An alternative method of measuring athletes' graduation rates shows football players lag behind their full-time, non-athlete peers in most conferences, with black athletes in many cases faring especially poorly.
When decision makers at Pennsylvania State University decided to tear down the seven-foot statue of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, I expressed my disgust — originally stated at the creation — that such a statue ever existed. If anybody deserves a statue on a university campus, that person would be an outstanding professor or an outstanding student.
A denizen of any campus where worshipping big-time football feels de rigueur can feel threatened when explaining how the sport poisons academia. Sometimes I feel akin to an agnostic who points out the ridiculous nature of the Bible story while attending a church service as a guest.
Books Discussed in This Essay
Paterno, a biography by Joe Posnanski, Simon & Schuster, published August 2012
What has been revealed about Penn State in the past year supplies ammunition to previously marginalized critics of big-time football like myself. Yet it is difficult to feel joy given the circumstances.
A queasy feeling arises while citing the Penn State mess to score points in the debate about the undesirable role of big-time football in academe; after all, numerous adolescents became victims of sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach who had been lionized for decades. Nobody should enjoy saying anything that feels like exploiting those victims.
For me personally, the queasiness factor multiplies by near-infinity because the president of Penn State who lost his job during the mess is my friend of 50 years' duration.
But eschewing the rare opportunity to speak truth to power on football-besotted college campuses would be wrong. So I will speak up, relying on my dual status as professional book reviewer and University of Missouri emeritus professor to enter through the side door. Two just-published books about the Penn State mess provide a convenient platform for the review/essay you are reading now.
If you believe the culture of big-time college football is healthy for so-called student-athletes on the team; if you believe any college football coach should be paid more than a half-million dollars per year; if you believe faculty and staff and non-football players within the student body are better off because of revenue from the games and corruption of classroom standards — well, you might want to stop reading now. I hope, however, that you will continue.
What a shame that Penn State ended up serving as the cornerstone of the movement for de-emphasis of big-time football. The evidence is plentiful in both books that Paterno sincerely cared about football players studying and graduating. He called his plan "the Grand Experiment." As reported by Bill Moushey and Bob Dvorchak, Paterno would ask the high school students he recruited for the football team, "What if we have the best of both worlds? What if Penn State kids were smart enough to graduate from Harvard and athletic enough to beat Alabama" for a national championship?
The co-authors came to believe through their reporting that the Grand Experiment succeeded. So does the author of the Paterno biography, who has accumulated dozens of compelling examples.
When Penn State won a national championship with Paterno as coach, that same year its quarterback earned a Phi Beta Kappa designation with a grade-point average of 3.83 on a 4.0 scale. "The graduation rate for players that year was 90 percent, higher than the overall student population at Penn State," according to Moushey and Dvorchak, both former reporters at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Dvorchak specialized in sports coverage; Moushey specialized in digging out corruption and injustice.)
Game Over serves as a primer on the criminality of Sandusky and the broken criminal justice system that allowed him to remain free as a serial child molester year after year. The book appeared in stores during April, and received a surprisingly small amount of attention given the timely and sensational topic. The book has since been overtaken somewhat by events, especially the release of the Freeh report, named after chief investigator Louis Freeh, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director hired by Penn State to examine the university’s responsibility regarding Sandusky’s serial molestations of boys. The Moushey-Dvorchak book is easier to digest than the Freeh report, however, and is pretty much devoid of the sweeping, harsh judgments about Penn State administrators disseminated by Freeh.
The Paterno biography is receiving lots of attention. The commentary began before the book’s official publication date of August 21. That is no surprise. Author Joe Posnanski, a veteran sports journalist, received a gigantic advance (reportedly $750,000); moved to State College to immerse himself in his subject’s life before Sandusky’s crimes became publicly known; received extraordinary cooperation from Paterno; capitalized on his already-substantial readership as a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and author of previous books; plus benefited from being edited by Jonathan Karp, one of the very best in the trade book realm. Rarely (if ever) has a biographer been forced to re-evaluate a life so dramatically when so close to the finish line. Then losing access to Paterno after the cancer in his body spread so quickly, killing him last January, created even more difficulty for Posnanski’s re-evaluation.
