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America's Democracy: Eroding from within

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In his signature style, our guest author summarizes the many issues and challenges faced by our American democracy with a focus on the sports-money problem in higher education. 

By Frank G. Splitt, 02-27-18 (with Afterword)

Today’s middle and lower-class Americans see affluent individuals and large corporations accumulating ever more wealth as they wield more power and face fewer regulations while the #MeToo movement has exposed the significant impact of male power over women in the workplace. On the other hand, millions of struggling Americans must reduce their already modest standards of living to survive with the escalating cost of healthcare.

Today’s Americans also want news; however, the real news business is suffering, the victim of the dependence on, and, an almost insatiable appetite for, social media of all too many citizens on ‘news’ from Google and Facebook. Both organizations have been and still are susceptible to trolling—foreigners sowing discord on the internet via fake news aimed at confusing and dividing Americans. In the absence of real news businesses, wild rumors and conspiracy theories can abound at the local and national level. 

Adding to the divisions among Americans are vexing issues surrounding nuclear weapons, gun violence & control, abortion, immigration, race & civil rights, climate change, the environment, a failing K-12 school system, and the opioid crisis. Radically polarized views and apocalyptic positions on these issues rule the day while a dysfunctional government and the lack of visionary leadership adds to the morass. 

It is of interest that Time magazine commissioned veteran conflict photographer James Nachtwey to document the opioid crisis over the past year through the people living it every day. The entire issue was devoted to ,"The Opioid Diaries," a riveting photo-story of the worst addiction epidemic in U.S. history—a representative national emergency demanding our urgent attention. 

All of this presents a not too pretty a picture of life in America’s democracy that appears to be eroding from within.  As we will see, that's not all. There exists still another pernicious problem facing America; it’s in higher education.

To begin, I found it more than ironic that the USPS delivered the "opioid issue” of Time on the same day that it delivered the February 23. 2018, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education featuring the cover story, "Unrivaled Power." The story takes the reader inside Auburn University's secret effort to advance an athletic-friendly curriculum. It tells the now all too familiar story of how colleges and universities, supporting big-time football and men's basketball programs, seek fame and fortune by corrupting their academic integrity so as to field competitive teams in what have become professionalized venues—conferences, tournaments, and the like. 

What was striking about the Auburn story is that the institution was subjected to the scrutiny of similar violations in the mid-2000s. As a consequence of this scrutiny, Dr. James Gundlach, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, was the recipient of The Drake Group's 2008 Robert Maynard Hutchins Award, recognized for exposing systemic academic improprieties at Auburn and standing up for academic integrity while the focus of vitriol  by Auburn fans, faculty and the administration, 


The attention-grabbing Auburn story followed a recent surge of other stories, each with revealing headlines, related to cheating and corruption in college sports, to wit: stories by Christian Smith, Paul Campos, Eric Kelderman, and Bonestee & Hobson.  When taken together, these stories reveal a troubling money-addictive situation involving an obsession with sports success and its tight relationship with fundraising, a situation that generally leads to cheating and academic corruption.  Here again we see a compelling demand for our attention. 

School administrators and governing boards usually share these sports-success obsessions. Sad to say, for all intents and purposes, school presidents and their governing boards have made a Faustian bargain to gain and retain their prestigious positions. For example, they look the other way when it comes to the negative impact of sports programs on academic integrity so long as the programs contribute to their schools fame and fortune. Hypocrisy abounds. Sadly, wealthy governing board members usually are sports boosters who possess few discernible qualifications for overseeing large research universities beyond their ability to make huge philanthropic donations to the schools—often to the athletic department.

The scandal at Auburn is just the latest in a veritable litany of schools with sports-related scandals. Here are just a few of the schools: Michigan State University, Baylor University, Notre Dame University, the University of Florida, and the University of North Carolina. Noteworthy is the fact that the 20-year "Paper-class” cheating scandal at North Carolina was the subject of a detailed analysis in a recent book. These scandals provide a cautionary tale for the many institutions that resemble these schools both on and off the playing field.

In view of the discord and sharp divisions on the issues within the American public and within its government, as well as the still unaddressed urgent need to resolve critical issues, one is again led to consider the possibility of a predicted outcome often attributed to Alexander Fraser Tyler (1747 -- 1813). To wit: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy – always followed by a dictatorship."

This need not be so. Needless to say, difficult cultural changes would be required as would an electorate informed by real news and leaders who don’t believe that money is everything. The PBS program "American Creed" reflects an effort to help meet these requirements by fostering a national conversation about America’s ideals and identity. 


To Christians, the future does have a name, and its name is Hope. Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn’t lock itself into darkness, that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow. Hope is the door that opens onto the future. Hope is a humble, hidden seed of life that with time, will develop into a large tree … A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you.—Pope Francis, April 26, 2017

Previously, I wrote: "There exists still another pernicious problem facing America; it’s in higher education. colleges and universities, supporting big-time football and men's basketball programs, seek fame and fortune by corrupting their academic integrity so as to field competitive teams in what have become professionalized  venues—conferences, tournaments, and the like.”  It’s certainly reasonable to ask: What’s the big deal? The answer can be found in the following excerpts from my 2005 essay on sports in America:

America’s love affair with big-time college-sports entertainment in combination with excessive cynicism, apathy (if not purposeful ignorance), and gambling, has been a recipe for growing commercialization at America’s institutions of higher learning. Excessive commercialization has brought academic corruption, financial shenanigans, increasing expenditures on athletics, and money-focused presidents who view sports programs as an economic necessity and undergraduate education as an expensive nuisance. It is ironic that the government’s subsidy of college sports via favorable tax policies is helping to fuel the destruction of what has been one of our nation’s most precious resources.

