Monday, July 23, 2012

No Justice, No Peace in College Sports: More on Penn State

I'm jumping into the Penn State mosh pit! In this week's column (Why the NCAA Sanctions Are Just Dead Wrong), Dave Zirin takes the NCAA to task for the $60 million dollar fine and post-season ban that it leveled against Penn State. Zirin isn't arguing that the program shouldn't be punished: quite the opposite. His argument is with the role that these sanctions play in the political theater of college sports, supporting the NCAA's self-assigned role as divine authority over the kingdom of amateur athletics.

I can see the point. As a culture, we have a tendency to turn to colleges and universities as if they were Meta-Parents. We wait for the NCAA to step in and punish its children. But the assignation of that kind of authority to almost completely unsupervised structure goes hand-in-hand with the abuse of that power. (Think: FIFA)

The problem is that the NCAA is a meta-version of the Penn State program itself. That organization has had full contact with so many forms of abuse of power and authority in college football especially that its attempt to claim some kind of moral high ground here is nauseating. 

That I would feel queasy about it is something. Penn State football is the Scientology of college sports. Let'em go down. But I have a couple things to add to Zirin's critical look at the NCAA's actions. 

Zirin expresses concern for Penn State as a public institution. He writes, "The punishment levied by Emmert was nothing less than an extra-legal, extra-judicial imposition into the affairs of a publicly funded campus." At least some of Zirin's criticism is directed at this - the idea that Penn State is a public institution, and that the NCAA is here interfering with publicly governed resources. I absolutely agree - but the problem is big, deep and complicated.

Not all public universities are the same. Penn State is so beholden to the financial teats of alumni wealth and the commercial payoff of big time sports that it turned a blind eye to years of sexual abuse. And as the Freeh report makes clear, the whole of the university leadership conspired to keep the story under wraps. Worse, they actually helped Sandusky into his position at a youth outreach program whose relationship with the university would provide the architecture for his access to victims.

Worse, Penn State's cover-up of child abuse was staged while the university was also suppressing complaints about the homophobia of one of its other coaches (Rene Portland, a Paterno protégé). For about two decades athletes were kicked off the team, and staff were silenced. The administration ignored protests of faculty, staff and students. But then an exiled player filed a Title IX complaint: and the campus faced a losing fight against the feds. The settlement produced by that complaint required all supervisors, coaches, staff, administrators to attend educational meetings about reporting harassment and abuse. The university was getting a big lesson in compliance - which it ignored. I heard from very good sources that Paterno attended at least one of these policy sessions, arriving late and plainly showing his irritation.

But back to the defense of Penn State as a public university. Public education is not what it used to be. In 2012, about 14% of Penn State's budget was supported by public funding - this is a reflection of decreased public support for all of the Commonwealth Campuses (Penn State is the flagship campus of a network that stretches from Erie to Scranton). 

That figure goes hand in hand with increases in tuition. Penn State's State College campus has the highest in-state tuition of any public university in the United States ($15,250/year in 2011) and it has held that distinction for quite a few years. (See, for example: "Should Public Universities Behave Like Private Colleges," in Business Week Nov 14 2004 and Penn State's 2011/2012 "budget breakdown.") The fact that Penn State is a public university doesn't mean that it serves the mission we associate with that term "public education."

The NCAA is concerned about the value of the brand and the stability of the organization's power. Penn State officials are worried about the same - they are not thinking about Penn State as a part of the public system. And the state's elected officials aren't thinking about Penn State as a public resource either: they've been working for years to privatize the whole system. 

It has been a long time since the leaders of public universities acted like stewards of the state commons. Just look at what happens when one does: UVA President Teresa Sullivan was ousted by a Board of Trustees for doing just that.

Anyway: I keep returning in my own mind to the public outrage regarding Sandusky. That outrage appears in exact proportion to the fervor of the public's investment in college sports as some sort of Oz where the playing field is leveled by scholarships, where gender inequity was banished by a single legislative act, and where things like rape are aberrations and not in fact part of the same culture that fetishizes paternalistic, macho authority. "Jo-Pa couldn't possibly have known!" becomes "We can't talk about this!" becomes "Nobody needs to know!" We turn to "JoPa," then to the paternalistic structures of the university, then the NCAA - each an exponential replication of the same institutional psychosis in which people imagine that these people actually care about us. 

I take Zirin's anger to be about that - that an independent report and an NCAA sanction might be mistaken by the public as justice, or as change. It is, in fact, neither. Rage on, sister.


  1. When Penn State made the choice to join the NCAA, they opened themselves up to the punishment that the NCAA is leveling against them. Also, Penn State has agreed to the NCAA sanctions.

    So, the calls that the NCAA shouldn't punish a public institution like Penn State doesn't hold a lot of what for me.

    While I agree that the NCAA was punishing Penn State more as a PR move than anything, I also have no sympathy for Penn State. These were unprecedented crimes, so I have little problem with an unprecedented NCAA punishment.

    And while there will always be collateral damage when the NCAA punishes a school for violations, making Penn State, and Joe Paterno, vacate all those wins was bigger in trying to kill the idea of football as king at Penn State.

    But my question is whether the NCAA wants to kill sports as king at all it's member institutions. For instance, should Alabama tear down it's statue of a "false god" named Nick Saban?

    Should the NCAA kill the entire money-making engine that is scholarship athletics and make everyone Div III?

    Or, should the NCAA continue to play "Whack-A-Mole" when the SMUs, USCs, Miami's, and Penn State's of the world get out of line?

    PS, I love the irony of sports writers saying that Penn State placed too much importance on football.

  2. Totally, mainstream sports media saying that the problem is that Penn State put too much emphasis on football - it'd be hilarious if it weren't for the role that mainstream sports media has played by ignoring decades of all sorts of problems so that it could sell its own product. (I assume by sports writers you exclude muckrackers like myself and critically minded folks like Zirin.)

    One small point: these crimes are not unprecedented. Priests? Boy Scouts? Military? College football rape culture? Heck, the coach for South Africa's women's team was coercing players on the team for years! But no one cares about that. That story was kept under wraps until after the world cup!
    It's this particular confluence that feels unprecedented - each of these scandals has its own horrors.

    Anyway. It's all awful and this story just breeds cynicism. I like Zirin's piece because it actually isn't cynical: it asks us to imagine that there is a better way of practicing college sports.

  3. I was a little confused by Zirin. I understand "Sanctions are not enough." But he seemed to say there should be no sanctions.

  4. Yes - that confuses me too. It wasn't making sense until I thought about how I would feel if FIFA suddenly sanctioned, say, South Africa for SAFA's apathy re the abuse that was going on there. Even though that actually should happen somehow, it'd be a mess and it wouldn't do much to effect change.

    I take Zirin's piece to be more ambivalent than the headline indicates. But maybe not. Maybe he just wants to see all those bastards just fired and put in jail and/or sued.

    But harassment/abuse issues are actually under NCAA administrative domain, if I understand how this stuff works.



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