President Obama’s love of college sports has become part of his political persona. He makes his March Madness picks each year on ESPN, scrimmaged as a candidate with North Carolina’s basketball team and once laid out a detailed plan for a college football playoff.
But now, as he responds to allegations of child sexual abuse at Penn State, the fan in chief is sounding more like a reform-minded critic.
The first time Obama took a question about the scandal, during an ESPN interview, he said, “It’s a good time for us to do some soul searching — every institution, not just Penn State — about what our priorities are, and making sure that we understand that our first priority is protecting our kids.”
Speaking with reporters late Sunday night, he said, “I think that when it’s kept in perspective, college athletics not only provides a great outlet for competition for our young people, but helps to bring a sense of community and can help to brand a university in a way that is fun and important.”
Obama’s comments come as the scandal has led to calls for changes in college sports, with critics charging that athletic departments, leagues and coaches preside over a system that rakes in billions of dollars, exploits young athletes and evades scrutiny.
The comments also follow recent efforts by the Obama administration to push some changes in college sports.
Most notably, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Obama’s longtime hoops partner, helped pressure the NCAA this year to adopt a rule that blocks teams from post-season play unless they are on track to graduate at least half of their players — a change suggested years ago by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and one that commission officials said Monday would not have happened without Duncan’s efforts.
Duncan issued scathing criticism of several major programs sending teams to this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament that would not have met the standard.
Now some critics of major college sports hope that Obama’s response to the Penn State scandal might signal his willingness to go further.
“I always feel some pangs of regret when I hear people lauding big-time intercollegiate athletics,” said William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system and co-chairman of the Knight Commission. But, he added, “the comments the president is making now maybe even have more force because of his former enthusiasm for college athletics.”
Obama has stopped far short of echoing some of the broader criticism of college sports. And administration officials say there are no plans for a major initiative on college athletics beyond the work being done by Duncan, who has also criticized schools for the “one and done” practice of allowing players to spend one year in school before turning pro.
But in his two appearances over the weekend, on ESPN and in a news conference at an economic summit in Hawaii, Obama seemed to be more specific in expressing concerns about the broader implications of the Penn State situation.
“What happened at Penn State indicates that at a certain point, folks start thinking about systems and institutions and don’t think about individuals,” he said Sunday. “And when you think about how vulnerable kids are, for the alleged facts of that case to have taken place and for folks not to immediately say, ‘Nothing else matters except making sure those kids are protected,’ that’s a problem.”
Obama added that part of the response to the scandal should be “making sure that our excitement about a college sports program doesn’t get in the way of our basic human response when somebody is being hurt.”
For Obama, taking on college sports would be a politically dicey proposition. School programs are cherished institutions backed by influential alumni in many states, including several 2012 presidential election battlegrounds. Schools in three Obama election targets — North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — have faced recent football scandals.
And, for a professorial president eager for ways to relate to regular folks, attending the occasional game and fully embracing March Madness help Obama extend his brand beyond the often-ugly policy battles in Washington.
Advocates for overhauling college sports say Obama will have a precedent if he decides to make it his cause.
They point to the early 20th century, when a series of deaths during college football games prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to call school leaders to the White House to demand reforms. Roosevelt was a fan, motivated by his desire to save the sport, historians have said.
Some hope Obama would be able to serve the same purpose.
“I take it as a positive thing that we’ve got somebody who’s not anti-sports but is critical about some aspects,” said Charles T. Clotfelter, a Duke professor and author of the book “Big-Time Sports in American Universities.”
Tom McMillen, a former University of Maryland basketball star who as a congressman pushed for a graduation rate disclosure law, said he “has always said it would take the president to step in and reform college sports.”
But, he added, the Penn State scandal, which affects one school, was probably not enough to push the White House to intervene. “It would have to be something that spans a number of institutions,” he said.
And Obama is showing no signs of letting up on his affinity for college sports.
His Friday night ESPN interview came as he watched a basketball game between the University of North Carolina and Michigan State.
The game, a Veterans Day event aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, gave the president a chance to mingle with military service members. And Obama reminded ESPN’s Andy Katz about the Vinson’s role in disposing of Osama bin Laden’s body.
But frequent television shots showed Obama paying close attention to the game, and he ended the interview sounding more like a seasoned sports analyst than the commander in chief.
Asked whether he would once again pick North Carolina to win the national title this season, Obama said: “They’re looking pretty good tonight. [UNC forward John] Henson’s having an unbelievable game.”