I. Who's in Charge?
The current turmoil at Penn State over a former football coach, child sexual abuse, and institutional failure reaffirms the central point of McCormick and Tollison's essay "Subversion of the Academy by the NCAA," published here last August. The specific subversion referred to by M&T in that piece is the academic fraud and extensive financial cheating alleged by the NCAA itself to have occurred in the past few years in football at the University of North Carolina, one of the nation's top public universities. The criminal charges at Penn State, although not subject to NCAA sanction, are far worse in nature. Moreover the institutional failure is more severe, and it is hard to imagine that a similar pattern of denial and/or protection would be afforded a (former) university employee who was not a coach integral to the success of National Championship football teams. A building custodian or chemistry lab instructor would have been thrown under the legal bus with dispatch, and rightly so. NCAA generated lucre, in its various forms, is once again the well from which scandal at an important academic institution is drawn.
It has been said before that at some universities the head football coach is more important than the president. In recent years this has probably been said more in reference to Penn State than even the football factories of the SEC. In this case "it was ok" though, because Coach Joe Paterno was seen to run a clean, graduate-the-players program that served as a model for NCAA football. In this scandal we now see where the model went wrong. It was not ok. The coach -- even this coach, with all of the admirable qualities attributed to him and his program -- was indeed too big for the university. Various pieces of evidence point to a shrewd deflection of evidence regarding the criminal activity of Jerry Sandusky, his one-time heir apparent. The image of the football program was protected through the actions and non-actions of the head football coach and his superiors, including the athletic director and president. Children could have been protected, but they were not. The moral integrity of the university could have been protected, but it was put at risk to preserve the reputation of a football program which is now revealed to be undeserved. Can there be any doubt but that Joe Paterno was, apart from Sandusky, for many years the chief beneficiary of this horrifically flawed "protection plan"?
The institutional failure in this case traces to the deference shown by the Penn State administration towards its head football coach. Two administrators in the chain of command have lost their jobs in the face of criminal charges, but criminal charges are not required for the Penn State board to take action regarding a moral failure of this order. I don't see how the coach and the president can survive. They are the principal actors in a regime in which the role of athletics and the university was inverted and perverted, bringing tremendous damage to the university, not to mention the harm suffered by children on its campus. The coach clearly had a moral responsibility to follow through, and did not. The president is responsible for the institutional culture in which two of his immediate employees were negligent and now face criminal charges as a result. The football coach may have been "more important than the president" at Penn State, but that's no excuse. The buck stops with the president.
II. On Paterno
A couple of quick points on the man referred to as the "Pride of the Lions." First, with regard to the "Who's in Charge" argument in the previous section, Paterno had reportedly been pressured by the president to resign in the past decade, but resisted. If true, this gives credence to the notion that the football coach was more important than the president at Penn State, and that the football coach thought so too. Paterno had the chance to "just be a coach" but he chose not to, thus becoming a willful participant in "subverting the academy" long before the events of the past week. Second, reports indicate Paterno did the following in front of "hundreds of fans" yesterday:
At one point during the impromptu rally at his house, Paterno held his fists over his head three times and said, "We are ..."
And the crowd replied, "Penn State!"
In the midst of a university tragedy, the coach is firing up his supporters. Three times he led the cheer! I wonder, will he wage a successful campaign to keep his job, or will the board beat him to the punch? More subversion.
Third, yesterday a colleague doing research on the factors affecting compensation of Athletic Directors noted that he has been able to obtain data on AD compensation from every major public university but one: Penn State. The reason? The compensation is "missing because several Penn State administrators, including Joe Paterno and now-departed VP of Finance, Gary Schultz, sued to keep the salaries from becoming public. It appears that secrecy is standard operating procedure in Happy Valley." Indeed, a Google News search of +paterno +secrecy returns this piece: "Shroud of secrecy begins to lift at Penn State, and view isn't pretty." It's written by Frank Fitzpatrick, author of Pride of the Lions: The Biography of Joe Paterno.
III. Update: Paterno Attempts to Beat the Posse
Here is Joe Paterno this morning: "I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can."
I can't imagine that the board is pleased to hear Paterno telling them what matters they should and should not address. Paterno's behavior suggests he thinks he's still the boss.
IV. Update II (for posterity)
The board announced that both Paterno and Spanier have been fired. Obviously, I believe they made the right call, no matter what rowdy students or alumni supporters might say. Had the Sandusky problem been handled right from the start, the reputation of Penn State football would have taken a temporary hit. Now the Penn State board has to identify a new set of university leaders. Doing the right thing here makes that job a whole lot easier.