Why Big-Time College Football Sucks

January 12, 2015 | 4 books mentioned 25 11 min read


1. A Killer Business Model
So tonight it’ll be Oregon vs. Ohio State for the college football championship. I’m going to pass. A big part of the reason is that I just watched Amir Bar-Lev’s sickening and fascinating new documentary, Happy Valley. Early in the movie we meet a Pennsylvania State University student named Tyler Estright who’s being interviewed in his dorm room, dressed in a Penn State t-shirt and a Penn State cap turned backward. The wall behind him is adorned with pictures of Joe Paterno, the university’s legendary football coach who, shortly before this interview, was fired amid revelations that one of his long-time assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was a serial sexual abuser of young boys.

cover“How could they do this to Joe?” Estright cries, echoing a common refrain in State College, Pa. — known as Happy Valley — that Paterno was unfairly punished for another man’s sins. “Look,” Estright continues, “I feel bad for the victims, okay? I have to say that so people don’t think I’m an idiot. But the thing that made me maddest was that the NCAA took away Joe’s wins.”

Though Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison, Estright derides an on-campus candlelight vigil for the victims as “fake.” Later, watching television as Penn State and Nebraska players kneel together on the field for a prayer before the kickoff of the first game in the post-Paterno era, Estright barks, “Get up off your knees and let’s play football! That’s what we do here!”

Eventually, Estright’s disgust with the unfairness of Paterno’s treatment and the ensuing National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions shades into fury when the Penn State players start wearing their names above the numerals on the backs of their jerseys. This seemingly minor change is, for Estright, an unpardonable contravention of everything Penn State football supposedly stood for under Paterno: selfless devotion to the notion that the game of football, if played correctly, builds better people and a better world.

Also buying into this questionable notion is an artist named Michael Polito, who painted a brazenly religious mural of Penn State football worthies on the wall of a downtown building. A God-like (and haloed) Paterno is at the center, with a Christ-like Sandusky at his right hand, both of them surrounded by angelic coaches and players. After the convictions and the firings and the sanctions, we watch Polito paint over the image of the disgraced Sandusky. Then, after much soul searching, Polito paints over Paterno’s halo but leaves the rest of beloved Joe Pa intact. Painting over that halo, says Polito, is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” There is also much lamentation when the statue of Paterno is removed from its hallowed spot in front of the football stadium and unceremoniously hauled away. Such events pass for traumas inside a bubble like Happy Valley, Pa.

It’s sickening and fascinating to watch Tyler Estright and Michael Polito and other Penn State football supporters not because they’re unusual but because, as Happy Valley makes clear, so many other people in Pennsylvania and the rest of America feel exactly the way they feel. In the end, this movie is not really about a sexual predator and his enabler. It’s about what their downfall illuminates: a nation so drunk on sports, especially on big-time college football, that it has lost the ability to think and feel. America has become a nation, as one reviewer of Happy Valley wrote, “put under a spell, even reduced to grateful infantilism, by the game of football.”

How did this come to pass? To arrive at an answer, do what you always do in America: follow the money. In 2010, the Southeastern Conference, which has produced the last seven national champions in college football, became the first conference to make $1 billion in revenue. This year’s three playoff games and associated bowl games are part of a new 12-year TV contract worth $7.3 billion. Baseball, once known as America’s national pastime, has been thoroughly eclipsed by college (and pro) football. Game 1 of last year’s baseball World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals drew half as many viewers as a mid-season college football game between Florida State and Notre Dame. Some 28 million people tuned in to each of the Jan. 1 playoff games. Football generates about two-thirds of the revenue at major college athletic programs. Yes, big-time college football has turned its stratospheric popularity into one highly productive cash cow.

But the game’s current success is built on a pair of unpretty pillars: the grateful infantilism of millions of fans like Tyler Estright; and the fact that the players who generate the billions of dollars in revenue do not receive a dime in compensation. That’s what you might call a killer business model.

2. A Secular Religion
College football’s recent tsunami of popularity caught me by surprise, even though I’ve known for years that big-time college football is virtually a secular religion across the South and in such select Yankee hotbeds as State College, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; and Ann Arbor, Mich. Now you can add Eugene, Oregon to the list. I attended a few University of Michigan games as a kid — spectacles that drew upwards of 100,000 fans into the university’s colossal bowl of a stadium. In my memory, there was something distinctly gladiatorial about those games.

The South’s passion for college football dates back at least to 1926, when Alabama became the first school from the region to play in the Rose Bowl. Three years after that red-letter date, my late father, then aged 7, snuck under a fence to witness the first game ever played in Sanford Stadium in his hometown of Athens, Ga. — a 15-0 victory for Georgia over mighty Yale. In the 1960s, coach Bear Bryant, a sort of piney-woods Joe Paterno, turned Alabama into a national powerhouse.

