The Wagging Tail

I have blogged (endlessly some would say) about the tail that wags the dog in Division I athletics. I promised myself I would not go there again  (but I may have had my fingers crossed!).

A recent editorial in Sports Illustrated requires comment. It addresses the ripple effect of the decreasing use of cable TV on college athletics. Because fewer people are using cable since moving to digital technology which will allow them to watch those programs they want to watch and not pay for those they will never watch in their lifetime — or that of their children — the cable companies are hurting in the pocketbook 😢. The sports network giant ESPN, for example, has been seriously affected by the change in viewer preference. While a few years ago they could count on $8.00 per month from everyone who watched sports on their network  ESPN is now in 12 million fewer homes than it was in 2011. In a word, the number of viewers has dropped considerably and the income from cable has dropped accordingly. ESPN recently laid off 100 of its people in a move that had remaining folks on ESPN crying crocodile tears as they breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them — yet.😥

All of this impacts on college sports, which, as we know, is Big Business. As Sports Illustrated tells us:

“College athletics departments spent lavishly [in recent years because of the huge influx in cash from ESPN and other major TV networks], especially on football. At Texas new lockers were installed at a cost of $10,500 apiece and include individual 43 inch TV monitors instead of the traditional nameplates. Auburn added a $14 million video board at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson’s training complex included a bowling alley and nap room. Even position coaches were making six figures. . .”

Nick Saban, head football coach at Alabama, can be seen crying all the way to the bank as he gets ready to deposit some of his $11.1 million annual  salary; he worries that this trend spells the end of collegiate football as we have come to know and love it. Armageddon is at hand. This, of course, is nonsense as the universities will find ways to support their athletics programs — including raising student fees even higher — most of which (by the way) operate at a deficit. But they all see the big bucks the big guys make and hope that some of it will come their way. The problem will not go away just because figures must be juggled. It’s still a business and it is a HUGE business.

Oh, and speaking of big business, Jay Paterno, son of the infamous Penn State football coach and an assistant coach during the Sandusky era, was recently named to the Board of Trustees at that University. So much for cleaning house. The tail will continue to wag the dog. (But, seriously, a “nap room”??)

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Paterno As Scapegoat

In the wake of the massive penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA there was shock and dismay in State College recently. An astonishing number of people still cannot accept the fact that Joe Paterno was part of the cover-up of his assistant coach’s  attacks on young boys. A reporter for ESPN mentioned that a number of people he spoke with regard Paterno as a scapegoat who is being made to take the blame for errors in judgment by those above him.

Apparently they haven’t been paying attention: they haven’t read or heard about the Freeh report in which is was made clear that the man not only knew about Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but was unwilling to report the behavior to his superiors upon first hearing of it because it was a Friday and he didn’t want to disturb authorities on the weekend!  And he continued to stonewall as boys continued to be attacked in his own facility which he ruled over with absolute power.

There is such a thing as denial, and this may simply be such a case: group denial. But there is also such a thing as stupidity and I suspect this is closer to what we have here. I understand it would be hard for those who held Paterno in very high regard to admit that he is guilty as sin — not because they believe he was above suspicion, but because it would mean that they were wrong about the man. We have more trouble assimilating this sort of shock when it’s about ourselves, and those who thought Paterno was a Saint (yes, that’s what has been reported) must have suffered quite a shock to their reality principle as they were very wrong.

For years I sat on a committee at my university that heard student appeals after they had received poor grades and were dismissed for academic reasons. Students had the opportunity to try to convince a committee of fellow-students and faculty that there were extenuating reasons for their failure and some of them were at times given another semester to get their grades up to par. One of my close academic friends on the committee was an economist and we often looked at one another in dismay as we heard about dead grandmothers, broken promises, sick girlfriends (or cats), and a host of other excuses that the students tended to fall back upon with remarkable regularity. One of the most common lines of defense was the argument that the student had a learning disability. Students would usually appear in front of the committee with the head of the “Learning Resources Center” who would attest to the student’s inability to read and write because of this supposed “learning disability.” Some of them had legitimate disabilities and we usually took pity on them. But one day after hearing this excuse for the umpteenth time from a student who was clearly grasping at straws my friend looked at me and said “stupidity is also a learning disability.” He was right on. There are legitimate learning disabilities, but there are also hollow excuses. And once you have heard a few you learn to recognize them. There is such a thing as stupidity.

We believe what we want to believe and we insist those things are true that make us comfortable. This seems to be human nature and we are all a bit guilty of this tendency. Instead of looking at the evidence and working through it with our critical faculties, we jump to the closest comfortable conclusion and cling to it for dear life. It’s hard to let go. But at some point it is just plain stupid to continue to deny the plain truth when it is staring you in the face.

Joe Paterno was involved in the Sandusky scandal up to his bushy eyebrows and thick spectacles. And while we can understand how difficult it is for those who held him in high regard to admit it, we must wonder at their unwillingness to succumb to a truth so glaringly apparent. There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.

