On Wednesday, November 9, the Board of Trustees for Penn State University called a news conference to announce the firing of longtime head coach Joe Paterno. The decision came on the heels of a grand jury indictment of a former assistant coach, which alleged a horrifying and lengthy pattern of sexual abuse against young boys, some of which took place in Penn State’s football facilities. It was evident that top university officials, including Paterno, were aware of the abuse, but failed to take proper action to stop it.
After a brief opening statement, board chairman John Surma invited questions – the first was: “Who will coach the team on Saturday?”
In the context of Penn State football’s quasi-religious hierarchy, there was never any question but that the game—and the program—would continue. At major universities like Penn State, football is much more than a diversion. It is the foundation of communal pride, and even can be a source of communal strength in difficult times. This dynamic, both compelling and troubling, is fed by university marketing strategists, athletic departments, and the media interests with whom they have a deeply symbiotic relationship.
Though it has plumbed new depths, Penn State’s disgrace is not an anomaly. Indeed, the preceding year had been a difficult one for defenders of college football. Reports about the long-term dangers of concussion raised serious questions about the safety of the sport. Perennial powers Miami, Ohio State, Southern California, and Oklahoma were recently found to have violated NCAA rules. In a widely read and widely praised October 2011 Atlantic Monthly article, historian Taylor Branch argues that the entire structure of commercialized college sports fundamentally unfair. For Branch, to survey the scene of college football “is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust.”
Debates about college football’s legitimacy run throughout the history of the game. In the early 1900s, as college football emerged as a major spectacle, the game’s violence (in 1905, eighteen people died as a result of playing) led to an effort to ban it. The game survived, thanks in part to Theodore Roosevelt’s intervention. Other critics have questioned football’s relation to the core mission of the university. Harvard’s president Charles William Eliot believed that football “incapacitated students for intellectual activity. [It] did not so much build character as twist it in undesirable directions.” In his 1932 book King Football, Reed Harris called it “a symbol for the super-materialistic, utterly hypocritical attitude which pervades administrations of the great universities and the tiny colleges.” In 1939, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins abolished the University of Chicago’s then storied football program. And in 1961, faculty at Ohio State voted against sending the undefeated Buckeye team to the Rose Bowl. As one faculty member explained at the time, “We’re upset over the fact that the image of Ohio State is that the school is merely an appendage to the football team… We don’t dislike football, but the feeling is that things are out of proportion.” In the aftermath of the vote, these concerns failed to sway a public that included many outraged Buckeye fans.
In the years since, university faculties have fallen further behind school athletic programs in the battle for hearts and minds. As humanities programs began taking feminism and multiculturalism seriously, college football was available to celebrate male camaraderie and the
great co-operative achievements that are still possible under white, male leadership.
In the wake of what is likely the most shocking scandal in the long, sordid history of college football, it is worth considering the cost of college football’s communal work. It is undeniable that football creates deep, affective bonds between students and the Penn State brand. But, as demonstrated by the reaction of many Penn State students, it can sometimes run counter to the best interests of the university and the public. In a move that would not have affected the self-funded athletic department, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s proposal earlier in the year to cut state funds for higher education by 50%. Though the measure failed, it would seem, to adapt a phrase from Frederic Jameson, that it is easier to imagine the end of the university than to imagine the end of its football program.
If feminists and other critics of college sports are to substantially change the tone and content of the conversation, we must recognize that football is inextricably bound up in thousands of personal relationships, often in a central way. It is a means to express and celebrate connections with friends and family. It can even manifest as a profound and sincere affection for an institution that changed students’ lives in ways that have nothing to do with football. In that light perhaps, it is possible to understand why a football game again became the occasion for the asserting “We Are Penn State,” while at the same time lamenting the high cost of that identification.
Jennifer K. Wood
Communication Arts & Sciences
Pennsylvania State University
Northern Illinois University