The “student-athletes” on the football team at Penn State must feel a bit like the smoking public felt after the landmark tobacco settlement among the states a few years back.  Like the state governments and tobacco companies needed the smoking public to keep smoking, Penn State needs its amateur football players to perform exceptionally well, some might say professionally well, at their unpaid jobs in order that the stands are filled with fans so that the fines meted out by the NCAA might be repaid.  

In the class-action tobacco settlement the first rule of government market intervention was realized–whatever the government proclaims is its intended outcome, the exact opposite result will obtain.  The settlement that was intended to protect smokers from the dangers of tobacco required the continuation of their habitual use of tobacco if its terms were to be realized.  It seems that the NCAA’s sanctions on the Penn State football team are intended to get the university’s administration to assert some institutional control over the program.  But the program derives its institutional power from its popularity with its fans and alumni.  The sanctions will more likely than not serve to rally the public around the program such that it’s popularity increases, proving that it is not only governmental action, but also governing-body action, which is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

The NCAA is an utter fraud.  Penn State’s supposed amateur athletes are being asked to pony up their services to pay for a fine imposed by a governing body that promulgates the fantasy that college football is not a professional sport.  If the sport isn’t professional, that is, if the sport is played for the simple joy of it, then where does the NCAA think the money to pay the fine is coming from?  Mark Emmert, the NCAA chief who handed out the punishment yesterday, indicated the $60 million figure was roughly a year’s worth of gross revenue for the football team at Penn State.  Wow.  That’s a lot of money being generated by college kids just idyllically playing football for the sheer joy of the game.  And the athletes did nothing wrong, except perhaps buying into the Joe Paterno mystique which Paterno himself had carefully crafted over the years.   Never trust anyone who tries to position their character in the public mind as above reproach.  All human beings, and especially the ones who ask you to place you unquestioning trust in them, are well with the reach of reproach.  

What really went wrong at Penn State is accountability.  The football team was accountable to no one.  The cash it generated helped make it untouchable, but its true source of power was its popularity with the public.  The team was so popular with the general public that its formal governing authority (the university) effectively had no control over it.  Its power was absolute, and as the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely.   Because a sex scandal might have impaired the popularity from which the team drew its power, it did what any organization that answered only to itself might do–it tried to cover things up to protect its image.  There is very little difference between what Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lion football team did in handling the Sandusky sex abuse and what was de rigueur in the Catholic church’s handling of its priests’ proclivities for sexual abuse.  The organizational instinct is to cover things up, to protect the organization, and this even when the organization answers to no one except a sycophantic public that cares only about winning as an expression of the community’s highest values (in the case of Penn State football) or getting to heaven (in the case of the Catholic church).  In both instances, the coverup was unnecessary.  The Penn State faithful don’t now figure their prospects for expressing their community values through winning on the football field are permanently impaired by the Sandusky scandal any more than faithful Catholics perceive a threat to their salvation from the systemic child sexual abuse promulgated by their religion’s priestly gatekeepers to heaven.  Both groups fully well knew that nothing was so powerful that it would shutter their institution’s doors and prevent their ultimate desires from being realized.

It is not simple popularity that makes college football so dangerous and unanswerable for its sins.  It is the measure with which its fans believe that success on the football field somehow reflects the highest expression of their community’s values.   College football fans now belong to “nations”, e.g., the Gator Nation, or families, e.g. the Auburn Family.  These nations and families assume all the tenets of religious belief for the faithful, filling the void of belief in a higher purpose where organized religion has so often failed them.  Humans need to believe in something bigger than themselves, and college football is what a growing number have chosen to believe in.  In my hometown, it is quite common to see an obituary describing a person as a “loyal Crimson Tide (or Auburn) fan”, as if believing in the Tide or Tigers is an element of their heavenly salvation.  But believing in an organization means allowing the organization to think for you.  The Catholic church could never have gotten away with its sex abuse scandals, its program of indulgences in an earlier age, its Inquisition, without having a loyal following who willingly put belief in the organization above all other considerations.  Neither could Penn State football have gotten away with covering up a child sex abuse scandal without having legions of believers who thought the program could do no wrong.   Belief, expressed as loyalty right or wrong, is a powerful and dangerous thing.

The answer to the fraud that has become big-time college football is to quit pretending football is anything more than a game, and its players are anything more than professional athletes practicing their craft.  The only way this could be accomplished would be to calve big-time college football from the educational establishments it purportedly represents, and make it an NFL minor league, which is essentially what it is anyway.  NFL fans seem a bit more mature in their understanding that football is just a game played by grown men who happen to make their living doing so.  In essence, watching an NFL game is watching the employees of a small company perform their jobs.  NFL fans aren’t generally wrapped up in some quasi-religious idea that victory on the field is the highest and greatest expression of their community’s values.  Or, at least given the nakedly commercial aspect of the game, fans that pretend the game is something more than a game played for its value as entertainment are as delusional as are the members of college football’s “nations”.   It would be hard to imagine the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, trying to cover up a sordid scandal like Penn State’s.  The Pittsburgh Steelers (or any other NFL team for that matter) don’t present an image that they represent all that is good and pure and worthy in the world which they must protect at any cost.  Divorce the Nittany Lion football team from Penn State University and it won’t either.  It will just be another sports franchise trying to put a winning product on the field so it can entice the interest of as many paying fans as possible.

I love football.  I played the game all through my childhood and youth–nine years worth–and I used to believe, as I was told, that it was a metaphor for life, a crucible for forming character.  But it’s not.  It’s just a game.  Life doesn’t have four quarters.  Life is not played with pads and helmets.  In life, the hits can come fast and furious, and from all quarters.  There are no timeouts in life.  Football doesn’t build character, but rather occasionally, like any other endeavor, reveals it.  But still, I love the game.  Because it’s fun.  And I would love the college game even more were it not such an utter fraud.  Those players aren’t amateur athletes.  If they were, it wouldn’t cost a hundred dollars a ticket to see them play.  Divorce the schools from the football programs.  Pay the players a measure of what they’re worth as minor league football players.  Do that, and scandals like Penn State’s would be a thing of the past.  Rooting for the football team would no longer be a matter of belief, but instead be simply a source of entertainment.