Say it ain't so, Joe: US sector's pact with the drop-kick devil

Penn State scandal shows sport's stranglehold on American academy. Jon Marcus reports

November 24, 2011



Credit: Alamy
Foul play: fury about the firing of a football coach at Pennsylvania State University over allegations of sexual abuse highlights the grip of athletics on US universities with billions of dollars at stake


Something happened at Pennsylvania State University this month that left students and alumni really, really angry.

The source of their rage was not the criminal charges brought against a former assistant American football coach for allegedly sexually assaulting boys as young as 10 in the athletic department showers; nor the claims that Penn State had covered up the allegations for 13 years; nor the off-key manner in which Graham Spanier, president of the university, had responded when the news came out. (He said nothing about the alleged victims, but pledged that the university would defend two top administrators implicated in the cover-up. Spanier has since been sacked by the board of trustees.)

No, it wasn't the fact that the institution was at the centre of one of the biggest scandals in the history of US higher education that bothered Penn State supporters so much that thousands of them rampaged through the surrounding town, flipping over a television van and destroying other property in the process. So what did provoke them?

Penn State's football coach being fired.

The episode is a graphic symbol of big-time university athletics' grip on the American academy and US culture - something many observers say that not even the Penn State scandal is likely to weaken.

After all, billions of dollars are at stake. US universities with major athletics programmes share $3 billion (£1.9 billion) a year from TV rights, ticket sales, merchandising, luxury boxes and other revenue from American football alone (in the 2009-10 academic year, Penn State made $50.4 million in profit from the sport).

Of course, this does not include university basketball and other sports, nor the uncounted sums wagered on games.

It's a stranglehold that let Joe Paterno, Penn State's fallen coach, previously brush aside reports that 46 of his players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes in six years. It's a vice-like grip that led the University of Alabama to cut three days from its academic calendar so that students could watch the football team play in a national championship game.

And last March, when Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, was asked whether he would dismiss Jim Tressel, his football coach, for violating league rules, he quipped: "Fire him? I hope he doesn't fire me."

Diabolical plays

Sol Gittleman, professor of languages at Tufts University and a long-term critic of the system, calls this higher education's "pact with the devil".

"The presidents don't run those schools: the coaches do, and the alumni clubs," Gittleman says. "These sports programmes have nothing to do with higher education."

Athletics is undeniably an unspoken priority for institutions with major sports programmes - even if they do, in fact, deny it, says Charles Clotfelter, professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University and author of Big-Time Sports in American Universities (2011).

He says: "Imagine a European visitor coming to one of our universities. You explain what the purposes are - research, teaching and service - and the visitor gets to the stadium and says: 'What is this doing here?' Sport is an unspoken core function of at least 100 American universities, and in this respect American universities are unlike any other in the world."

The primacy of sport is one reason why Penn State officials are believed to have tried to keep a lid on reports that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was assaulting young boys in the showers.

"The money from athletics is astronomical," says Dan Lebowitz, director of Sport in Society, a programme at Northeastern University. "Sometimes that tends to trump ethics. It's not unique to sport. It's not unique to universities. It's the big-business mentality. This happens in the financial sector, the political sector, and an awful lot of other places."

But scandals in US university athletics surface with alarming regularity, and "university administrators' first instinct is: 'Let's find a way to spin this'", says Tom Palaima, professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin and its representative on the Big 12 steering committee of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics.

"Image is everything and presidents making $600,000 a year, out of career self-interest, don't want any tarnish on programmes that could affect recruiting or alumni donations. Atomic-energy secrets aren't kept this tightly."

For example, when Cleve Bryant, a popular assistant football coach at the University of Texas, was fired in March for allegedly sexually harassing a female athletic department employee, administrators didn't disclose the case until June, and only then because they were forced to under public record laws.

But some experts blame what happened at Penn State on human nature of a more benign sort.

"A university is still made up of individuals, and individuals panic," says Tom Hayes, professor of marketing at Xavier University in Ohio and founder of the American Marketing Association's Symposium on the Marketing of Higher Education.

"Lots of people don't know how to confront a crisis. They do the wrong thing and they're thinking short term rather than long term. It's the classic 'What were they thinking?' kind of thing."

Remember: report child abuse

What university administrators are thinking now suddenly seems very different. Several have rushed to disclose misdeeds.

Lieutenant General John Rosa, president of The Citadel, a military academy in South Carolina, admitted that it did not report an incident of sexual abuse in 2007 involving an alumnus and counsellor and at least five boys at a university summer camp.

And a government investigation has begun into Milwaukee's Marquette University for its failure to report two cases of alleged sexual assaults by athletes.

"It's like rats jumping off the ship at this point," Palaima says.

Other universities have circulated memos reminding faculty, staff and students to report child abuse and other crimes.

"The immediate repercussions, putting aside those who were victimised, are good," argues Robert Moore, managing partner of the marketing firm Lipman Hearne, the clients of which include universities. "It's made people aware that there are serious consequences when things are swept under the rug, and that's a good thing."

Some question whether this transparency will outlast the media spotlight on Penn State, however.

"It's like anything else. When you almost get hit by a bus, you watch where you're going for a while and then you forget," Hayes says.

"How long will it last? Five minutes," Gittleman believes. "They are just hunkering down and checking the point spread on the next game."

But Moore expects a blue-ribbon commission to be set up, "a sector response that we're going to make sure we have programmes built in to protect vulnerable individuals".

It wouldn't be the first time. The last such investigation, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which published its findings in 2010, concluded: "The considerable financial pressures and ever-increasing spending in today's college sports system could lead to permanent and untenable competition between academics and athletics."

Is the tide turning?

But Clotfelter believes that the magnitude and nature of the problems at Penn State will have a more lasting impact.

"I think the half-life on this one is longer," he says. "This situation is at a different level."

He adds that athletics in higher education, when well supervised and honestly run, does serve an important purpose.

"Sport is in a way the connection with people that offsets the idea of the forbidding ivory tower of intellectuals," Clotfelter says. "To think of the institution as purely an academic enterprise is probably to misconstrue it. It's more than that. It's also a social thing. We're in both of those worlds."

And that, he says, "is the reason you see outrage over 'what is this doing at a university?' Because we have met the enemy - and it is us."

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