Images of the Penn State riot Wednesday cast a new light on an old question for collegiate sports: Do they have too much sway at many universities?
To be sure, the situation unfolding at Penn State is unusual, if not unique, both for the appalling nature of the allegations and the stature of the coach involved. Joe Paterno was no typical college football coach.
More than any other man, Mr. Paterno is Penn State – the man who brought the institution national recognition, the man who built a football program based on "honor" for 46 years, the winningest football coach in Division I history.
And he had already announced his retirement effective at the end of the season. To students, such an abrupt firing was no way to treat a legend.
But to many outsiders, such an outpouring of violence was no way to react. Television footage showed mobs overturning a television news van, smashing car windows and newspaper boxes, and aggressively tussling with police in riot gear.
The Penn State riot represents the “warped moral atmosphere” that is created when “universities look to college football as the financial engine of campus that bends the will of the campus,” says Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation magazine.
Certainly, top college football programs have enormous influence at universities.
College football is a $3 billion industry, and Penn State at the top in both earnings and profit for the Big Ten Conference. According to Forbes, Penn State generated $70.2 million in football revenue and $50,4 million in profit for the 2009 season. The athletic department pocketed more than half that, $26.4 million.
Moreover, big-time college athletics play into tribalism.
They are “almost like a cult” in how they strike awe among school officials and students, says Frank Splitt, a former Northwestern University professor who has written extensively on corruption in collegiate sports.
Sports forms a "glue" that binds students and alumni to their alma maters in powerful and visceral ways, he adds. “It gives them something that they can all adhere to."
In this way, Paterno's influence on Penn State students and alumni was profound. The football team that Paterno created has been, in many ways, the catalyst for what the university has become. In that way, Paterno is at the core of the university's sense of identity.
Students chanted “one more game” – asking that the university to allow him to at least coach in the final home game of the season, at home to Nebraska Saturday, so fans could pay tribute to what he has accomplished.
“When you have a company town, everyone’s instinct is to protect the company and the company in this case is big time college football,” says Mr. Zirin.
But the allegations in the Jerry Sandusky case are so heinous that Penn's State's Board of Trustees fired Paterno immediately. Mr. Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator under Paterno, is charged with sexually assaulting eight boys from 1994 to 2009. The indictment states that a graduate student witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in the locker-room shower and told Paterno. Paterno informed his superiors but not law enforcement.
Paterno in his retirement announcement that his inaction “is one of the great sorrows” of his life.
The Sandusky scandal – and the riot that followed Paterno's firing – are alarms for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that things are getting out of control, adds Eldon Ham, a sports attorney in Chicago.
The NCAA currently has nothing in place to address what happened at Penn State, but it has the power to broaden its current mandate to help prevent potential cover-ups from happening. For example, the organization could introduce term limits for coaches to prevent any individual coach from gaining too much control. Or it could use its probation period to demand that the university revisit its chain of command and conduct policy.
So far, the NCAA has refrained from addressing the scandal, which makes Mr. Ham suggest the organization may be “part of the bigger problem.”
“If they can do anything, it would be under the auspices of the institutional control argument. And this institution lost control,” he says. “Their silence is disturbing.”