When you love your school, Aaron Gordon writes, you end up loving things you shouldn’t.
It’s easy to forget that just last week we were supposed to witness the greatest college football game of the century. That seems so long ago as Penn State burns like an oil rig, marking the greatest college football scandal of the century (hopefully).
I don’t pretend to understand what Penn State students and alumni feel right now. I went to the University of Maryland, which is a similar school—they’re both large, flagship state schools with lots of drinking and a focus on athletics—but I don’t identify myself with the school in the same way as some Penn State alums. Although the crimes levied against Penn State employees are infinitely more severe and abhorrent than infractions cited against Ohio State, the University of Miami, and countless programs before them, the root cause is the same. Loyalty to an institution makes it susceptible to a marginalization of morality.
As I struggled to be entertained by the Game of the Century, I chatted with a graduate student who, as of this year, has spent a majority of her life at the University of Alabama. Naturally, I had to press her on the merits of paying athletes (because I’m an instigator). Steadfastly, she maintained athletes receive adequate compensation for their services through scholarships, room and board. She couldn’t have been more determined to refute the perceived “injustice” of unpaid athletes as she simultaneously proclaimed her love and admiration for Trent Richardson, Alabama’s star running back.
After spending 12 years at the university, this graduate student has intertwined her loyalty with an institution and its infallibility. If the University of Alabama is wrong, then she is wrong; if the university in unjust, then she is unjust; if the university is a criminal, then she’s a conspirator. So in her mind, the easiest way to reconcile this was to simply declare the university is not wrong. It’s much harder to do that when the conversation transitions from questionable compensation to raping children.
While my discussion with the Alabama student depreciated to a theological exercise, I was struck by the differences between college fans and fans of professional sports. Ask any professional sports fan why they chose their particular team, and more often than not an immediate transition will occur from a team to a person. I just loved the way Joe Montana played the game or You just couldn’t stop Jim Brown are commonly echoed sentiments. Many professional fans loved a player first, then a team. I’ve never heard someone say this about a college program. You either attended the college you love, grew up near it, your parents are alums, or you have some other connection to the university.
This makes sense because loving a college player is a fleeting affair. You know they will only be there a maximum of four years, so attachment is detrimental. One of my coworkers, a loyal LSU fan, recently asked how JaMarcus Russell is doing in the NFL. College players are a fling, but the university is a marriage. This marriage is a dangerous bond because it creates a bizarre incentive structure. It becomes a small nation rather than a business. Loyalty transitions to pseudo-nationalism.
Even before this scandal, Penn State was a case-in-point. Joe Paterno essentially had tenure. His image and namesake became synonymous with the university who has given him paychecks predating the Korean War. The roots of the scandal are right there in Paterno’s official statement in the aftermath:
I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care… I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University.
Ironically, nobody thought this was an odd thing to say, since this has been the priority of college sports for decades. The “crimes” against Ohio State and the University of Miami are of a vastly different nature, but the very self-imposed regulations that made them infractions to begin with were scripted and enforced with the same blind loyalty to the institution of college athletics.
To maintain college football players at major programs are only worth a scholarship, room and board (it may have been true at some point in time, but now that the SEC has surpassed the $1 billion barrier, it’s simply an antiquated argument) is to place the status quo of an institution above the Lockean principle of mixing labor with property. It is to fear the longevity of the institution will be compromised by correcting a major injustice.
This is the same thought process Paterno exhibited when he directed a graduate student with a complaint “of sexual nature” to the Athletic Director rather than the police. The only plausible reasoning to direct him internally is to prioritize the image, prestige and prosperity of the university at the expense of the people involved.
When you’re more loyal to an institution than the people who comprise it, then morality becomes marginalized. Institutions don’t have morals or consciences. Lots of people identify with Penn State, but their identification with the institution is dependent on others doing the same, not with some mystical, omnipotent force. The most important people at Pennsylvania State University—assigned to protect the integrity of the institution first and foremost—recognized very early these allegations threatened the university’s prestige and potential for excellence. As Coach Paterno said, he did everything he could to help the University. A lot of people were hurt in the process.
But before the flames blacked out the sun in State College, Pennylvania, we watched the LSU-Alabama game.
The GMP on Penn State:
Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis
When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe
Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack
Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin
Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment, Mervyn Kaufman
Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson
Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State, Andrew Smiler
Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky
I Failed, Rick Morris
Sandusky-ed, Tim Green
Penn State: What Are We Talking About?, L. Edward Day
We (Still) Are, Cameron Conaway
Cognitive Dissonance and the Sandusky Situation, Justin Cascio
Start Snitching, David Perez