Against Abolishing Football at Penn State

Spare me. Spare me the calls to abolish Penn State’s football program in the wake of findings by former FBI Chief Louis Freeh that Coach Joe Paterno and other men in power hid the crimes of child rapist/assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Spare me the NCAA’s ominous warning that they “will determine whether any additional action is necessary on its part at the appropriate time.” Spare me the self-righteous rage of sports writers who spent decades burnishing the Paterno legend and now rush to tear it all down.

The two most acute examples of this “Paterno revisionism” are ESPN’s Rick Reilly and the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins. Reilly readily admits to being “an idiot”, “a stooge”, “a sap”, and “a fool” for praising Paterno over the course of decades. Jenkins, who is normally nobody’s fool, has set a land-speed record for media revisionism. After recording Paterno’s last interview, in an article widely criticized for being overly generous to the disgraced coach, Jenkins now says that she realizes she was conned and has seen the light. Jenkins writes that Paterno “wasn’t some aging granddad who was deceived, but a canny and unfeeling power broker who put protecting his reputation ahead of protecting children.”

I am all for exposing what was fraudulent about Joe Paterno. I am all for calling him out as someone who cared more about his football program than the welfare of endangered children, and have written
these very words. I am also in full agreement with Louis Freeh that one of the greatest problems the Sandusky scandal has exposed is “the culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” Children were raped in the name of this monstrous “culture of reverence.”

But the conclusions I draw from this sobering reality are profoundly different than those of Rick Reilly and many others. As Reilly thundered, his breast aflame with newfound religion, “I hope the NCAA gives Penn State the death penalty it most richly deserves. The worst scandal in college football history deserves the worst penalty the NCAA can give. They gave it to SMU for winning without regard for morals. They should give it to Penn State for the same thing. The only difference is, at Penn State they didn’t pay for it with Corvettes. They paid for it with lives. What a chump I was.”

I agree with the “chump” part. Reilly was, as he admits, a chump for confusing journalism with the hagiographic profiles he wrote about Paterno for all these years. He’s also a chump for thinking that shutting down the football program actually helps one child, deters one rape or addresses the problem of our reverence for the sham amateurism and skewed values created by big time college sports.

Abolishing Penn State football is wrong for a multitude of reasons. Here are merely a few.

1. It’s an act of collective punishment. The end of football at Penn State would also mean the end of football revenue underwriting the Penn State athletic department. It would mean the end of every athletic scholarship, every women’s sports program and every one of the thousands and thousands of jobs produced by this regional economic engine. None of these people were responsible for Sandusky’s reign of terror and Joe Paterno’s criminal complicity. The argument for collective punishment is always morally repugnant, which gets to point two.

2. The only reason to punish so many innocents is to stand with the much-trafficked idea that “all of State College” is somehow complicit in Sandusky’s crimes and the attendant cover-ups. Everyone in State College, this argument goes, was the moral equivalent of now infamous assistant coach Mike McQueary: watching a child get raped and doing nothing. By this logic, however, Reilly and Jenkins are accomplices to pedophilia as well. Without their paeans to JoePa, would he have had the stature to cover up Sandusky’s crimes? Should Rick Reilly be fired or even prosecuted for his admitted hagiography? Should Sally Jenkins be held culpable for not challenging Paterno’s cringe-worthy deathbed lie that he’d “never heard of rape and a man”? Of course not. They may have been willing marks, but they were still conned nevertheless. As good as it might feel to point the finger at every last person with a Happy Valley zip code, or every last person that "Godded-up" Joe Paterno, that’s not the same as culpability.

The people to blame for enabling Sandusky in addition to Paterno, are former Athletic Director Tim Curley, former campus security chief Gary Schultz, former school President Graham  Spanier, and the Board of Trustees. Other than Paterno, Curley, Spanier, and Schultz will almost certainly face civil and criminal trials. The school will also suffer—as it should—with settlement payments that will cripple it for a generation.

Unlike other college football “scandals” at places like SMU or Ohio State, the criminal and civil courts will extract more than a pound of flesh from Penn State. The NCAA, a cartel devoted to little more than ensuring its own reign over an utterly corrupt status quo, should just step back and let the grown-ups do their job, which leads to point three.

3. The NCAA is part of the problem. Once again Louis Freeh is correct that the problem is a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” But this is the tragic truth at universities across the country. You cannot tell me there aren’t scores of stomach-turning scandals at big-money, big-conference schools that just haven’t seen the light of day. There are others that have, like the rape scandal at Notre Dame involving football players and female students, which for curious reasons, find themselves painfully under-discussed.