In 1982, I landed a job as a Top 40 disc jockey at a Savannah, Ga., radio station that also broadcast the University of Georgia Bulldogs’s football games. One of my side duties was to put together each Saturday’s taped pre-game show, which required me to travel up to the campus in Athens for the annual pre-season Media Day.

It was an experience I’ll never forget. Georgia had won the national championship in 1980, and Bulldog running back Herschel Walker was a heavy favorite for the Heisman Trophy in 1982. With the faithful drooling in anticipation of another national title, radios droned the state’s unofficial anthem: “Give Herschel Walker the ball…”

When I arrived on the Athens campus for Media Day, there was an armada of TV trucks parked outside the athletic complex, bristling like giant insects. Inside, an army of broadcasters, sportswriters, and nobodies like myself bustled around, interviewing coaches and players. It was an astonishing dance. The interviewers approached their subjects with great deference, especially the star players and the coach, Vince Dooley, who struck me as the biggest gas bag who ever wore pants. All pronouncements were written down or tape-recorded or videotaped as though they were holy writ, soon to be disseminated to the waiting multitudes. It was amazing to watch grown men kowtow to mumbling teenage boys, even if those boys happened to be chiseled, 250-pound slabs of beef.

Eventually I broke away from the breathless clots of interviewers crowding around the players, and I noticed…the girls. They were impossibly beautiful, impossibly blonde, impossibly tan, as though they’d all been force-fed a diet of peaches and yogurt and sunshine. The black girls were every bit as luscious. Co-eds don’t look like this up North, I thought. The girls were lurking along the walls in sundresses, and I soon realized they were actually jiggling with impatience for all the old men with the microphones and notebooks to get out of the way so they could get a shot at those beautiful slabs of boy beef, prime boyfriend material, maybe husband material, maybe even N.F.L. meal-ticket material.

The air in that room was a hormonal cocktail, so potent, so thick, so musky that I was surprised those girls hadn’t already come out of their sundresses. All in due time, I told myself. As I drove back home to Savannah that evening, I realized I had gotten my first glimpse of the big-time college football business model. It was built on an infantile news media feeding pap to infantile fans, who treated teenage boys like princes while the university raked in millions of dollars off the unpaid labor of those pampered princes. The equation had it all: big money, big media, celebrity, and sex. The only thing missing was academics. More on that in a moment.

Alas, the Georgia faithful were to suffer unimaginable heartbreak at the end of that season. Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy and the Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference championship and finished the regular season ranked #1. But in the Sugar Bowl they lost the national championship to the #2 team in the land, the Nittany Lions from Happy Valley, Pa., coached by a doomed god named Joe Paterno.

3. The “Student-Athlete”
Which brings us to the NCAA’s most cynical and lucrative myth, the “student-athlete.” Four years after I attended that Media Day in Athens, the president of the University of Georgia resigned when the board of regents implicated him and Vince Dooley, who was athletic director as well as football coach, in a pattern of academic abuse in the admission and advancement of student-athletes. The abuse was brought to light by Jan Kemp, an English professor who had the temerity to complain when higher-ups intervened to give nine football players a passing grade for a remedial English course they had failed. The passing grades enabled the players to compete in that year’s Sugar Bowl. For her trouble, Kemp was demoted, then fired. She sued. At trial, one of the university’s attorneys justified the favorable treatment of a hypothetical football player this way: “We may not make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career.” Despite such shrewd lawyering, Kemp won the case and was awarded more than $1 million in damages and lost wages.

Cut to the present. The University of North Carolina, which has long prided itself on “the Carolina Way” — athletic excellence and academic rigor — is now reeling from revelations that for 18 years a “shadow curriculum” funneled student-athletes into courses that required no class attendance and no course work other than a single paper, which teachers often didn’t read. For such scholarship, more than 1,000 “student-athletes” received high enough grades to be able to continue to compete.

Defenders of Joe Paterno never tire of pointing out that 80-plus percent of his football players earned their degrees, compared with a national average of about 50 percent. But as a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette study revealed, players on the top 25 football and basketball teams tend to get “clustered” into majors where accommodating professors and less rigorous work loads are more likely to result in grades that allow the athletes to remain eligible to play. At Baylor, the student-athlete’s major of choice is General Studies; at Texas A&M, it’s Agricultural Leadership and Development; at Oregon, it’s Social Science, and so forth. This is not a knock on the student-athletes. Competing on a big-time college football or basketball team — with its time-consuming practices, training and travel — is a full-time job, and it leaves players with far less time and energy for academics than non-athletes enjoy. “The Carolina Way,” it turns out, is a fantasy, little more than a hollow PR stunt.

