Some of you may not be aware that I am an alumnus of Penn State University. I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from Penn State in 2002 after six years in Happy Valley. My sojourn there was not the longest, but it was long enough for me to develop both a sense of the area and of the surrounding community. I love the area, and I still have friends who live in Happy Valley and work at Penn State.
It has been with above average interest, then, that I have followed the wake of the indictment of Jerry Sandusky and the associated revelations it exposed regarding Joe Paterno, the long-time head coach of Penn State’s football team, and Graham Spanier, Penn State’s president since 1995. And it is with a heavy heart that I say the things I am getting ready to say.
I will not rehearse the entire story up to this point, since anyone reading this likely knows enough. I write this immediately after Paterno and Spanier have been sacked by the Board of Trustees. This act has received widespread praise as an act of moral courage. Yet I have a hard time seeing it this way. I am not normally one to raise a high moral bar, but in light of what has come to light so far it truly seems that the Trustees merely managed to do the bare minimum needed for the University to emerge with any kind of integrity left. The real courage here is that of the victims themselves. It takes courage and strength to report abuse of a kind that few people, myself included, are ever called upon to summon.
Let us not forget that Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier were let go because of their part in failing to report allegations of child rape to the appropriate authorities. Were we not all reflexively socialized to treat successful and powerful people like Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier with the utmost deference and to cite with sympathy their duties to the institutions they serve, we would all be able to see the situation for what it is: One in which multiple people displayed monumentally callous indifference to the welfare of utterly vulnerable children induced by a desire to spare public shame to an institution that, for all of its virtues, has never for a moment been worth the rape of one child, much less several. Add to this that many of Sandusky’s victims are reportedly black and underprivileged, and it adds a layer of race and class to the moral lapse on display. The Board of Trustees has merely managed to view the situation through the kind of lens anyone who hadn’t spent fifteen years living in a hole in the ground would see it through.
As for the students congregating in the streets in State College tonight in apparent protest of Joe Paterno’s firing, I would only ask those of us with sense to reflect that it is precisely their reaction, which is predictable to anyone who has spent even a little time in Happy Valley, that demonstrates just how courageous the victims were to come forward. I would ask all of us to remember this the next time someone comes forward to accuse a powerful person of sexual abuse.
I do have a few words to say, however, against the notion that the Sandusky charges have little to teach us about top-tier college sports programs. It is true, and we mustn’t forget this, that the charges against Sandusky are against him, not against the University or its football team. The harm done to Sandusky’s victims is the paramount concern. Yet there is a lesson about college sports programs to be learned here all the same, and in light of my years in higher education I feel compelled to spell it out.
In my career in higher ed, I worked at more than one institution with a nationally-ranked NCAA Division I sports team. I never had any more than incidental contact with those sports teams or their staffs in my professional capacity. I figured out, though, that the relationship between a large Division I athletic program and the rest of the university is far more subtle and widespread than is obvious from the outside. Many people, especially students and their parents paying high tuition bills (that are going up much faster than the rate of inflation), point to the high salaries earned by top coaches and the state-of-the-art facilities the sports teams utilize and sense that athletic programs siphon off their hard-earned dollars. However, it isn’t as direct a matter as all that. Big, successful Division I sports programs actually not only make enough money to be largely self-supporting, much of it off of licensing of logos and insignias, but they also help fund the panoply of sports programs schools have to offer under the requirements of Title IX. Although I can’t boast full awareness of all the financial details, this is my general understanding. Whatever it is that big-name sports programs do to their universities, it isn’t first and foremost a matter of their draining the universities of funds that would have been allocated elsewhere.
In fact, this relative financial independence of sports programs is part of the problem. If Penn State’s football program had to siphon money away from faculty salaries and facilities budgets, the money might come with some actual strings attached that would give the university leverage over how the programs govern themselves. But this is not the case, and so successful programs know that they can operate in relative independence of their university presidents and administrations, since they don’t generally depend on them for money. Add to that the fact that, for reasons that my uninterested-in-sports mind will never fathom, sports programs drive general alumni involvement and fundraising in a way that core academic functions like teaching and research never do. So successful sports teams grow to take over the public face of the university in a way that all but forces university presidents and university adminstrations to support and boost them. This relative independence means, ironically, that sports programs enjoy even greater leverage over university administrations when it comes to any matters in which they require university concurrence to proceed. In some cases powerful coaches or athletic directors wield power over university policy– and, in some cases, local politics, urban planning and development strategy, and the like– that university presidents never possess in their wildest dreams.
What big-name college sports steals is not so much institutional resources as something more precious– institutional focus and priorities. It creates a situation in which university adminstrations are forced to serve as gratis front office staff for semiprofessional sports franchises. And when the most powerful people within the sports franchise– the Joe Paternos– do not possess the moral clarity needed to report child rape on their premises, there are few to no institutional checks in place that would take over. And there is every reason in the world for university administration to cover up anything that would make the sports program lose face.
So while I am shocked at what appears to have happened at my alma mater, I can’t pretend for a moment to be terribly surprised. And I also can’t help but link collegiate sports to the full dimensions of the problem.