On Wednesday night, when the legendary college football coach Joe Paterno was fired for overlooking the alleged sexual abuse of young boys by one of his assistant coaches, the Penn State campus erupted in riots.
The students weren’t rioting because of outrage that powerful men appear to have turned a blind eye to brutal sexual assaults on children. They were rioting because the board of trustees had turfed out their revered JoePa. The university’s president had been fired too, but nobody cared about that. Thousands stampeded through the downtown area. They tore down light poles and overturned a television news van. “The board started this riot by firing our coach,” one student told The New York Times. “They tarnished a legend.”
College football is the true religion of America. And college football had no greater saint than Joe Paterno, the man who put Penn State on the map and produced a cornucopia of wealth for the region known as Happy Valley. Penn State students and alumni have huge amounts of pride and a substantial part of their identity invested in their football team. On game days, the traffic jams and tailgate parties stretch for miles. Then there’s the money. According to one estimate, every home game enriches Happy Valley by about $59-million. Last year, Penn State’s team, the Nittany Lions, generated revenues of more than $106-million and a profit of $18.5-million.
It’s no surprise that people are comparing this scandal to the abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church. Both occurred in powerful all-male institutions where authority flows from the top down. Both the church and football claim to inculcate the moral values that shape boys into men. And in both cases, the powers at the top decided to protect the brand instead of the kids.
In 2002, a shaken graduate assistant told Joe Paterno that he had seen Jerry Sandusky, a former top assistant coach, sexually assaulting a boy in the Penn State football building. Instead of phoning the police or confronting the coach, Mr. Paterno referred the graduate assistant to the athletic director. Mr. Sandusky, who ran a charity for underprivileged children, has now been charged with child rape and sexual assaults over a period of 15 years. He lured his victims, some of whom who were 10 or 11 at the time, with gifts and trips. The university’s only response was to forbid him from bringing young boys on campus.
The cult of college football has deep roots. When I started as a student at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s – a time of deep social ferment – I soon found out what mattered most. It wasn’t the Vietnam War (which thousands of us turned out to protest). It was football. My friends and I boycotted the football games as a feeble protest against preppy culture, but nobody noticed. Today, college football is bigger than ever. The all-time attendance record for a college game was set this fall, when 115,000 people packed Michigan’s gigantic stadium in Ann Arbor to watch the team play Notre Dame. Canada’s passion for hockey pales by comparison. (Attendance at Maple Leafs games in Toronto, which always sell out, averages 19,300.)
At many U.S. colleges, the Big Man on Campus isn’t the president. It’s the football coach, whose salary can be 10 times as much. As Clark Kerr, the long-serving president of the University of California, once said, the formula for a successful university is sex for the students, parking for the faculty and football for the alumni.
Football is widely thought to be essential to the fortunes of a university because it builds loyalty to the brand. A winning team attracts students, as well as big cheques from the alumni. The conventional wisdom is that it’s football that pays for the English department. But athletic teams are also a huge drain on university finances. Nearly 700 U.S. colleges now field football teams, and all but 14 of them lose money, according to academic researchers Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. And even as they struggle with dramatic budget cuts, some universities are ratcheting up their subsidies for athletics. At San Diego State, for example, the athletic subsidy has risen to a whopping $16-million. Its new president was hired not for his academic distinction, but for his expertise in big-time college sports management.
College football is supposed to celebrate amateurism in sports, but that’s a fiction and everybody knows it. The gridiron gladiators are pros in everything but name. They’re paid in scholarships, cars, clothes and other perks bestowed by fond alumni. Theoretically, they can be kicked off the team if they don’t maintain a decent grade-point average. This requirement is easily end-run by courses specifically devised for jocks.
After the student riots, a lawyer for some of Mr. Sandusky’s alleged victims said they may now be too intimidated to come forward. “These victims do not live in a bubble,” he told The New York Times. Meantime, back in Happy Valley, students are in a solemn mood. Many are concerned with how the team will play today against Nebraska, or how the scandal might affect football recruiting. Some are still confusing football and life.
You can tell a lot about a civilization from its monuments. The Greeks built temples to the gods. The Romans constructed roads and aqueducts. The United States built railroads, skyscrapers, majestic post-office buildings and public libraries. Today, it builds temples of worship called football stadiums. This may not be the end of empire, but sometimes it feels that way.