Sandwiched between the academic scandals at Georgia and North Carolina is a long and dreary litany of cash payouts, rape charges, shoe scandals, drug busts, the Penn State horror show, and my personal favorite, student-athletes who are unable to read their own contracts when they turn pro.

But rococo scandals are just the beginning of the woes now bedeviling the NCAA’s killer business model. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern University football players are school employees and thus eligible to form a union. In August, a federal judge ruled that the NCAA violates antitrust laws by limiting what college athletes can receive from their “names, images and likenesses.” The ruling stopped short of allowing students to receive money from commercial endorsements while still in school. It also failed to address the elephant in the room: Given the revenues they generate, shouldn’t athletes in big-time college sports, specifically football and basketball, get paid for their services?

The answer to that and other vexing questions might come from, of all places, Capitol Hill, where there’s a movement under way to form a presidential commission to look into the numerous problems facing big-time college sports. The NCAA, meanwhile, is already angling to shore up its crumbling business model. In the first half of 2014, the NCAA paid almost a quarter of a million dollars to lobbyists to press the case on Capitol Hill that it deserves an antitrust exemption. Yes indeed, always follow the money.

4. Football as Metaphor
How do you explain football’s rampaging popularity? Take your pick.

On the most superficial level, the game’s violence has a built-in appeal in a bellicose country like America. The parallels between football and war are almost too patent: the trench warfare at the line of scrimmage, the aerial combat (with occasional bursts of ballet) of the passing game, the bone-crushing contact, the martial precision of the marching bands. Increasingly, there is also the presence of the U.S. military at games — uniformed personnel participating in on-field ceremonies, fighter planes screaming overhead, game broadcasts peppered with recruiting ads urging members of the underclass to volunteer for the armed services so they can take part in our forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Hollywood, big-time college football has been thoroughly infiltrated by the U.S. military.

coverThere’s a much subtler link between football and the military: the ways players and soldiers get treated. First they’re seduced, then they’re worshiped, then they’re discarded. This link is beautifully captured by Steve Almond in his new book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto:

The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind.

It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level…But it turns out that our adulation…is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable.

Another source of football’s popularity is that it’s ideally suited to television — short bursts of violent action separated by downtime that can be used to over-analyze the action or sell things. Compare this to baseball’s unhurried, relatively seamless pacing (and lack of a game clock), or with soccer’s two halves of 45 uninterrupted minutes of action when no one tries to sell the viewer anything. Baseball and soccer can’t hope to surpass football’s appeal to a populace with a wide violent streak, a short attention span, and an innate impatience with narratives that unfold at a leisurely pace. Americans detest longueurs almost as much as they love their shock and their awe. If baseball belongs to the pastoral 19th century, football is a perfect fit with the frenzied, fragmented 21st.

covercoverIsn’t professional football, with its stratospheric salaries, concussions, and domestic-violence scandals, even worse than big-time college football? I think not. The billionaires who own NFL franchises may enjoy unconscionable tax breaks because the IRS regards NFL teams as “non-profit” operations, and the owners may stage their untaxed extravaganzas in stadiums funded by taxpayers, but at least those rich owners pay their players, and pay them well. There’s a certain sleazy integrity to the NFL that’s absent from the NCAA. And the NFL, for all its many faults, has inspired at least two very fine novels — Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. That’s not nothing.

So feel free to take your pick as to why big-time college and pro football are so popular. Much more interesting to me, in the end, is what football means. I see it as nothing less than a metaphor for America. The game and the nation were built on a shared impulse: the drive to acquire an enemy’s territory through violence. Is this overly simplistic? I don’t think so, because games reveal character, both of individuals and of groups (teams and fans, even nations). I believe that a football team’s drive down the field is an echo of one of the central narratives of our national history — the drive west through the forceful subjugation of the native populace. If you buy this equation, you begin to see just how deeply football is threaded into America’s DNA. It’s nothing less than a crystallization of our national character. No wonder so many millions of Americans are drunk on the game. And as we become increasingly infantilized by sports and celebrity worship, technology and consumer goods, no wonder a fan like Tyler Estright becomes outraged that more than 100 of Penn State’s football victories were vacated, yet he remains virtually indifferent that dozens of boys were sexually abused by one of the school’s assistant coaches. After a while, it starts to make perfect sense.

5. The Pure Joy of Play
I love to play sports, especially pick-up basketball, and I enjoy watching sports in small doses, especially minor-league baseball, and basketball at the high school and small-time college levels. (Though as Friday Night Lights reminded us, high school sports are not immune to many of the ills that have perverted big-time college sports.)

