How does College Football in the 2010s connect to the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s?

A Living Room Reflection, a new series of essays on the discussions, insights, and experiences that make Living Room Learning so special.


The great joy of learning with a group comes when someone shares an idea that would never have come to your mind or raises a point you would never have thought to make. Teachers are also learners, and almost every time I lead a discussion I find that I leave with a new perspective on the topic we covered.

On August 23rd, five Living Room Learners joined me around my dining table to talk about the Teapot Dome Scandal. What was this crazy political controversy? In 1921 the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, leased the Teapot Dome oil field to the Sinclair Oil Corporation. The lease was a thank-you gift to Harry Sinclair for donating money to President Warren G. Harding's 1920 campaign. Senator Robert La Follette, a progressive Democrat from Wisconsin, demanded that the Senate form a special committee to investigate this shady backroom deal. The corruption that the special prosecutors uncovered, however, stretched far beyond Fall, Sinclair, and Harding...

To kick off our discussion of the scandal, I asked the group what, exactly, was so bad about corruption. The problem, as one Learner noted, is that because corruption gives an unfair advantage to a select individual or institution, it undermines society's trust in important social functions, from applying for a job to electing representatives. To illustrate this, he pointed to....

College. Sports.

My jaw hit the floor. I had so narrowly focused my attention on politics, government, and elections, that I had not considered any contemporary examples of corruption in the spheres of entertainment or education. 

"Accusations of corruption are common in college sports," he said, "especially around recruitment." Even though NCAA rules dictate that coaches cannot try to attract a player with anything but a college scholarship, rumors swirl around highly-ranked recruits who are seen driving around in new cars or sporting fancy new gear. "Yet," this learner noted, "because many college sports fans feel it's unfair that these athletes are not paid to play while their universities make millions for their labor, to a certain extent this corruption is tolerated." 

I was floored. This Learner's point about college sports provided a great example of how we understand corruption in relation to our cultural norms and rules. Corruption deviates from what we agree are legal actions or normative, transparent processes--but sometimes, when that deviation benefits someone that we perceive as vulnerable, we choose to look the other way. It's the Robin Hood idea, that it's ok to steal from the rich to help the poor. With a quick example about college sports, we all left Living Room Learning with a better understanding of why corruption is such a complex social ill.