reportedly doubled. Many of the larger sports programs have as many as 10 employees simply to monitor NCAA compliance. 

Others point out that college sports in this country have a long history of scandal. A recent National Public Radio report recalled that the very first intercollegiate sporting event in this country — an 1852 boat race between Yale and Harvard — was found by historians to have been marred by the inclusion of rowers who were not registered students. 

Even for the world weary, neither solution — dumping the rules altogether, or shrugging off their violation as grounded in age-old precedent — is entirely satisfactory. Why? Because neither accounts for the idealism and self-discipline that sport is supposed to exemplify.  

That’s why virtue-oriented sports movements such as the one at the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), a new NCAA member, seem shockingly bold and almost naïve in their idealism (see Pages 14B-16B). “We decided our sports program, whatever form it took, would have at its core the formation of the human person within a Catholic framework,” Steubenville’s athletic director said. That means a tough code of conduct for players, a healthy dose of prayer both on and off the field, and magnanimity toward opponents. 

“John Paul II referred to athletics as a ‘school of virtue,’” the athletic director said. “In other words, it’s a means by which you can become a better human being.” 

That vision of sports seems worlds away from the headlines on ESPN. At the same time, it arguably embodies what most fans would really love to believe about athletic contest. In the words of St. Paul, we wish endurance to those behind programs like that at Steubenville to “persevere in running the race that lies before [them]” both for the good of college sports, but also for the health and inspiration to pursue virtue of society itself.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.