Karp, in a letter to potential reviewers of the book, calls the biography "an indelible portrait of a remarkable and complicated life, and it provokes serious questions about how we measure the meaning of a life." So true. In fact, "learning how to measure the meaning of a life" sounds like a wise mission statement for a university.
I knew little about Paterno before reading the biography, other than his reputation as a winning coach who sincerely cared about his players. Based on Posnanksi’s research, I judge Paterno positively as an on-field coach, as a husband, as a father, as a mentor to countless young athletes. Should Paterno have known about Sandusky’s penchant for molesting boys? Perhaps, considering how many decades they worked together. Did Paterno know, and participate in a cover-up? Based on Posnanski’s reporting, probably not. Paterno was so focused simultaneously on his players’ welfare and on winning games that it is plausible he suspected nothing about Sandusky’s criminal behavior.
Toward the end of the book, Posnanski describes the thinking of Jay Paterno, the son of the head coach who became an assistant coach, working alongside Sandusky. The description by Posnanski of what Jay Paterno concluded seems to reflect much of what Posnanski arrived at, and what I have also adopted as my starting point: "If Sandusky was guilty, everybody was fooled.... How could [anybody] believe [Joe Paterno] knew about evils that nobody else seemed to know about?"
Another distinguished career being re-evaluated is Graham Spanier’s. Before his departure under pressure from the Penn State presidency last November, he had served 16 years as one of the most visible, controversial and — dare I remind people — respected university chieftains in the United States. Countless individuals who had admired Spanier’s job performance now revile him as somebody who somehow enabled a child molester on campus — even though Spanier knew nothing about Sandusky’s criminal behavior while Sandusky was employed at Penn State.
Spanier and I met as freshmen in high school. Our friendship grew, even as we competed for the affection of the same young woman as teenagers and shared a position on the high school newspaper. Spanier married in 1971, soon after college graduation. I served as a groomsman.
Proceeding relentlessly and brilliantly through the hoops, Spanier earned a doctorate, achieving expertise in the field of sociology/ family relations, with deep knowledge about troubled children and their parents. I knew something not many people in Spanier’s life knew — he had been physically abused as a child by his father. I knew Spanier’s father, and stayed away from him.
Unlike me, Spanier values the role of big-time football. He enjoys his role as fan, somehow (like millions of others) finding fulfillment in a sport I consider barbaric. (I should make clear that I believe all other intercollegiate sports except big-time basketball contribute positively to campus life. Athletes I have encountered from university baseball, tennis, swimming and wrestling teams labor mightily as students and also try to avoid situations that result in criminal records. I still play competitive baseball and tennis at age 64.)
Despite Spanier’s enjoyment of football, he would have liked to de-emphasize its overweening importance in the minds of students, faculty, staff and alumni. But by 1995, when Spanier became president, it was way too late for that. He realized he needed to be satisfied with a coach who treated academic performance seriously, who donated millions of dollars to the university library, and who did not rank the scholarly mission of Penn State below the football team’s won-lost record.
Spanier had to deal with the football/academia nexus to some extent while provost at Oregon State University. When he moved to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln as chancellor, Spanier entered another world, though. The Nebraska campus might rival the Penn State campus in its fervor for football. Spanier did not flinch when he felt he had to ease out a legendary athletic director. For the remainder of his tenure at Nebraska, Spanier and his family had to live with death threats. Understanding that big-time football should be better-integrated with academia, Spanier played increasingly influential roles within the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Offered the presidency at Penn State, Spanier was acutely aware of the influence Paterno wielded. Spanier knew he would sometimes have to delegate, sometimes look the other way when trouble arose. After all, Spanier was president not only of the main campus in State College, but 23 other campuses spread across the sprawling state. Spanier was responsible for close to 50,000 employees, around 90,000 students, and a budget that reached into the billions. He could not always obsess about Paterno. And he certainly could not know everything about Sandusky. In fact, by the time Spanier knew anything suspicious about Sandusky’s behavior around boys, the assistant coach was a former Penn State employee.
Posnanski, based on secondhand information about Spanier, characterizes him in the Paterno biography as "a dynamic and curious personality. He craved attention. He performed magic tricks at parties. He played washboard regularly in a State College band called the Deacons of Dixieland. His band biography read 'In his spare time he serves as president of Penn State University.' He dressed in a gorilla costume when he became chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and when he was Penn State’s president he sometimes dressed as the university's mascot. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona, and he had his pilot's license, flying whenever the opportunity arose. He would wander around campus before classes began to help students move into their dorm rooms… Spanier was a political animal who cared deeply about everyone’s opinion… Spanier enjoyed being unconventional, being viewed as quirky and offbeat and even a little goofy."