What You See…

In addition to the famous statue of Joe Paterno on the Penn State campus, about which there is considerable controversy these days, apparently there is a gigantic mural downtown featuring Joe Paterno’s image. That image was recently retouched in light of the Freeh report placing Joe Paterno at the center of a giant cover-up that went on for fourteen years and involved the agony of numerous young boys whose cries fell on deaf ears.  A recent story on-line tells us that the picture of Paterno on the mural had a halo painted on it which the artist recently erased. In addition

Pilato [the artist] added a large blue ribbon, instead, on Paterno’s lapel symbolizing support for child abuse victims, a cause the artist said Paterno had endorsed.

I had to read the story, and especially that sentence, twice because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. To place a halo over the head of any ordinary person, no matter how highly we regard them, is what the medieval mind would regard as blasphemy and I would regard as presumptive arrogance. But to paint a blue ribbon on the man’s chest  signifying that Joe Paterno “endorsed” support for child abuse victims — after the recent allegations came out in the Freeh report — beggars belief, as the English would say. This is beyond hypocrisy.

I don’t doubt that Paterno did indeed wear the blue ribbon. I simply question how he could have done so knowing what he clearly knew about one of his own assistant coaches and what the man was doing in Paterno’s own back yard. It tells us something about the man that we might not want to know. Joe Paterno had immense power at Penn State and could have simply said “no” at any point during the fourteen years and the attack on young boys would have stopped. But it would have damaged the reputation of the football program and of the university itself. Ironically it would have embellished the image of Paterno himself as the coach who “did things right,” an image his family and former players are so eager to protect after the fact. However, by ignoring those boys and attempting to protect his empire Paterno compounded the problem and guaranteed that his reputation will be forever tarnished, as it should be, and the university and his former football program will take years to recover.

To make matters worse, it appears that as the Sandusky scandal was breaking Paterno managed to arrange a “sweetened retirement contract” between himself and the university worth $5.5 million that would guarantee him a comfortable retirement at the end of the year — had he not been fired.  While Rome was burning Paterno fiddled — and made sure he would be taken care of, regardless of what happened to Sandusky, the football program, or Penn State. His family will enjoy the benefits of that contract following the man’s death from cancer: the university does not plan to contest it.

The man was not what he seemed, clearly. And it is a warning to the rest of us not to “buy into” the public image of the larger-then-life men and women built up by the media. We are all fallible humans and we make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are large indeed. And while it seemed at first as though “Papa-Joe” was taking responsibility for his failure to act when he said “I should have done more,” it now appears he was faking it even as those words were coming out of his mouth. He failed to act for fourteen years.

The halo is gone from Paterno’s portrait and there is a movement afoot to remove the statue of the man from the Penn State campus — though the Trustees recently said this would not happen, at least for now. There has even been the suggestion (In USA Today) that the entire football season should be cancelled for a year so the university can come to terms with what has happened. None of these steps seems to me to be appropriate, however. For one thing, they would involve a distortion of the truth. The destruction of the statue would be much like re-writing history in order to make people feel better about themselves. It is a vengeful act.

But a suggestion I heard recently that I would endorse involves the building of a monument outside the P.E. facility dedicated to the young boys who were attacked and abused in the building coupled with a fund to support groups that will help see to it that this sort of thing does not happen again in the future. What happened in this place is difficult to grasp. It is not only the campus that must come to terms with what has happened, it is all of us.

The Cover-Up Culture

One of the things that has come out of the scandal at Penn State is the realization that there is a cover-up culture in large universities where Division I athletics reign supreme. That term was coined in the cover story that recently appeared in Sports Illustrated detailing the scandal at Penn State. But the notion that misbehavior, from simple cheating to felonies like rape and assault, need to be hushed up “to save the reputation of the university” is common. Not that all aberrant behavior, even at Penn State, manages to stay “in-house.” For example, it was reported by E.S.P.N. that in Happy Valley between 2002 and 2008, 46 players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes ranging from public urination to murder. The fact that these cases did not get national attention at the time is evidence of the immense influence the football coach at Penn State had not only at the university but in the region as well.  Until recent events surrounding the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State was generally regarded as “a haven of virtue,” as noted in Sports Illustrated.

For the most part, at Penn State Joe Paterno held immense power and saw to it that whenever possible  any misbehavior on the part of one of his football players was handled by the coaches and never got to the judicial board that handled all other student cases.  It is common for football teams like Paterno’s to have separate housing, separate practice and training facilities (even separate from the other athletic teams), to eat their meals as a group, and regard themselves as privileged members apart from the university community. This obviously breeds insularity and a feeling that the group is all that matters and rules do not apply, except for those made by the coaches. Needless to say, the education of the athletes is of minor importance. “There’s an emphasis on athletics that necessarily results in a de-emphasis on everything else,” according to Penn State journalism professor Russell Frank. “But a lot of us owe our jobs to [Paterno], and that’s attributable to how high-profile the football program has been.” ‘Best not to bite the hand that feeds us.