So, a few nights ago, I went up to the Bronx to watch a basketball game between two mid-level NCAA Division I schools, Fordham University and Siena College. There were barely 1,000 spectators in Fordham’s lovely old gym, there was not a single NBA prospect on the floor, and both teams have at best a modest chance of winning their respective conference tournaments and qualifying for the big-money NCAA tournament in March. Despite all this — or, rather, because of it — the game was a thing of beauty, a tight, well played tussle between two groups of talented young men who play for the love of a game that has given them a chance to get a free college education.

The true beauty of that game in the Bronx was that it was not about making money. It was about something much bigger, the thing that sports are supposed to be about but too rarely are in America today.

It was about the pure joy of play.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. What a bunch of BS. This author is a misinformed dope with an agenda. Nothing more. So much of what he has said is wrong. The fact that he references the flatly dishonest, unethical and immoral film Happy Valley is proof. The real problem rests with the media which the author is a part of. Penn State? No problem what so ever. It is a proven fact that Joe did the right thing given what he knew. Furthermore, virtually all evidence strongly, if not conclusively supports the course of action taken by Penn State in response to a report that in all likelihood was relatively minor.

    Then there is the blatant lie in the article. Michael Pilato’s mural is not about football. It is about the town. Just as the Sandusky scandal is not about football. Sure any ex coach committed crimes but those crimes had nothing to do with football. The tabloid media and a legion of delusional activists couldn’t let a controversy go to waste.

    State student and alumni base which would rather win the right way than the wrong way. This is the Penn State way. Play the right way on the field and do the right thing off. Penn State’s football graduation rate isn’t an accident. The fact that they have never had a major violation is not an accident either. Of course this dope of an author would never mention this because it doesn’t fit his agenda. Like so many activists, nothing he said should be taken seriously.

    The one thing the author gets right is that the NCAA is a joke. It is actually far worse. But don’t pretend the NFL is any better. There are some bad actors out there including several prominent schools but overall, the schools themselves are not a problem. Big time college football, does a lot of good.Penn State for example is the gold standard for big time college athletics that all schools should follow. Success with honor wasn’t just Joe’s motto, it is our motto. This hack of an author would do well to inform himself.

  2. A small note: “In 2010, the Southeastern Conference, which has produced the last seven national champions in college football…” should read “seven of the last eight” as last year’s national champion, Florida State, belongs to the ACC. (And it should be noted: neither team in this year’s title game come from the SEC, either.)

    Personally I feel that the truth about this game is somewhere between your view that big time football stands as a grand national metaphor and our devotion to it is infantilizing, Bill Morris, and the blind, almost fanatical zealotry exhibited by the anonymous commenter, JK, right above me. The gulf between those two spectrums is gigantic, however, so I suppose that’s not saying too much. Suffice it to say that I’m a big fan of the sport myself, although I recognize the sham it’s based upon, and the cartel that runs the entire thing. (NOTE: I definitely recommend Taylor Branch’s The Cartel, which I view as the finest indictment of the NCAA that’s been written to date.)

    That said, I still bristle somewhat at your implication that America’s captivation with football is somehow more infantilizing than the rest of the world’s fascination with fútbol. Not only is the latter much more profitable as a whole (and by orders of magnitude, at that), but its youth system also grapples with loads of exploitative practices, its governing body is even more corrupt than the NCAA (and yes, that’s surprisingly possible!), and its most extreme fans are even more fanatical than even the most devoted members of the Crimson Tide’s faithful. I can’t think of a time when a bunch of pigskin fans or players murdered a referee during a football game, but I can name two example of that happening with soccer that occurred just last year (One; and Two).

    In my opinion, there will always be an argument that sports are on some way damaging to order, to “civilized” behavior, and etc… There will always be corrupt forces when you’ve got pools of money to be made. But to qualify — or to attempt to qualify — one sport as more to blame for this than another strikes me, respectfully, as pretty futile.

  3. Mr. Morris’s entire piece is predicated on the understanding that individuals knowingly enabled a sexual predator. If true, hard to argue with his frustrations. But typically sexual predators groom their environments to hide their intentions. And there is very little evidence that suggests what happened at The Second Mile or at Penn State was atypical. Unfortunately, the experience of the Catholic Church has made the prospect of “protecting” sexual predators conceivable, but generally people are outraged at these acts – which is why this story transcended sports to begin with. It is unlikely that anyone truly believed Jerry Sandusky was capable of these crimes, which is exactly how people like him get away with their acts for so long.

  4. To JK: This dope of an author would like to thank you for your revealing comments. You are my case in point, the perfect poster boy for my contention that big-time college football fans have been reduced to grateful infantilism. You and Tyler Estright should get together for a few brews. I’m sure you’d have a lot to talk about.

