In a Washington Post column, John Feinstein urges colleges and universities to resist the temptation to put their superstar coaches, like the late Joe Paterno, on pedestals during their lifetimes.

Good luck.

When it comes to college sports, winning isn’t everything. But it is still the only thing fans and boosters truly care about. Which is why winning coaches will continue to receive god-like homage and tragedies like the Penn State debacle will be repeated once again in the not too distant future. Big time college sports is simple too big to be constained by the moral and legal codes of mere mortals.

The heart of the problem, however, is not corrupt coaches or out-of-control sports programs; it is intercollegiate athletics itself. Its value to students and the academic enterprise is marginal at best. Sure big-time athletics can help fund lots of other good things on campus. So can theft and prostitution. The fact that college sports programs have become cash cows is not an argument in their favor. They are a source of institutional devolution. Sports, not scholarship, not student development, not the shaping of men and women of honor, integrity, and service, drives many major academies today. Intercollegiate sports may be great entertainment, but they are always fundamentally distractions to the mission of quality higher education. And at institutions like Penn State, they sometimes completely derail the university’s mission. Once that begins to happen, college sport becomes a powerful negative force that undermines quality student learning and campus culture.

Can we derive benefits from intercollegiate athletics? Sure. But tragedies like the Penn State mess are symptoms of a much more dangerous ailment that college sports fans and boosters regularly mistake for academic health.

HT: Stephen Lyons