But the universities are at fault to allow this to happen, and all criticism should not be directed at the athletic teams. In principle, it is a relatively simple matter for the university president to disallow this sort of insularity and insist that the athletes be treated the same as all other students. However, it would be supremely difficult at a place like Penn State, because of the immense power that Paterno had, and the football team will doubtless continue to have. Additionally, it would be difficult for any single university to take the lead here, because the athletes expect and like the special treatment and they will seek out other teams that treat them as royalty and avoid any institution that doesn’t treat them as such. Furthermore, the universities are steeped in the cover-up culture, concerned about their reputation and willing to look the other way to protect their image. Thus we can expect the cover-ups to continue.

This short-term thinking that equates protecting the reputation of the university with secrecy in the face of misconduct extends beyond the athletics programs, of course. The “cover-up culture” permeates large — and even small — colleges and universities. In point of fact, I was involved in such a cover-up at the University of Rhode Island years ago when it was discovered that a fraternity had gotten a copy of the final exam in a logic class and those of us who were teaching logic had to get up at 5:00 AM the morning of the exam and pool our resources to put together another exam at the last minute — in spite of the fact that we all taught the class differently: no one knew whose exam had gotten out. When it was revealed that one of the fraternities on campus was selling the exam to other students — lined up into the street outside the frat house — absolutely nothing was done. Thinking the fraternity should at the very least be put on probation, I raised my voice in protest and was called into the Dean’s office and told to cool off. I was a lowly Instructor without tenure, so I did as I was told. But it was clear to me that the university didn’t want a “scandal” and wanted to keep things under wraps. They feared bad publicity above all else. In my way, I saw first hand how insidious is the cover-up culture. Imagine how intense the pressure must be in a large university with an athletic program that brings in millions of dollars to keep things “in-house” and make sure misconduct is hushed up.

It all comes down to priorities, of course, and it exemplifies, among other things, short-term thinking. But consider the irony: the cover-ups at Penn State that were supposed to preserve the university’s good name have resulted in a sullied reputation that will take years to clean up. The $1.5 recently pledged by that university to help abused children as recompense for the atrocities charged against Jerry Sandusky is a first step. But it is a small step in light of the atrocities alleged against an assistant football coach and the cover-up that followed.

The encouraging thing is that at least one other major university seems to have gotten the message. Syracuse University recently fired an assistant basketball coach who has allegedly abused young boys. This appeared, on the surface, to be a quick, no-nonsense response to allegations that would most assuredly taint the university’s reputation. We shall see if the effects of the Penn State scandal have long-term effects. Something has to give.

Paterno Revisited

A poll conducted by E.S.P.N. revealed recently that 51% of those polled approve of Penn State’s firing of Joe Paterno. That’s interesting, but not half as interesting as the other 49%. I assume that some of them have “no opinion,” an interesting condition to be in, I must say. But the remainder apparently think that the university was wrong to fire the man. What are they thinking?

To begin with, Joe Paterno is not the victim here. Assuming that the allegations in the case are well founded, the young boys who were molested by Jerry Sandusky are the victims (plural). Paterno has been hoist by his own petard; he made his bed and now he must lie in it. He failed to demand a complete investigation of the affair when he was able to intercede and he knew that an evil was being committed; he is culpable. Sympathy for the man, while understandable on its surface, is out of place — as Virgil pointed out to Dante when they worked their way through Hell. Just as those being punished were there by virtue of their own actions, so also Paterno suffers from the consequences of his own actions — or his failure to act.

To be sure, Joe Paterno seemed to be something that is lacking in today’s culture: a public figure deserving our adulation, a true hero. Yet he turned out to have feet of clay, like the rest of us. It is disillusioning and a sad business, but hardly tragic as Aristotle reminds us: the man, Paterno, lacks the quality of nobility and his “fall” was not that far. He is a wealthy man with a close family and a great many friends and he will doubtless manage to muddle through. But what about the others, the real victims here? Their lives will never be the same and they are the ones we must look to with sympathy, not the man who chose to ignore them. Paterno’s firing is mild punishment for a man who chose to look the other way

The issue involving Joe Paterno is quite simple at its center: we are responsible for the  things we choose to do as well as those things we choose not to do. That has been at the center of ethical theory for centuries. Religions, too, recognize sins of omission as well as sins of commission. Paterno is getting his just desserts. Sympathy for the man, including staged appearances by his former players, like Franco Harris, are tangential to the real issue which will always remain the damage that was done to at least eight young boys (that we know about) who were abused by Jerry Sandusky.

In the meantime, Sandusky was allowed out of jail on a measly $100,000 bail and is now wandering around Happy Valley, being interviewed by Bob Costas and proclaiming his innocence to a world that will soon have to try him. That is something for people to get upset about, and a curious scenario to say the least.