The 2013 college football season was a near-total disaster for Air Force and head coach Troy Calhoun... and that didn't even include the recent revelations about the off-field scandals that have tarnished his program.

Air Force: The Limits Of Preferential Treatment

In light of Sunday morning’s report by Tom Roeder of the Colorado Springs Gazette on the mess at the Air Force Academy’s athletic department, let’s start with a brief aside on comparisons and boundaries in the realm of public discussion. (You can read a Student Section news summary of the piece here.)

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When a comparison is made between any two stories, groups of people, social tension points, or anything else under the sun, readers get nervous and often something much more than that.

In the modern world we know, one defined by instant media and instant takes, debate becomes supercharged and overheated before textured conversations have a chance to develop. We all have different perspectives as human beings, and these perspectives — rooted in our experiences — inform how we react to the use of certain words, devices, and argumentative methods. Because words carry such weight and often acquire strong connotations, it is reasonable for people to perceive slights. To be more specific, it is reasonable for people to perceive slights embedded in certain words in the same way that it’s reasonable to perceive a threat when you’re walking down an alley at 1 a.m. in the inner city, even if a person trailing you has no weapons on his or her person.

What’s not right, however, is to immediately act on what we feel. It’s okay to feel afraid in that alley at 1 a.m. It’s not okay to shoot the person 15 yards behind you just because you’re afraid. Similarly, in the intertwined realms of journalism and editorial commentary, it’s perfectly fine to think certain thoughts and internally worry that one’s reputation is being assaulted. It’s not fine to insist that another person is being abusive, though… not unless or until it becomes clear and verifiable that a knowingly malicious act is being undertaken with keyboard or pen.

Asking questions of a writer; double-checking statements; examining the history of an issue or set of issues — these and other acts must precede that point in an interaction when a severe charge or claim is lobbed at an opinion-giver. With this important prelude in mind, understand the true intent of the following sentence as this essay gets off the ground:

The echoes of Penn State linger at the Air Force Academy today.

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Let’s get one thing straight about the above sentence: While obviously inviting a comparison between Air Force and Penn State, that sentence does not say equivalent situations exist(ed) at the two schools. Indeed, the situations aren’t the same. Yet, that aside you read above about comparisons is important for an obvious reason: One can compare Penn State and Air Force and yet not be held to the claim that the two schools’ situations are identical.

Readers might instinctively recoil in the face of any comparison between Penn State and Air Force, but the true measurement of a comparison between any two things in life is not the act of the comparison itself; it’s the quality of the comparison. Let this point sink in as you try to process what’s going on (and what has been going on) in Colorado Springs.

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No, Air Force is not having to answer to coaches molesting minors today. No, Air Force does not have an iconic coach who plainly failed to do anything close to the maximum in an attempt to get a sexual predator off campus. What has come to light in the Colorado Springs Gazette’s damning report is not as severe as what happened at Penn State — it’s not particularly close. This is not the comparison one should attempt to make.

The relevant comparison between Air Force and Penn State is simply this: Sports programs, especially the ones that bring in comparatively more money, are treated by leaders and decision makers with more leniency than other aspects of a university’s overall operations.

The misdeeds at Penn State, many of them sins of omission (not just commission), flowed from a desire to protect the football program. What is seen at Air Force in Sunday morning’s report is a series of negative trends. It can reasonably be stated that while leaders — from former superintendent Mike Gould to current athletic director Hans Mueh to current football coach Troy Calhoun — did not necessarily protect problem athletes, they all let standards slide to a certain degree, sacrificing the academy’s principles for a chance to win more games. This trend directly contradicts all the correct and proper things Calhoun stated in Tom Roeder’s report.

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Air Force, not just because of its place as a service academy with supposedly higher standards, but also because of the pervasive and long-term nature of this scandal, shows that preferential treatment to athletes (and athletics in general) can be just as entrenched and problematic at schools where national championships and BCS (now College Football Playoff) bowls are not realistic possibilities. No matter where certain schools exist in the realm of college football and revenue-producing collegiate sports, this problem of preferential treatment simply won’t go away.

It’s one thing for a football school such as Penn State to allow awful crimes to happen under its watch, and cloak those crimes in secrecy to protect an immensely successful head coach. Air Force is not what one would consider a “football factory” or a win-at-all-costs basketball school, and while its misdeeds clearly pale in comparison to what happened at Penn State, the reality of a service academy being so wayward in its operations shows that the temptation to elevate athletics above other concerns does not decrease just because certain prizes are not realistic goals.

Preferential treatment toward athletes and athletics happens in many places, and it can happen just about anywhere. This truth continues to be affirmed everywhere you look in college sports, and it serves as a gateway to a recommended reform that only gains more and more momentum in the realm of common sense: Punishments in college sports have to be standardized, such that schools no longer get to choose who gets punished for how long based on a given offense.

The debate in college sports can (and should) concern the severity of punishment for Violation A or Offense B or Crime C, but the idea that a set punishment should exist for those violations/offenses/crimes (and subsequently, for players; negligent coaches; negligent athletic directors; negligent university officials; the athletic departments themselves; and the schools themselves) is an idea whose time has come.

What happened with Nick Marshall at Auburn magnified this issue. What is happening with Dorial Green-Beckham at Oklahoma is magnifying this issue even more.

Air Force’s scandal, though, goes far beyond the reach of one player or one university leader in isolation. This is and has been a pervasive internal and cultural problem stretching over several years. It’s a story of preferential treatment, a story of the very problem that — with a little bit of reform — can be taken out of a school’s hands and given an automatic penalty.

The penalties themselves should be contested. Once the college sports community comes to a point of agreement on that matter, however, standardized punishments need to become a part of collegiate athletics. Hopefully, the awful reports coming out of Colorado Springs will offer that benefit, or something similarly helpful to the athletic-industrial complex, before we have to hear about another culture of preferential treatment (and lax oversight) at another Division I athletic program.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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