The activities Posnanski describes are all part of Spanier, yes. But "craved attention" and "cared deeply about everyone’s opinion"? Not the Spanier I’ve known for 50 years. Much of each 24-hour cycle, he is a workaholic, serious about serving a university with near-perfection. The rest of each cycle, he is a man of many interests, some of them unusual, who exhibits an extreme joie de vivre.
I understand from a public relations standpoint why Spanier is no longer Penn State president. But I resent that higher education has lost an important voice when it comes to so many issues where Spanier earned a leadership role — not only intercollegiate athletics, but also music piracy by students, and national security’s intersection with campus research.
There is a tiny amount of actual evidence that Spanier could have known about a couple of Sandusky’s predations before last year. The Freeh report includes two e-mails regarding Sandusky’s alleged misbehavior with a boy during 1998. Spanier was not the primary recipient of those messages; instead he is copied on the cc: line along with other recipients. Spanier tells me he never saw, or at least does not recall seeing, those two e-mails. I believe him. Although I’m an investigative reporter with 45 years professional experience, perhaps I’m naïve about my friend. But I doubt that.
It is unimaginable to me that Spanier would tell me lies about Sandusky, Paterno or anybody/anything else. Three thoughts to bolster my belief in Spanier’s version regarding those 1998 emails: first, the wording does not state Sandusky engaged in criminal behavior. Second, even if criminal behavior could have been intuited from the vague language, Spanier would have been correct to leave the investigation to campus police, city police, child welfare investigators, and the local prosecutor. Third, Spanier is obsessive about answering e-mails and snail mail and returning telephone messages. If those 1998 cc: emails had been cause for alarm, Spanier quite likely would have fired off an answer fast.
Whatever happens to Spanier as the mess at Penn State continues to unravel, I want to end this essay optimistically. For decades, the quest to reduce the negative influences of big-time football (and basketball) on campus life has seemed futile. Yet both books demonstrate that the Grand Experiment initiated by Paterno at Penn State worked: It is possible to field a winning team composed of athletes who enroll in regular courses, study diligently, earn good grades, graduate, and find a career when playing football is no longer an option. Maybe other universities will install their versions of the Grand Experiment as key figures in administration read the evidence presented in the two books.
Here is a parable: Thirty years ago, I began reporting and writing about a terrible mess within the American criminal justice system. As I and other journalists began to document wrongful convictions, almost nobody believed the evidence. Then DNA testing arrived, and public opinion changed. Eventually, the criminal justice system in state after state, county after county, adopted significant reforms. Maybe Penn State will become the symbol of big-time football reform.
Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books, including three biographies and one about the biographical craft.
As the lurid details of the events that have catapulted Pennsylvania State University into the headlines have emerged, the rush to impose consequences has seemingly overwhelmed good sense and thoughtful, deliberative reaction. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s imposition of penalties -- taking away victories earned on the football field, banning post season bowl participation, loss of athletic scholarships, and a fine of $60 million -- seem, with one exception, to miss what ought to be the targets of everyone’s understandable wrath.
In addition, there are serious questions about how and why the NCAA has chosen to assert jurisdiction over these matters, and what precedent this establishes for future events involving NCAA member schools.
First, the wrongdoers. From all the evidence assembled and made public, Jerry Sandusky has been convicted by a jury and will undoubtedly spend the balance of his days in prison. Former President Graham Spanier and the two administrators implicated in the cover-up of the Sandusky crimes have been fired. Two, and possibly all three, face criminal prosecution, as well. Coach Paterno has died. With the exception of the taking away of victories from the team, which officially denies Paterno and his family the distinction of being the football coach with the most victories of any in history, none of the other penalties imposed affect any of the individuals involved in the events.
Second, the victims. While the actual victims of the horrendous crimes have the satisfaction of Sandusky’s conviction, and will be entitled to civil remedies against the individual wrongdoers, and very likely the university, the NCAA punishment does nothing to compensate the children or their families. The money penalties are going to establish a new charitable enterprise to focus attention on child abuse, a worthy cause, but will do nothing to help the victims associated with this tragedy.