    To Nick Moran: Your point is taken. I have witnessed the mania surrounding World Cup soccer firsthand – when I was living in Germany in 2006, the year it hosted the tournament. The normally staid Germans went foam-at-the-mouth berserk. But I wouldn’t attempt to suggest that big-time American college football is more or less infantalizing (and corrupt) than big-time global soccer. Both games are rotten, and big money is at the root of the rot. It strikes me as futile to pursue a lesser-of-two-(or more)-evils argument. I’d rather stick with my original contention: big-time college football sucks.

  5. So you think college football sucks because:
    1) there’s been a bad scandal (not the first, won’t be the last). Most fans of PSU want answers. Not assumptions. That’s why there was an outcry during Paterno’s firing and the Freeh Report. It was all based on assumptions. Even if you want to believe those people are all monsters for wanting to look further into things rather than just slapping a “guilty” title on some people and moving on, that’s still a very small part of college football. What about the NFL’s recent problem with domestic violence? Should we boycott the NFL now because they have people with questionable character playing in their league? What about fans that still support those players? What about fans who support players in baseball who test positive for PEDs? What about teams that choose to keep these players? What about that Dodgers fan who beat the living hell out of a Giants fan a few years ago? Is the entire Dodgers organization at fault because they didn’t do enough? Are all Dodgers fans despicable now? Baseball fans kept watching games after that incident. Does that mean all baseball fans are inept? What about the absolute mayhem that occasionally ensues at professional soccer matches overseas? It’s disgraceful when it happens, but does that mean the entire league sucks?

    I just typed too much and don’t feel like complaining about the rest of this. I agree with number 3. That’s an NCAA issue. Not a college football issue. I think the NCAA is a greedy, power-hungry organization. I think most people would agree with that. However, that doesn’t have anything to do with my enjoyment of college football as a game. Most of these issues don’t. You can conjure up excuses all you want. I’m still going to watch and enjoy the sport that is college football because of what it provides. It provides togetherness for some, a sense of pride for some, and for others it’s just a really great source of entertainment. Sorry you’re missing out.

  6. So, this Sissy Mary doesn’t like football? Yawn, who cares? I don’t like ballet, but it doesn’t upset me that people do.

  7. Bill Morris;
    You’re comment to JK shows that you are an arrogant smug individual who can’t understand why might some how disagree with.

    I read you article, and agree with JK. You added nothing to the conversation, short of saying you don’t like big time sports. Obviously there is a draw that is there.

    As for what happened at Penn State, I’ve read virtually all the reports that came out. Jerry Sandusky is a sexual predator, and preyed on victims that were weak (it’s what they do). But what happened at Penn State is more of an indictment on pedophilia than anything to do with college football. To indict an entire sport over that is ludicrous. The tone to paint that people should feel dirty for watching the sport is arrogant and smug. And your response to a poster who pointed out the flaws in your logic by resorting to name-calling is juvenile.

  8. People like it because in a nation where meritocracy is declining and identity politics are on the rise, football remains a place where all that should matter is what you do on the field. The NFL and NCAA are ruining that by suspending people for making the game too safe. It’s a game for people who prefer liberty to safety. They’re also ruining it by suspending people for off the field violations. If you’re not in jail, you should play, plain in simple. The gladiator spirit of college football is popular for the same reason that The Iliad is popular.
    Ours is a soft and wussified nation (and this is coming from a George Carlin liberal POV, not some right wing neocon BS) and we don’t want to venerate warriors anymore because it makes us “feel bad,” or because some pseudo-feminist says it’s part of “rape culture,” but our subconscious evolutionary biology still yearns for violent competition played at the highest and purest levels.
    Yes, putting names on the jerseys is kowtowing to millennial narcissism and Generation Me nonsense. No, Joe Paterno is not the equal of Jerry Sandusky. One predatory pederast doesn’t make football a bad game. Christopher Hitchens famously argued, rather convincingly, that Bill Clinton was a rapist. That doesn’t mean we should stop following politics or watching CNN or caring about the presidency.
    Morris’s infantilism theory just doesn’t pass muster. It’s a hypothetical shot in the dark that might clip a few truths in its boomeranging around the room, and I can’t hate on the guy’s rhetoric, he’s an articulate and eloquent writer, but his thesis is thinner than a one-ply Kleenex.
    And btw, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is a lot better than just “a very fine novel,” it’s a seminal work of American literature.

