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All King Football’s Men

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
Associate Professor
Communication Arts & Sciences
Pennsylvania State University

Thomas Oates
Assistant Professor
Northern Illinois University


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6 comments for “All King Football’s Men

  1. Carol Stabile
    November 18, 2011 at 7:18 am

    To add to what Wood and Oates argue above, there’s a terrific piece about old boys’ networks and how they facilitate forms of sexual abuse (not to mention race and class privilege): http://goodmenproject.com/gender-sexuality/resist-the-old-boys-and-their-ways/.

  2. November 18, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Great piece…and to add to Carol’s addition, there is this (re)emerging situation out of Syracuse. It’s basketball, not football, and some differences in the arc of accusation/investigation/action, but still begs questions about networks of power & prestige in college sports…

  3. Bob Rodgers
    November 21, 2011 at 10:46 am

    To give you an idea of the monetary picture that perennial college football power houses have, here is a report released by the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.


    Abhorrent acts such as the ones that have allegedly taken place at Penn State and Syracuse always get held up by the fear of lost revenue; to the university, city of the university and the state its located in.

    If you look at the Nebraska athletic department report, it’s easy to see why people would try to cover up any wrong doing.
    • The overall annual economic impact on the Lincoln area during the 2004-2005 fiscal year was:
    • $114.3 million in output,
    • $41.2 million in worker income,
    • 2,840 jobs (one-third of which are athletic department event or concession jobs), and
    • $595,000 in direct sales tax revenue for the City of Lincoln.
    • The Nebraska football program alone had an economic impact on the Lincoln area of:
    • $87.1 million in output (including $35.4 million from fan spending),
    • $31.2 million in worker income,
    • 2,130 jobs (one-third being concession or event worker jobs), and
    • $498,000 in direct sales tax revenue for the City of Lincoln.

    The academic enterprise of higher education SHOULD garner the disposable income of the general population but pragmatically we know that it never will. If the general public doesn’t spend $20 on a shirt with their favorite college team (one they may have never attended)or $60 on a ticket to watch their favorite university football team, they most surely will spend their disposable income on a $10 movie ticket or $60 on a new video game. That’s entertainment money for the taking.

    Going a step further, even graduates who do care about academia still fuel the system of collegiate athletics. Once one graduates, joins their alumni association and donates some expendable income to the academic enterprise of the university annually, they still feel a loss in connection to their university. Collegiate sports represent that connection, camaraderie and relationship that the graduate misses out on being away from academia.

    All those elements combined make it difficult for any academic enterprise to ignore the revenue possibilities with dwindling funding. Unfortunately academia hasn’t figured out the best way to serve two masters; I’m not sure there is one.

  4. Doug Nelson
    November 21, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Big time athletic programs, in most instances, are self-funded and self governed, staffed by non-university employees. They are non-profit entities because they are in the business of providing scholarships. They keep the revenues they generate. Coaches and staff are not considered part of the university staff and faculty.

    As long as this structure is allowed, the problems will continue. Universities must have take control over athletic departments, control staffing requirements, hiring and firing, control revenues,branding and especially control salaries of coaches and administrators.

    The NCAA frequently reminds the public that it is the university presidents who control the NCAA. It’s high time they begin by controlling their own athletic departments.

  5. December 13, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Thanks Bob and Doug. I wish I knew more about how these things worked. I know that at Penn State, athletics has routinely reported profits, but I’m not sure that’s how it works at UO. And what happens to those “profits” is another question altogether. To add to the conversation, people talk a lot about the revenue that athletics generate, but less about the broader university services that athletics relies on. University presidents and senior administrators spend a lot of time at football games and other sporting events, as well as raising funds for new stadiums and athletic facilities, but to the best of my knowledge, athletics departments aren’t paying their salaries. And as far as I can tell, athletics departments don’t pay for development costs and staff, although they disproportionately benefit from those services. And research grants received by athletics don’t pay the same overhead (F&A) as academic departments, but at some universities, get reduced rates. So it’s a complicated picture.

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