American Culture

Penn State's sports culture is the rule, not the exception

by Brian Moritz

News of the punishment came down first thing on Monday morning, July 23.

More than eight months after scandal first broke at Penn State, about a month after former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child molestation, two weeks after the Freeh Report blasted Penn State leadership and former coach Joe Paterno for covering up the allegations, and one day after the statue of Paterno was removed from Beaver Stadium, the NCAA handed down its sanctions against the program.

The punishments are harsh, severe, and justified. The $60 million eats up more than half of the profits Penn State’s athletic department earns annually. The postseason ban means the team is basically playing four years of exhibition games. The scholarship restrictions mean that it will be 2020 before Penn State fields a football team with four full scholarship classes. Vacating 111 wins is a final punishment for the late Paterno, who had been the sport’s all-time winningest coach.

”Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said, as quoted by the Associated Press. He also said that Penn State had “an athletic culture that went horribly awry.”

As if that culture is an aberration.

As if that culture doesn’t exist at hundreds of other schools across the country.

As if that culture changed in any way on July 23.

No, hundreds of other schools don’t have child rapists lurking around their athletic facilities. But hundreds of other schools do have cultures in which athletics reign supreme, coaches are demigods who rule with unquestioned authority, players are unpaid celebrities, and average students and professors are either starstruck or left on the outside.

The culture of college sports is, in so many ways, broken. It’s that culture that led to the NCAA’s harsh penalties.

The NCAA is a hypocritical, at times corrupt cartel more concerned with its own economic bottom line than with truly fair treatment for college athletes. (As Taylor Branch noted in his landmark article on the NCAA, the phrase “student-athlete” that the NCAA trots out all the time was invented so schools couldn’t be subject to workman’s comp claims by injured athletes). The NCAA also got it mostly right with the Penn State punishments. The two thoughts aren’t mutually exclusive.

As Drew Magery at Deadspin pointed out, the NCAA’s punishment was as much about its own public relations as it was about justice. But the NCAA had to act in this case. This goes beyond athletes being paid (even though they should be paid) or academic shenanigans. These crimes are so egregious, the cover-up so thorough, the lack of institutional control so complete, that doing nothing would show that the NCAA defined powerlessness. If harboring an accused child rapist and actively covering up allegations of his crimes didn’t bring NCAA punishment, what could?

In the end, Penn State took the equivalent of a plea deal to avoid the so-called death penalty (complete shutting down of the football team).

And yet, the culture remains.

It’s a culture that’s defined by sociologists Robert Hughes and Jay Coakely as the sporting ethic. The sporting ethic, they write, encompasses behaviors that are viewed as normal for elite coaches and athletes: dedication to the game; accept risks and play through pain; strive for distinction; accept no obstacles in the pursuit of success. It’s the blind acceptance of those behaviors that lead to many of the problems in sports — the use of performance-enhancing drugs; the issues facing players and concussions; the win-at-any-cost mentality.

It’s a culture that transcends Penn State football and Joe Paterno. It’s a culture that permeates big-time college sports. It’s nothing new, but the amount of money involved these days makes it worse. Speaking at the Summit for Communication and Sport at Bradley University in March, Branch noted that the NCAA earns $771 million per year from the television rights to the men’s basketball tournament. This figure makes up more than 80 percent of the NCAA’s annual budget.

For all its popularity and big crowds, big-time college football doesn’t make money. Most big-time programs lose money, or at best about break even.

Is it any wonder, Branch noted in his speech, that all of the truly major college sports scandals have been related to football? It’s hard to see the NCAA going after the big-name basketball programs, because that sport is literally the organization’s economic engine.

As long as this is the case, the culture won’t change. As long as the sports media (of which I was a part of for a decade) continue to deify players, coaches and programs instead of covering them honestly and as human beings, the culture won’t change. As long as we sports fans continue to tailgate on Saturday mornings, cram into bars for the first week of March Madness and turn our honest love of our alma maters into unrelenting demands for wins on the field or the court, the culture won’t change.

Life changed for Penn State on July 23, for its football program and its fans.

But the culture that helped lead to the news remains intact. Nothing about that changed at all.

Brian Moritz is a doctoral student at Syracuse University. He also blogs at Sports Media Guy.

1 reply »