The common problem—from Penn State to Ohio State to Notre Dame—is a system that treats coaches like deities and young players as an uneasy mix of gods and chattel. If the call was to abolish all of college football in the wake of the Penn State scandal and convert all athletic scholarships into academic ones, then let’s support this for the collective good. But to punish Penn State for the deep rot that lies in the system? To legitimize the NCAA’s bankrupt moral authority to punish evildoers? To think for a moment that the NCAA has any stake in somehow altering this lucrative “culture of reverence”? That’s like asking Tim Geithner to clean up Wall Street. It’s a fool’s errand.

If Jenkins, Reilly and others really want to do something other that beat a dead Nittany Lion, they should call for the heads of the real enablers. They should call for the resignation of the Penn State Board of Trustees including board member Governor Tom Corbett. They should call for the abolition of the NCAA. They should call for anything other than the destruction of Penn State football: an action that would bring vengeance without justice.

16 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Good Article

Great Article DZ.


Sounds like a "too big to fail" argument to me. This is a place that still stands protecting Joe Paterno's statue. Where teachers bullied victims who tried to come forward. Where the head coach was in such a position of power that the trustees changed their minds on doing something about child rape after speaking to him.

There may be systemic problems in the entirety of college football, and I agree there are, but it's warped logic to use the fact that the entire school is reliant on it's football program as justification to continue with that absurd set up.

It's like saying that drug companies shouldn't suffer consequences because the FDA is a captive agency, or that the SEC is hypocritical so you can't take it out on the mail room guys at Goldman Sachs.

They just elected a guy named Anthony Lubrano to their board of trustees who's entire campaign platform was that Joe Paterno was wrongfully dismissed and should be re-named head coach posthumously.

You let them skate on this and all you are saying is that the individuals and the programs that empower them risk nothing in seeking to preserve and protect these creepy amateur football slave mills at all costs. because they've built their supposed academic institutions entirely around them. Can't disagree more.

A little surprised

I am with you in wanting to see sportswriters called out for beatifying Paterno for years. Instead of "spare me" the right answer is to call for change.

You are making the perfect (systematic reform of college sports and the NCAA) the enemy of the good (sanctioning a chronically sick place).

You haven't mentioned one problem-- most students and alumni at Penn State cared more about football than anything else. Not all but most. Every administrator had to ask what the students would do if they challenged the football program in any way. Students rioted after Paterno was terminated. (Paterno did not resign in light of the child rape findings.) They have rioted before when measures were taken to curb public drinking.

I know some very good academics who work at Penn State. It makes me sick that they must live in a town like this.

The NCAA ought to suspend the program. The program was used as a means of recruiting rape victim. The fans didn't do this but they also cared too much and the school needs to take some time to become a school again.

Other sports programs will lose money but that's really okay. They could gain audience and develop long-term. Or they could collapse. That's bad but Penn State needs a radical fix.

The NCAA could and should declare a general problem nation-wide. They should also cap salaries to coaches (money = power). They should also cap program budgets and move more money from revenue sports to other programs.

Just because they won't do the general right thing doesn't mean they should not do the right thing in one specific case.

Contradicting yourself

I remember very well, early on in this scandal, you yourself said that you thought that you should tear down Penn State football, suspending it for a year or two. Why the change of heart now?

In fact here's the quote

I went back and found the quote. From the article "The World Joe Paterno Made"

"To really move forward, the malignancy must be removed. Fire everyone. Shut down Happy Valley football for a year. Rebuild a healthier culture. Do whatever you have to do to make sure that the world Joe Paterno made has seen its last day."

So why do you not believe in "shutting down Happy Valley football for a year" now.

I'm not being a jerk, it just seems that you contradicted yourself. A major punishment for a year sounds like an amazing solution to this problem.

Agree in part

I agree with point 2. While there is no shortage of blame to go around, the people at the university most responsible for the crimes are now either dead, convicted, or out of office. I disagree with the last statement, in that I don't think this would rise to the level of vengeance. It would punish the successors rather than the actual offenders. Although in the past the NCAA has doled out punishment for bizarre, arbitrary, and just plain wrong reasons, Penn State's offenses are not covered by NCAA policy. Pennsylvania and federal laws, yes, but the NCAA has no jurisdiction, and adding punishment would be political grandstanding at the expense of a convenient target.