Worse yet, greed, fanatic sports fans, an apathetic public and inconsistent government policies allow the commercially driven college-sports enterprise to grow unchecked, all but guaranteeing distracted, booster-beholden university administrators and an expanding set of fun-loving consumers for their entertainment business … a business that has hijacked the academic mission of many universities. The rising costs of residential higher education and improved technology-driven competitive education delivery systems lead to the conclusion that America’s higher education enterprise is rapidly becoming untenable – unable to survive, just as predicted by Peter Drucker back in 1997.

And the beat goes on. Recent pieces on college sports issues in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Joseph Epstein, William McGurn, and Jason Gay tell similar stories….stories that have been told and retold for over the past 125 years. That is about the time since the Big-10 Conference was formed in 1895, perhaps even earlier.   For more on the early history of corruption and how an athletic conference turned college football into big business, see Winton U. Solberg's book, Creating the Big Ten: Courage, Corruption, and Commercialization, (University of Illinois Press, March 2018).


From the very beginning, reformers have been faced with three brutal facts: There exists intense pressure on schools and their athletes to win at any cost (including cheating); Big money rules the day; Key academic leaders either feel no shame or simply suppress the feeling so as not to jeopardize their positions. 

It was sad to see Notre Dame, a top college football program known for academic rigor and integrity, deal with a scandal involving players that cheated on class work. Although this scandal paled in comparison with the "Paper-class” scandal at the University of North Carolina mentioned earlier, it provided further evidence that college sports have likely passed a point of no return. Put another way:  If it could happen at Notre Dame, it could happen anywhere. David J. Schmidly, a former president of Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and New Mexico, has said, "I don’t think any institution is immune.”  His statement had the same ring to it as then University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins’ claim, back in 1939, "They all cheat.” 

The reformers are left to feel like bearers of unwelcome news, much like the feeling experienced by someone who, back in the day, suggested the use of Lifebuoy soap, in effect saying to the person that he has BO—a message no one really wants to hear. 

When the Philadelphia Phillies played at the Baker Bowl during the 1920s, an outfield 

wall advertisement for Lifebuoy stated, "The Phillies use Lifebuoy" One night a vandal 

added, "And they still stink.”  

Epstein wrote: "The fount of much corruption in college basketball and football is the alumni demand for winning teams." However, it’s not just the alumni and the public that can be blamed. Cheating and corruption are dependent on school administrators and governing boards that believe the end justifies the means—believing fame and fortune justify overlooking academic corruption and cheating in their sports programs

Is there any hope for corrective action? In an attempt to answer that question, we go back to the future, to the year 1776 to be precise. But first, it was with the future in mind that Jim Duderstadt, President Emeritus and University Professor of Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, wrote in 2000: "I believe that if university presidents would take a stand together and call for de-emphasis of big-time college sports, they would likely be successful. However, I also suspect it will take a major stimulus, a cosmic event, to galvanize such a united front as college sports careen out of control towards the edge of the cliff.  Perhaps such opportunities will arise in the not-too-distant future.” 

Indeed, cosmic events have occurred on an a regular basis in the ensuing 18 years … scandalous events involving academic corruption and cheating, performance-enhancing drugs, athletes’ name and image issues, violent athletes, sexual harassment, concussions, death, and more. Sadly, no matter how appalling, none of these events, even when taken together, have yet stimulated school presidents to band together to reclaim academic primacy in higher education. Presidents are caught between a rock and a hard place, between a public that demands professional-level entertainment from their schools commercialized sports businesses, and their booster-packed governing boards that have the capacity and inclination to fire presidents who don’t go along with winning at any cost.

The Epilogue for the 2003 paperback edition of Duderstadt’s book on intercollegiate athletics began with an epigraph consisting of the following quote from Thomas Paine's 1776 "Common Sense" … a quote that applies equally well to this and most other writings on college sports reform:  "Perhaps the sentiments contained in these pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

America is a sports-entertainment-and-gambling-loving nation. When it comes to college sports, the culturally-rooted behavior of its citizens is not only intensely tribal in nature, but also very difficult to change. This circumstance is best described by Harvard socio-biologist E.O. Wilson in a section of a 2015 PBS Documentary that focused on the football fans at the University of Alabama. 

To be sure, the blatant hypocrisy, manifest in big-time college sports, is not lost on conscientious students, faculty members, and a portion of the general public. No wonder why so many are losing respect for academic leaders and their institutions that have been such a vital part of America’s democracy. 

Experience indicates that hope for tomorrow lies not with the executive and legislative branches of government, but rather with the judicial branch as well as with action-oriented citizens like those involved with the "American Creed,” current and former college athletes that bring cases to court and/or seek to unionize, reform-minded faculty members and organizations such as The Drake Group, the College Sport Research Institute, the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, and the College Athletes Players Association. 

Hope also lies with journalists and other ‘sunshine’ writers who provide the light that illuminates the darkness surrounding big-time college sports. It is my hope that this light, coupled with the persevering work of all concerned parties, will, in time, reverse the erosion of our nation’s institutions of higher education and so, in turn, help reverse the erosion of America’s democracy

Frank G. Splitt, a former McCormick Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the author of the book An Odyssey of Reform Initiatives, 1986-2015: From Engineering, K-12, and Higher Education, to the Environment, N

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