In chapter 5 of his book Game Over, Zirin outlines the horrific events of the Jerry Sandusky Sexual Abuse scandal that rocked Penn State University and brought about the downfall of legendary coach Joe Paterno. Zirin illustrates how the Penn State community reacted to the discovery of the abuse and subsequent termination of coach Paterno. Zirin asserts that the community was more outraged over the dismissal of Paterno, rather than the seemingly startling allegations of cover up against the schools administration. Zirin identifies Paterno as helping create the “culture of reverence” at the school that seemed to put athletic excellence above all else.
By the end of the chapter Zirin turns his attention to the NCAA and to what he perceives as it intervening in matters of a public university that it has no jurisdiction over. Zirin questions the sanctions handed down by the NCAA and asserts that the focus should have been turned towards ousting the schools board of trustees. Zirin concludes the chapter by calling for abolition of the NCAA.
But have schools with large-scale athletic programs such as Penn State gone too far in focusing primarily on athletic and financial gains at the expense of everything else? Did Penn State get off too leniently? Was the punishment focused on the right people? Finally, was the NCAA right in the way they handled the situation?
Athletics has long since been a staple of college communities throughout the United States. Large-scale programs have proved to be a tremendous source of pride in the communities in which they dwell. Revenues from these athletic programs have been used to subsidize other, revenue losing sports. This has particularly benefitted the advancement of women’s sports. However, I think some athletic programs have grown to the point where they may be considered to be unable to do anything wrong or be unethical. I think this was the case with coach Joe Paterno and the Penn State administration. Paterno was an iconic figure who was well regarded across the college football landscape. I think the Penn State community let his status overshadow his grievous error in judgment in not doing all he could to shed light on the acts of Jerry Sandusky. The reaction of the community only exemplified how they seemed to worry more about their beloved coach than the victims of the abuse. The university administration’s clear attempt to sweep the abuse under the rug by not conducting an immediate, formal investigation showed they were more interested in preserving the athletic program rather than ensuring justice would be done. After these revelations came to light and the administration was relieved of their duties, the new administration carried right along by allowing the scheduled football game to be played the following weekend.
In the last few pages of the chapter Zirin suggests that Penn State may have gotten off too leniently and the improper people were targeted by the sanctions. Zirin also goes on to disparage the NCAA on how they handled the whole situation. I found Zirin’s assertions troubling because on the one hand he calls for the cancellation of the football program for a year, then admonishes the NCAA for getting involved in the scandal calling it a “farcical public relations move.” It appears to me that Zirin wants it both ways. I would suggest that the NCAA was going to be a loser in this no matter what the outcome was. If they chose to do nothing, then they would be seen as caring for the bottom line of their sport program solely. The fact is, they administered punishment that would punish the institution where they would feel it the most: the pocket book. As for those more directly involved such as Coach Paterno, the NCAA stripped the legendary coach of wins that caused him to fall from the top spot on the all time coaches win list to 12th. The school was hit hard with a reduction in scholarships and was barred from high revenue producing bowl games.
Although Zirin rightfully calls for an investigation into the board of trustees, the fact remains that the NCAA is unable to act. Their scope of influence lies in the realm of athletic competition, and that is precisely where they acted. I categorically disagree with the notion that the NCAA’s actions didn’t bring any justice to the victims. Although not a be-all-end-all-cure, the NCAA sent a message loud and clear that nobody is above the law and when it comes to such matters, being an iconic coach who did not directly partake in the crimes will not spare you from receiving severe sanctions. Joe Paterno was a model citizen and constructed a legacy over 5 decades. Even after the news broke Paterno was hoping to finish out the year coaching the Nittany Lions, then ride off into retirement. I applaud NCAA for rejecting this outright and pressuring the institution to relieve Paterno of his coaching duties immediately. Also, the NCAA’s action should not be seen as the answer, but rather a part of the answer in conjunction with state and federal authorities. In fact, since Zirin’s writing, additional indictments have come down on University administrators who participated in the cover-up and are currently working their way through the courts.
Big-time sport programs in the NCAA can be a tremendous asset to their communities and can provide a great tool for athlete development. However, athletic considerations should never trump ethics in any institution. The NCAA is bound by a fiduciary duty to uphold these values. While they are administering athletic sanctions to those who choose to violate this value system, it is up to the community at large to demand accountability from university administration by communicating with elected officials.
Zirin, D. (2013). Game over. New York, NY: The New Press.