As for point 1, I can appreciate the logic and the gravity of what killing football would mean, but that should not be the NCAA's reason for pulling back. If we forego prosecution of lawbreakers just because there will be collateral victims, then how many people could ever be convicted? When we prosecute Enron or Goldman Sachs, we will snag some scumbags, but many non-participants will also be without jobs. Murderers and racketeers often have families and child dependents, but if we accept the spirit and letter of the laws, we must prosecute them. Outside of movies, even doing the right thing has bitter consequences.

Between points 1 and 3, you say that other athletic programs, scholarships included, depend on football revenue, but the NCAA is a corrupt body that should be abolished. Penn State's economic model is not unique. The reality is that women's sports and almost all men's sports cost money paid for by football and/or men's basketball. Imperfect and maybe dirty though it may be, the model does raise money that wouldn't otherwise exist, and gives some kids a chance to go to school where they might not otherwise.

And away we go

A few observations: DZ objects to collective punishments, however when the Notre Dame head football coach, Brian Kelly. instructed a student to film a practice resulting in his death, DZ was advocating shutting down the football program. This sounds like collective punishment or is DZ being selective in his collectives. BTW I thought a socialist-leaning person like DZ would welcome collectivity not avoid it.

With respect to the NCAA as part of the problem and there are "stomach-turning scandals at big-money,big-conference schools, well this is a bit of stretch. The overriding factor is Sandusky's pedophila and the cover-up by PSU. If the NCAA has a role it's minor. I notice DZ only indicts the big schools but if he can make a rush to judgement so can I. I suspect small schools have their share of pedophiles.

As others have pointed out your solution has a scent of "Too big to fail".

PS. Changing the subject. Will the NFLPA call for a sympathy strike to help out the locked-out referees? Say a league wide delay in the opening of training camps. Actions speak louder than words.

@ David Lech

I don't think you're being a jerk. Zirin has written a lot of things on this site, so he is bound to contradict himself or change his mind about one thing or another at some point.

I vaguely remembered that quote, but shutting it down for one year would not be the same as abolishing the entire program. It would be more of a middle ground step if it were to happen.

One thing to add here is that some--certainly not all--athletic programs can raise a great deal of revenue, but even so, the money is still finite. If the NCAA does nothing at all, this issue is a long way from over. Civil suits could keep the university--not just the State College campus, either--in court for years yet.

Penn State

I very much admire and respect your work, but in this instance you are wrong. There is no other short-term hammer through which the corruption that is big time college sports can be effectively intimidated and constrained. Progressive sports activists are not yet in a position to expect the kind of radical changes that true reform demands.


Good article. It's nice to hear this argument from someone not affiliated with Penn State. Also, thank you for not using the word "winningest".

All over the field

Of course Comrade Zirin's inconsistent-- he's not a serious writer. His "radical" politics are a frivolous hobby for a privileged kid who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and went to private schools.

All over the field

Of course Comrade Zirin's inconsistent-- he's not a serious writer. His "radical" politics are a frivolous hobby for a privileged kid who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and went to private schools.

this nails it

Zirin is right on. At Rutgers in the 1980s, on the outside of the college sports world looking in (an engineering student), I witnessed exactly the quasi-religious "culture of reverence" that he fingers: the way players were shunted into a pseudo-academic ghetto existence, learning very little but generating millions for the college -- half gods, half chattel indeed. (Later, as a tutor, I saw an Ivy League coach pull her son from our highly productive sessions in time for high-school basketball season to begin, dooming him academically.)

The oh-so-profitable culture of sport worship, which rots and lobotomizes our educational system from middle school through the university level, won't be taken down by group-punishing the athletes of Penn State -- cutting scholarships and all the rest that the NCAA is doing -- or by allowing the NCAA, which is a private body, to prescribe penalties for a public institution. That is a job for the courts.



The Enablers

I could fill pages here, but it's better if you just google "Chicken Soup with Joe Paterno" for a full explanation of why football should be abolished from Penn. state.

Backwards Logic

"You cannot tell me there arenít scores of stomach-turning scandals at big-money, big-conference schools that just havenít seen the light of day. "

By this logic we should allow people to murder each other because there are unsolved murders out there. That makes no sense at all.

"Thatís like asking Tim Geithner to clean up Wall Street. Itís a foolís errand."

Well if we can't do anything to regulate Wall St at this moment, let's throw up our hands, dissolve the SEC and see how that works out for us.

I understand that the NCAA has many, many issues but the university allowed kids to be molested for 13 years AND we know about it. We have a duty to do SOMEthing.

If you want to talk about alternatives to the death penalty that may make sense, I'm willing to listen but this is defeatist and disappointing.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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