  9. I would like to add a few comments on the “Penn State” mural. With some research, the author would have known that the Inspirations mural is meant to have numerous inspirational people on it. For instance, a young girl would died from cancer is on it. She (certainly) didn’t play football. In fact, a majority of the people on the mural have never played football. Additionally, every dead person had a halo painted on their head. Every one – that means not just Joe Paterno. In the aftermath of the scandal, (due to the fact that the halo was drawing unnecessary criticism since the media – ie, people like you – was incorrectly reporting that only Joe Paterno had a halo) Mr. Pilato removed ALL the halos. He then replaced them with patches on the chests of the dead people.

    Many Penn Staters are upset that the media is using Penn State as an example of evil, when many of the facts of the scandal are misrepresented by the media. For instance, here are some quiz questions from the Freeh report. Let’s just assume that a former U.S. Attorney General never published a report claiming the Freeh Report was speculative, and let’s also pretend the Freeh has never had a report challenged and dismissed for drawing unwarranted conclusions (Spoiler Alert: Both of those assumptions are wrong.) In what year was the State Police notified about Sandusky? How about Child Protective Services? The answer is 1998 – and he was cleared. (Remember, this isn’t from a pro-Paterno report. This is from the damning Freeh report.) Now, in 2001, Mike McQueary witnessed the shower incident (with the current EX-coach Sandusky). What happened afterwards, I will let the courts decide. However, why would Joe Paterno be punished with the wins since 1998? Why not 2001? How could Joe Paterno be held responsible in 1998 after CPS cleared him? A new incident in 2001 warrants a new investigation, certainly, and actions that occurred since then need to be looked at.

    A major complaint of some Penn Stater’s is that the focus on Penn State failings draws the focus away from things the also need looked at for the incident to never happen again. The failings of the State Police and CPS, the disappearance of a DA whose cases were not reopened for years (?!?), and the continual and unchanged operation of the Second Mile – the organization that allowed Jerry Sandusky to groom his victims – all need more media attention. I’m actually very happy that Penn State’s fine money is to go towards fixing some of these problems by funding child abuse prevention, but it would be even better if they got the national media’s attention.

    I actually believe you made valid points about the money of College Football, but I do take issue the above. Not only that, you took what was considered by many to be an neutral documentary and used only the negative parts. Representing all of Penn State in such light is irresponsible.

  10. It’s very hard to take the writer seriously when this critique of competitive sports cherry-picks ideas, comments, and events… without a shred of consideration for balance or fairness.
    I know it’s an opinion piece, but your use of words like ‘infantilism’ to describe interest and participation in college sports only reflects how you feel, and using terms like ‘slabs of beef’ to describe these athletes, many of whom have not only worked their entire lives to create those ‘slabs’, to hone specific skills to help them reach this lofty level of competition, and are very hard-working in the classroom, denigrates them without cause. They are people, and you marginalize their individuality and accomplishments in a weak attempt to support your flimsy points.
    Your lumping of all fans into the ‘Estright’ model, or the Pilato model (while having done no research into the mural you so harshly criticize), shows you really don’t care about this issue as a whole, only how you feel about it… which to me results not in an enlightened piece, but just a prettied-up rant on an issue about which you’re not really informed.

  11. Another thing that riles me is your attempt to infer that Penn State’s graduation rates are somehow phony, by associating its mention with the NC academic scandal… while no one has ever accused PSU of anything similar.
    You also push PSU toward the pile of colleges which have made it easier on their football players by putting them in ‘easy’ majors… again, a practice which has never had a foothold in the Penn State program.
    Penn State has not only consistently graduated football players at a rate near the top of D-1 schools nationally, but has a large group of academic all-americans (185) across all sports.
    The football program-developed academic system at PSU has become the model for all 28 intercollegiate sports, which the football program completely funds.
    Perhaps what you might want to focus on concerning PSU, is how… when every Sandusky-abused kid was part of his Second Mile organization, and when only a few of the 45 plus incidents of abuse occurred at campus sites, was PSU and especially its football program the focus of ESPN and the rest of the media?
    Nah, that would actually take some investigation… perhaps reading something other than your own writing… to come up with some enlightening information or opinion.

  12. great piece, even where I think it goes over board. But a small correction: to say The billionaires who own NFL franchises may enjoy unconscionable tax breaks because the IRS regards NFL teams as “non-profit” operations is factually incorrect. The league itself is a nonprofit (which is of course unconscionable), but the teams are not. Legally, they are regular for-profit businesses.

    oh and Bill, how can you fail to mention the brilliant novel Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk? Granted it is about pro rather than college football, but it is a brilliant satire of the military-TV-NFL nexus.

  13. I agree, it could be a great piece but since the author doesn’t know what he is talking about, is willfully ignorant of facts on just about everything and downright deceitful (see failed attempt to lump Penn State in with UNC and other schools regarding graduation rates – no clustering at Penn State, where recent highly rated recruits were forced else where when they didn’t get in).