Third, the new victims. The NCAA sanctions affecting bowl games and athletic scholarships will now affect athletes who have done absolutely nothing wrong. And the financial sanctions risk impacting the entire student body and faculty at Penn State. While the NCAA has gotten most of the headlines, the Big Ten Conference imposed its own sanctions on Penn State, including its annual share of television revenue for four years. In combination with the NCAA fine, the university will lose $73 million. Add to that sum the expected funds necessary to resolve civil cases that the crime victims will be entitled to receive, plus litigation costs, and the sums involved could, according to one of the trustees, approach $500 million. There is the further concern that liability insurance carriers could decline coverage of legal claims if it is shown the wrongdoing by Penn State officials was intentional. Typically, coverage is limited to acts of negligence.
With the athletic program hobbled by the sanctions and loss of television revenue, funding the payment of these matters will likely require that either students, through tuition hikes and/or fees, or taxpayers be required to pay up. And as this all plays out, is there any doubt students who might ordinarily choose to attend Penn State will go elsewhere, and a superb faculty, assembled over decades, will slowly but surely drift away to other institutions where resources will not be drained paying for the sins of five people long gone from the institution?
Obviously, not all of these potential consequences are due to the NCAA and Big Ten conference. But the piling on, without a clearly defined purpose and questionable subject matter jurisdiction, is unnecessary, at best, and sadly misdirected.
There is no evidence that the events in any way involved intercollegiate competition, improperly recruiting athletes, providing improper benefits to athletes or any other rule in the NCAA’s micromanaging of competition-related conduct. The use of the notion of “institutional control” as the basis for the NCAA’s jurisdiction in this instance can now be used to assert NCAA sanctions in any event that involves a university and its athletic program employees and students. This seems significantly beyond the legitimate jurisdiction of, and purpose for, the NCAA.
While public universities have been experiencing reductions of state financial support for many years, few if any could withstand the dimension of the impacts that are being imposed, without serious consequences to the academic mission of the institution.
So what has the NCAA really accomplished? With the exception of the Paterno victory reduction (which seems entirely appropriate), its sanctions miss the wrongdoers, miss the crime victims, and in a sense, create a new category of victims (students, faculty, taxpayers and the academic vitality of the university).
The precedent being set raises, in my mind, serious questions about the future. One example: what if the tragic shooting events several years ago at Virginia Tech involved either an athlete or former employee of the athletic department, and as an evaluation later determined, the school had not undertaken sufficient steps to warn other students of the danger as events unfolded. Would such circumstances call for NCAA sanctions over and above the criminal and civil justice responses? After all, the crimes would have been related to the athletic department, and the university’s “institutional control” was found to be inadequate.
The NCAA’s actions in this instance, leaving aside any arguments about due process, feel more like politicians, each trying to one up each other offering competing, kneejerk legislative proposals in response to the world’s latest tragedy, rather than the thoughtful, effective, and properly targeted sanctions expected of respected educators.
Robert L. King is president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
In the multibillion-dollar world of Division I intercollegiate sports, some costs are part of the public conversation and others are not, making it difficult for university administrators, faculty members and fans to understand the true costs of the athletic enterprise.
For example, the salaries of coaches and universities’ sports profits command much attention. The University of Alabama’s football coach Nick Saban’s reported salary of $5.3 million pushes him past Mac Brown, the head football coach at Texas, who earned $5.2 million. The University of Kentucky wins the basketball salary ranking at $5.4 million, followed closely by Louisville’s $4.8 million. Profits are also well-publicized. In 2010-11, Duke University basketball was reported to have had a profit of $14.3 million, barely beating its in-state rival, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at $13.8 million.
Two recent reports, however, are stunning examples of the types of expenses that add immeasurably to the costs of the intercollegiate athletics enterprise — at a minimum for the revenue sports — yet become transparent only when a scandal or crisis forces this information into the sunlight. UNC and Pennsylvania State University have revealed that they have generated sizable expenses to address athletics scandals.
In the ongoing athletically driven academic scandals that erupted at UNC in 2010, the administration recently announced that the university has incurred $467,000 in fees for outside legal services to date. Penn State has reported nearly $12 million in fees — including crisis communication and the bill for the Louis Freeh report — to address the massive scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the university’s response to his years of child molestation.
