COLUMBUS, Ohio – It was a throwaway line, intended to lighten the mood after an ominous revelation by one of the most decorated college football programs in the land.
Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee had just heard his head football coach, Jim Tressel, concede that he had reason to believe several star players were taking money and free tattoos from a suspected drug dealer and yet he had told no one.
Tressel started most of those players throughout the 2010 season and a bowl game anyway, failing to alert anyone in authority – a clear violation of NCAA rules and his own contract.
Gee, an endowment rainmaker wearing his trademark bow tie, jumped in to defend Tressel and then, asked if he had considered firing his coach, uttered an off-hand crack.
“Let me just be very clear,” Gee said with a grin, “I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
The joke fell flat, but echoed around the country. It confirmed what many already believed about the balance of power in college sports today: Some football teams run universities, not the other way around.
Now that has been underscored by the independent report former FBI Director Louis Freeh issued on Thursday. The report said Penn State officials, including widely admired coach Joe Paterno and the university president, protected their cash-cow football program instead of young boys who were assaulted by former Nittany Lions assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
The report indicated a clear choice was made by those running the school.
“The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized,” Freeh said.
Freeh’s report said that Paterno and other officials hushed up allegations against Sandusky for fear of bad publicity and, by implication, all that bad publicity could bring – a loss of power, prestige, fame and money.
“People have attached a $50 million price tag on Penn State football,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport In Society at Northeastern University. “Obviously, people made an egregious decision to err on the side of the $50 million rather than on the side of the rights of children.”
To those who may be shocked the situation in State College got so out of hand, people who study sports have a message: Don’t be so surprised.
College coaches and their teams bring in truckloads of cash, feeding a beast that sometimes overwhelms many of the loftier goals of a university. Examples have been around since the first leather helmet, but seem to have multiplied in recent years.
“In these small towns, in these bubbles, the main thing is these sports teams and the coaches,” said Murray Sperber, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of several books on the negative effects of big-time sports on higher education. “I can’t believe people didn’t know, but they didn’t want to know. So there were huge amounts of deniability.”
The Penn State debacle is just the latest example of problems that skeptics blame on the culture of major-college athletics.
Coaches like Paterno, who won a major-college record 409 games, have incredible power and must police themselves to do the right thing. Sometimes there are few other checks.
In the Freeh report, a janitor at Penn State told investigators why he did not report an incident in 2000 when a colleague saw Sandusky molesting a boy in a Penn State shower room.
“(It) would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes,” he said. “I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone.”
The janitor, who was not identified, added that “football runs this University” and that the “the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.”
Somewhere along the way, Penn State’s officials apparently lost their way, the Freeh report said. At some point, maintaining King Football and keeping the machine running overtook the most basic human emotions.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon maintains it is possible to run big-time athletic programs – specifically football teams – and avoid letting it get too big, partly by using tight campus communities not to insulate but to keep close tabs on what’s happening.
“These programs are not spread out over large expanses of geography, there are a limited number of people connected and they’re typically a short walk from the administration office,” Brandon said.
“There’s no reason in the world that big-time college football programs can’t have the appropriate controls. It doesn’t mean there can’t be problems from time to time, but there’s no reason the model can’t be properly supervised like any other organization.”
Sperber, the professor at Cal, wasn’t so sure.
“I feel sorry for Penn State. If you say ‘Penn State’ to the average American, they’re going to say ‘Sandusky’ and ‘pedophilia’,: he said. “Eventually they’ll go back to Penn State and Nittany Lions, and all of that. I would hope people would learn (from this), although I’ve lived long enough to see so many instances where nobody learned anything.”