    Of course the author goes out of his way to bash Penn State despite the fact that all evidence is conclusive. Penn State’s portion of the Sandusky Scandal is nothing more than Duke Lacrosse 2.0. A fabricated scandal pushed by a few in authority positions and bought hook line and sinker by people such as this misinformed fool who is incapable of thinking for himself. Like it or not, Penn State is the gold standard for major college athletics. Like it or not, we would rather lose the right way than win the wrong way, which is the Paterno way. Like it or not we are right and you know it but are too scared to admit it which is why you went out of your way to distract and misinform.

  14. I’m kind of surprised The Millions published such a piece as this, which is incendiary and obviously intended to provoke controversy. I’m fine with articles that provoke, but that at least do so in a thoughtful way. It’s kind of hard to take this piece seriously, given its title: “Why Big-Time College Football Sucks.”

  15. I agree with much of the article. I suspect high school and much college football will disappear within a decade due to health hazards, operating and insurance costs and programmed bloat. That said, I must disagree with much of what was said about Joe Paterno and Penn State, which unfortunately was the lead of the piece.

    There is a minority of the Penn State fan base, and other fan bases, that worship coach or team at the expense of all else. Most fans feel it is the university team, not the team’s university. Most players at Penn State are real, if athletically gifted, college students, and live successful lives, sometimes enviably so, after football. This should be Paterno’s legacy.

    Sandusky had few, if any defenders. He was tried and punished for his actions. Those actions, however, were not Penn State’s, or even Second Mile’s. Were there coverups? Trials are being held for those accused of covering up: if and when they are found guilty, there should be punishment. Punishment should not precede the verdict and should punish the guilty, not, as in this case, those uninvolved. That is what the outcry is about.

    Sandusky’s crimes were odious. So was the desire of Penn State trustees, several with ties to Sandusky and the Second Mile, to protect their personal reputations at the expense of the school and football program. The NCAA’s premature overreaction was ill-considered and unjustified (driven by a $60 million fine?). Politicians seized on the scandal for advantage. The media feeding frenzy, driven by celebrity and inaccuracies, was disgusting. Some of Sandusky’s victim’s were attacked for coming forward. Thank God this can’t occur with political or economic news (sarcasm).

    Big time college football has many problems, but the situation at Penn State is more representative, in both micro and macro, of societal problems. All the players – with, oddly, the possible exception of “St. Joe” Paterno – gave us too clear a picture of the way things work – or don’t work.

  16. John M Vuono: “Mr. Morris’s entire piece is predicated on the understanding that individuals knowingly enabled a sexual predator.”

    It isn’t.

    Wow: “So you think college football sucks because: 1) there’s been a bad scandal”

    No, he thinks college football sucks because there have been *numerous* bad scandals in recent decades (he describes a few); it treats the young men that play the game in ways they probably aren’t mature enough to handle or don’t deserve, either by worshiping them or discarding them; it seems to be about business first and education second, if at all; it feeds and feeds off of the militant/belligerent nature of American culture; and it doesn’t even adequately compensate its players.

    The points and whether or not they’re negatives may be arguable, but he lays them out pretty clearly. The main points are even numbered.

  17. There’s no going back now, but I’ve always felt it was a mistake for athletics to be tied to schools. This combination is what leads to so many of the moral ambiguities with the purpose of a school and the quasi-professional nature of many college athletes.

    Better, I think, is the European model where there are schools and then there are local club sports. You go to school to get an education and you go to your local club to play a sport and compete with other clubs. There are clubs in the US as well, obviously, but they are usually more supplementary and second tier compared to high-school/university athletics.

  18. That “play for the love of it” game you mentioned between Fordham and Siena is funny. Siena currently has more than a few recently graduated student athletes that are playing in various pro leagues in Europe. The only reason Fordham basketball isn’t what it used to be is because the school is beefing up there football program once again. A good amount of college sports is fucked up in general, no argument with you but don’t try to sum it all up in one essay.

  19. To Ross G: Thank you for mentioning the way things are done in Europe. I wanted to include this in my essay, but didn’t think it would fit. Nonetheless, I think you (and the Europeans) have got it right: If you keep sports and schools separate, money can’t corrupt education. But I’m afraid the horse is already out of the barn in the U.S. Once people taste those billions of dollars, there’s no going back.

  20. Bill, you had me except for much of the commentary on Penn State, of which I am a life long fan, and someone who met both Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. Also, I am a former Division II athlete.