Even though officials have claimed that these expenses do not diminish the resources of the university — because they are almost magically covered by unrestricted endowments, athletics revenues, and insurance — the opportunity costs are still immense. To put the UNC expenses in perspective, based on in-state tuition of $7,008, these fees would have helped 66 students reach their educational goals, or provided books and supplies for over 400 students. These fees would have supported seven assistant professors in the arts and humanities or four full professors in the natural sciences and math. Or how about salaries for 12 North Carolina public school teachers?
Further, how do we begin to calculate the costs of the time and energy that UNC’s chancellor, Holden Thorp, and Penn State’s president, Rodney Erickson, have devoted to the respective scandals on their campuses, not to mention the many other administrators who support these leaders? The costs of time spent by special faculty committees that investigate intercollegiate sports improprieties only add to the financial toll. These costs do not appear on university financial statements.
The growth in the complexity of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s byzantine participation rules that vainly attempt to rein in the corruptive effects of the billions upon billions of dollars that flow through the athletic enterprise further add to costs. As part of its response to the ongoing scandal, UNC has hired two additional "compliance" officers, adding to the already substantial burden of adhering to NCAA codes. The news coverage of UNC’s external legal fees noted that most of these fees were directed to two law firms that have particular expertise in NCAA investigations. The fact that law firms have actually developed specialties in NCAA regulations is further evidence of the costs of compliance.
There are also hidden costs to the university in salary negotiations. With the escalation in compensation for celebrity coaches in football and basketball, many have turned to professional agents. To my knowledge, not many philosophers or music professors or historians have hired agents to represent them with their deans in salary negotiations. And yet, an Associated Press article in 2010 indicated that one sports agent was associated with coaches who were likely to earn $50 million in post-season bowl payouts for their universities, some fraction of which gets converted to bonuses negotiated into contracts.
Highly paid coaches understandably depend on the expertise and experience of agents to develop and manage negotiating strategies in the same way that they count on their talented (and often highly paid) assistant coaches to design game plans. While the economics of the relationship between coaches and agents makes sense from the perspective of coaches, it is not clear that universities have the expertise and experience to be suitable and effective advocates for their own interests. After all, a university might negotiate with a head football or basketball coach every few years, while a sought-after sports agent is likely engaged in high-stakes negotiations frequently. If negotiations are handled internally by administrators who are no doubt competent, but inexperienced, there is a cost in failing to achieve the best outcome for the university. If universities turn to outside negotiators, that too becomes a hidden cost.
These hidden costs are not limited to the "business" aspects of intercollegiate sports. In recent years, it has become increasingly and alarmingly clear that football-related head injuries take a painful toll on the well-being of athletes in their later years. Indeed, the cost of injuries has been recognized by the NCAA for many years, but as Taylor Branch noted in his recent cogent critique, the NCAA decided to not be fully transparent about those costs. The workmen’s compensation system is designed to provide payments to workers who are injured on the job. But in the early 1950s, when faced with the potential financial impact of making universities "employers" of athletes — that is, athletes as workers, with the associated financial compensation for their injuries — the NCAA crafted the term “student-athlete” to make this responsibility ambiguous. As Branch noted, the question of athletes as workers entitled to worker’s compensation is continuing to work its way through the courts. And given the current use of the ambiguous concept of “student-athlete,” the true costs of football-related injuries have yet to be estimated. If the courts find in favor of the athletes, universities and the NCAA could be on the hook for millions.
Some claim that the legal and other professional fees that seem to be a growing dimension of intercollegiate sports come from assets that do not directly diminish university resources. Yet the opportunity costs are substantial and should be discussed openly and explicitly as such — not rationalized away. As institutions with special status in society and as institutions where the search for truth is at the core of their missions, universities should make great efforts to bring the hidden costs of intercollegiate football into the light. Only then can universities accurately calculate and weigh what sadly appears to be the increasingly harmful impact of intercollegiate football on their missions.
Lewis Margolis is associate professor of maternal and child health at the Gillings School of Global Public Health of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Experts often cite escalating revenues and spending in athletics as a driver in the culture that, according to the Freeh report, helped enable the Penn State scandal. But don't look for the cash flow to slow any time soon.