In his 28 years at Penn State University, Ronald A. Smith only served on one PSU athletics committee, despite the fact that he is the university’s most recognizable scholar on college athletics. “They like people that are ‘rah, rah, Penn State’ on those committees,” says the author from his home in Lemont, Pa. “Even though I cheer for Penn State, I look at both sides of the issue.”
His books — “Sports and Freedom,” “Play-by-Play” and “Big-Time Football at Harvard” — are often interpreted as anti-college sports treatises. And there’s no doubt his latest, “Pay For Play,” will be viewed that way by many in the NCAA establishment.
Smith readily admits his bias. But, surprisingly, that bias is the exact opposite of what one might expect. He strongly believes that big-time athletic programs are important components of a college’s success and viability.
“The only reason I gave up my Penn State football tickets is because I was tired of watching Joe Paterno call such boring plays. But I love to attend other Penn State sports,” he says. “When I do historical writing, I try to see what events and people made changes. And that brings me to some negative things, because lawsuits and scandals are the things that drive college sport.”
“Pay For Play” chronicles major attempts at reform in college athletics — from racial integration and Title IX to the basketball scandals of the 1950s. But Smith is perhaps less “rah, rah” than some would like when it comes to university presidents. “Every decade, from the early 20th century until now, people have said that presidents are our best hope for reform. I think this is a bunch of bunk,” he says. “Presidents of these institutions are cheerleaders, not reformers. They want big-time collegiate athletics for the prestige that it brings.”