It’s not often that the newsfeeds of myself and my other half intersect. I read about dysfunctional families and law : he reads about tech and college football (he’s a Septic). But there is one big sporting news story at present that may be darkly interesting to a few Pink Tape readers. Not the Olympics, but the Penn State sex abuse scandal. Credit to my other half for drawing it to my attention, all the heinous misunderstandings of how the US sporting world works are mine.
So. College football is a mega big money industry. It is an enormous machine, with an enormous infrastructure. It depends on a complex system of scholarships and sponsorships and a mean regulatory system (National Collegiate Athletic Association, NCAA). And it is a big part of the business model of many Colleges in the US. Without the successful football programmes, merchandise, tv income etc they would be unable to provide the broader (less profitable or loss making) sporting programmes that they are required to provide.
For some time now Penn State University (PSU) has been in the midst of a scandal about the sexual abuse of boys that took place on campus over a number of years. Earlier this year former coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of the sexual abuse of 10 boys. He is now awaiting sentence, with an appeal reported to be forthcoming.
Earlier in the summer, Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI who was hired by university trustees, published his report into the scandal and the failings of senior University Officials to act on the reports of the abuse. Freeh goes further and concludes that those officials, including longstanding coach Joe Paterno, actively concealed concerns, whilst continuing to allow Sandusky access to the campus and use of facilities there (To put this in context, my OH says “Coaches are royalty within the system and Paterno was king. Sandusky was the No 2 guy for a number of years and even in retirement was afforded access to the facilities“). College leaders “empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access” to campus and via his affiliation with the football program, the report said. The access, the report states, “provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims.”
All of this has led to a number of heads rolling, not least Paterno himself. Paterno had been something of a hero for Penn State fans, but now he has not only been sacked, but his campus statue has been removed and he has been stripped of his coaching wins dating back to 1998 (which takes him from an all time leader in coaching in Bowl Championship Series down to number 12). Paterno was a coaching celebrity not just at Penn State but also much more broadly. Paterno himself died earlier in the year, in the midst of all this scandal.
It’s all pretty shocking stuff, if not entirely new territory – with many parallels to the church abuse scandals. But what is really interesting is that, in this highly commercial, pressurised environment – there has been an enormous financial penalty to pay for the institutional inertia that allowed this to go undealt with for so long. Penn State has just been awarded sanctions which are likely to cripple its Football programme in the coming years:
- A BCS team can only offer a maximum of 85 scholarships overall, and only 25 of those can be new in each year. The overall total of scholarships that PSU is permitted to offer this year is reduced from 85 to 75, and this reduction will increase until 2016 when they will only be allowed to offer 65 scholarships in total. To put this in context, college football teams have around 100 players to allow not just for the team that plays in formal games but also for practice teams for the starters to practice against. A school as big as PSU probably has 120 or so players. So you can see that as PSU traditionally competes at the highest level of the sport, this is likely to have an impact on the overall quality of the team they field during that time. Furthermore, the NCAA have temporary bent the rules about scholarship numbers for other schools to make it easier for them to receive any PSU player who chooses to transfer at this time. Those players will also be exempt from the normal requirement to sit out a year when they change schools.
- Also there is a four-year postseason ban, which prohibits the team from participating in the Big Ten championship game (OH says “Take it from me, this is a big blow“).
- The programme had to vacate all wins since 1998.
- And the College is on five years’ probation and is required to pay a $60 million fine, which must be “paid into an endowment for external programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims and may not be used to fund such programs at the university.”
Now I don’t understand all the nuts and bolts of that scholarships stuff, but I do know that scholarships are central because they are how colleges attract the best players, and without the best players you can’t make the wins, can’t stay in the conference (very very approximately our equivalent to a conference is a league) you want to stay in, or reap the rewards. Records and rankings are a big deal. Stats are a big deal in US sports, and the machinery which determines which team is able to play in which more or less lucrative league or bowl is complex and depends on those stats. So it’s pretty serious stuff.
“For the next several years now, Penn State can focus on the work of rebuilding its athletic culture,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said, “not worrying about whether or not it’s going to a bowl game.”
Also worth noting is that the NCAA chose to bypass their own investigative process that is usually triggered when infractions come to light and use the Freeh report (commissioned by PSU not the NCAA) as it’s justification for the sanctions on the grounds that the offence was so far outside of the normal realm of activity that they deal with. This was been challenged by a group of trustees who say that they need to hold their own investigation AND that the PSU president didn’t have the authority to sign off on the sanctions w/o going to the Board (and on some other technical point about how many board members can meet ‘unofficially’ to discuss a topic). It looks like that challenge has recently failed or been withdrawn.
Interesting to see that kind of self regulation within the context of a highly commercial setting, with the NCAA acting as moral authority. One alternative idea floated in light of these sanctions was a ” death sentence” (i.e. dissolve the football programme for a number years) but this was not considered desirable if only because of the economic impact it would have in the community around the university – just another example of how the ripple effect that this scandal has had, and the significant role college football holds. PSU is a large traditional school with a very big alumni community. There was much uproar about how Paterno was treated or how the Freeh report was wrong – which smacks of the same ‘protect football at all costs’ attitude that perhaps allowed the scandal to arise in the first place.