Gee, whose $1.8 million salary is the highest for a public-university president, was asked if he was going to dismiss the coach, Jim Tressel, in the wake of growing allegations that he covered up the problems in his program.
"No, are you kidding?" Gee said with a laugh. "Let me be very clear. I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me."
Tressel, long considered a model citizen among his coaching peers, did eventually get fired. And the disturbing echo of Gee's statement — which he said later was a lame attempt at humor — wasn't lost on anyone: At many schools, the football or basketball coach really does hold more sway than the president.
"Frankly, even before some of the latest scandals, several key leaders in college sports were all saying college sports is at a crossroads, a tipping point," said Knight Commission executive director Amy Perko. "We're at a moment in time where we need to define what this enterprise is really all about."
While the NCAA keeps trying to sort out its mission, the schools themselves have spent the last few years engaging in conference realignment.
The process has been, by and large, a set of clumsy, money-driven decisions that has very little to do with schools' locations or the welfare of the so-called "student-athletes" and everything to do with expanding conference footprints, signing better TV deals and — always, always, always — making more money. Exhibit A: By adding two teams in the Mountain Time Zone, the Pac-12 quadrupled TV revenue. Exhibit B: The University of Texas is running its own TV network, which in many ways is leading to the slow disintegration of the Big 12.
"I think the general rule is to let the athletic departments run on their own and to hire good people to manage those," said University of Oregon professor Nathan Tublitz, a member of the Coalition On Intercollegiate Athletics, a faculty group seeking reform.
"The problem is, they generate so much money, they become such a big business, that some of the values of the institution are not being followed when the athletic departments make decisions."
This strange values system exists, Tublitz says, because of the money and the fame that successful sports programs can shower upon a school.
At Penn State, for example, the football program produced almost $73 million in revenues over the past year.
Tublitz points to a study from about 10 years ago that was circulated internally by his school president: Of all the headlines mentioning the University of Oregon in the state's largest newspaper, The Oregonian, 72 percent dealt with sports, 18 percent dealt with deaths of alumni and others with connections to the school and the rest was divided equally between academic and nonacademic issues on campus.
"I don't know that there's an ultimate solution," said Asbury, the Penn State rep on the Knight Commission. "I don't know that we'll go back to the days when athletes really were students first and athletes second."
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