    I will agree with you on the fact that major college football has become too much about money, not to mention a farm system for the NFL. Case in point, I believe that the current four team playoff needs to be expanded, perhaps into eight teams by having each of the former BCS bowl games be a quarterfinal, followed by a semi final and championship. Or, simply eliminate the bowl system all together, and do a complete playoff, taking the top teams from each region, or “super region,” like they do, with much less controversy, in almost every other NCAA sanctioned sport. Unfortunately, the response I often get when I propose these ideas is something along the lines of “oh, what about the money and the tv contracts, and the bowl sponsors?” To which I respond “aren’t amateur college sports supposed to be about teaching kids life lessons they will need to be successful in their careers and the real world, and not about money?

    Now, with respect to Penn State, there are two major issues I see with your commentary.

    First, you bring up Penn State’s academic successes under Paterno, and seemingly try to make a correlation between that and what occurs at other schools, with athletes attempting to coast through their college career, and chintz out on their studies. Yet, you fail to support this with any data specific to Penn State, or Paterno. I am not sure what the major of choice at Penn State is, but there are actual firsthand accounts of Paterno visiting professors, and telling them not to take it easy on his athletes. Also, many of those who went on to NFL careers, had success in life after football.

    Second, the media has seemingly settled on this “football is religion, and Joe was God, and let Sandusky do whatever he wanted to protect football,” theory, when there is very little evidence anywhere, except for the Freeh Report, that would support this. Why are there no emails in the Freeh Report that specifically mention the football team? Why are there no emails from anybody saying “Joe is afraid of bad publicity for the football team, so he wants us to keep quiet about this.” Yes, there are extremists on both sides of this, from those who believe that Sandusky is innocent in everything, to those who believe that everyone who has even met the guy, should be rotting with him. Most of us are somewhere in the middle of the proverbial bell curve, and believe that, while no one is forgetting the victims, or denying that what happened to them was horrible, punishing the football team and vilifying Paterno, did absolutely nothing to make the situation better, help the victims heal, or make it so something like this never happens again.

    Further, the issue with accepting this theory, is that it allows the other major issues that caused the scandal to go bypassed. Such as the flawed quality of child services agencies. Sandusky was investigated in 1998 by the district attorney, as well as Children and Youth Services, Pa Dept of Public Welfare, and three child psychologists, all of whom concluded that Sandusky did nothing wrong. If one of these agencies does their job in 1998, Joe Paterno is not even put in the position he was, in 2001. Yet, none of these agencies have had one firing, one change of policy, one admission of guilt, and even more strange, is that there has not been one media inquiry into what happened at any of these agencies, they have essentially been given a Freeh (pun intended) pass. How do you know there are not similar incidents happening as a result of the lack of accountability towards these agencies. Even without football, you may want to look up the case of nine year old Jared Tutko Jr, of Harrisburg, who was living in filthy conditions while being malnourished. Children and Youth Services visited the home, and observed these conditions, but did nothing. Nine months later, the kid is dead, the parents are facing severe charges.

    The examples go on and on. Sandusky’s organization, The Second Mile, was supervised by PA Dept of Public Welfare, and they are the ones who approved of Sandusky adopting foster children. Why has there been no investigation into how these activities were allowed, in spite of the fact that Sandusky was facing these allegations?

    I look forward to any response you may present. Thank you.

  21. The worst thing about Penn St is the fans. Sanduskys in jail and Paterno is dead and three years later the psychotic cult fan base at Penn St continues their misinformation propaganda campaign.

    A pathetic yet dangerous group.

  22. Wow @ the comments here. Is there some sort of siren that goes off in State College that alerts all the loony-tunes to man their keyboards every time an unflattering article is written about Joepa? The cognitive dissonance is almost palpable.

  23. Listen to all you little boys talking about football and Penn state.. I think you are missing the big picture here.. Kids were raped and molested! Young children! Helpless, defenseless children. It is our job as grown, adults to protect these kids from monsters who will prey on the weak and helpless.. It is our job to speak up and defend these kids when we see something wrong or someone needing our help.. Kids are vulnerable and innocent until someone like this breaks them.. It is not ok to know something is happening and not to do anything.. I don’t care if you are Joe and you believe this was all you needed to do! He knew in his heart he should have done more. And so do you.. Give him the credit he deserves, but also label him as an enabler and a coward for it. he should have spoken up should have done more! we need to teach our kids that it’s not ok for someone to touch you inappropriately.. Whether it be your mom, dad, grandparents, relatives, friends or coaches!! You guys are pissed off because it is affecting your football season but you really need to stop and think, what type of person you are! Because it could have been your brother, your best friend or even you!! Wouldn’t you have wanted a grown person to help you! And help all the other little boys that could have been prevented from this horrible incident? Our country cares way to much about sports, labels and money, that when we see someone hurting, we don’t bother helping them because it might affect our football season.. It saddens me..

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