Opinion

Penn State, Sandusky, and Paterno: When did football kill student activism?

It wasn't always like this. Throughout college football's history, students and players have boycotted games in protest of evils like segregation and racism. But what about alleged child sex abuse? Now, students seemed lulled into thinking that 'king football' must continue, at all costs.

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In November 1961, newspapers reported that the Rose Bowl might invite the University of Alabama – the top-ranked college football team in the nation – to play the West Coast Conference champion, UCLA. Citing Alabama’s segregationist policies on the field and off, UCLA students called for a boycott of the game if Alabama were selected.

The boycott was endorsed by the UCLA student newspaper, which ran a cartoon of the school mascot dressed as a Union soldier charging into battle in the Civil War. The mascot was carrying a banner, which bore a stark declaration: “We don’t want Alabama!” Led by the star African-American fullback, Kermit Alexander, several members of the football team also pledged to sit out if Alabama were invited.

Alabama’s president soon took his university out of the running, noting the “political risk” of playing in the Rose Bowl. And that was all because of the students at UCLA, who insisted that football take a back seat to the bigger issues at stake.

Compare that to recent events at Penn State, and you’ll see how profoundly we’ve lost our way. Despite reports of child sexual abuse by a former coach – and the covering up of the same by university officials – students filled Penn State’s stadium last Saturday to watch the Nittany Lions in their final home game. We can expect the same at Ohio State and Wisconsin, which will host the Lions’ last two contests.

Fifty years ago, the evil of segregation was enough to get students to organize a football boycott. But today, the evil of child abuse – allegedly hidden, and thus perpetuated, by football coaches themselves – is not. Ditto for all the other well-documented scandals in the sport, including secret payments to students and the padding of their academic transcripts.

To be fair, Penn State students held a vigil for victims of child sexual abuse on the night before the matchup with Nebraska. They also wore dark blue to the game, in further recognition of the victims. And the players knelt in prayer after taking the field.

Yet the larger point is that they did take the field, and over 100,000 spectators cheered as they did. Some of them waved banners in praise of fired coach Joe Paterno, whom many students seem to regard as a victim in his own right; others held signs remembering the children who were abused. But both sides assumed that the game must go on.

That’s been the typical student response to every bit of other bad news about college football. Yes, it’s bloated and corrupt; but it’s ours. And it must continue, at all costs.

That wasn’t always the case. Across the 20th century, as universities developed big-time football programs, students often protested the energy, time, and money devoted to the sport. They didn’t always get their way, but they made their voices heard.

Consider Columbia undergraduate Reed Harris, who published a whole book in 1932 – entitled, fittingly, “King Football” – that blasted the college sport as a “semi-professional racket.” In lines that could be lifted from any newspaper exposé today, Harris complained that coaches made extraordinary salaries and players had no time – or incentive – to study. Most of all, though, Harris asked why universities should be involved in the enterprise at all. “What, in heaven’s name, has the possession of a winning football team to do with the main business of a college or university?” he wondered.

Harris was eventually kicked out of Columbia, for publishing an article criticizing its president. Angry students staged a one-day boycott, which in turn triggered physical attacks from athletes who supported Harris’s expulsion. It was, one journalist quipped, “the first time in the history of American education that football players were observed fighting to get into class.”

In the 1960s, a new generation of student activists again questioned universities’ emphasis on football. As the war in Vietnam escalated, they especially took aim at the violence and brutality of the game. In a typical statement, one student group in Berkeley declared its “opposition to pig Amerika’s death culture as epitomized by gladiatorial football clashes.”

Students also condemned racism within the sport itself. Here players often took the lead, belying the stereotype of the conservative “jock.” Across the country, African-American footballers staged sit-ins and boycotts to protest bigoted remarks by coaches and preferential treatment of white athletes. They frequently found support among the student rank-and-file, which was happy to forsake a few Saturdays of football in the service of a larger cause.

How distant all of that sounds in today’s passive college climate. Sure, students have participated in recent “Occupy” demonstrations and in rallies against tuition hikes. But put all of those protests together, and you still won’t have as many kids as turned out on the streets of State College, Pennsylvania in support of Joe Paterno on the night he was dismissed.

Shame on them, and also on the universities that are supposed to educate them. A half-century from now, nobody will remember who won Penn State’s last three games. All they will remember is a culture that put football ahead of everything else. 

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in suburban Philadelphia. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

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