COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a throwaway line, intended to lighten the mood after an ominous revelation by one of the most decorated college football programs in the land.
Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee had just heard his head football coach, Jim Tressel, concede that he had reason to believe several star players were taking money and free tattoos from a suspected drug dealer and yet he had told no one. Tressel started most of those players throughout the 2010 season and a bowl game anyway, failing to alert anyone in authority — a clear violation of NCAA rules and his own contract.
Gee, an endowment rainmaker wearing his trademark bow tie, jumped in to defend Tressel and then, asked if he had considered firing his coach, uttered an off-hand crack.
“Let me just be very clear,” Gee said with a grin, “I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
The joke fell flat, but echoed around the country. It confirmed what many already believed about the balance of power in college sports today: some football teams run universities, not the other way around.
Now that has been underscored by the independent report former FBI Director Louis Freeh issued on Thursday. The report said Penn State officials, including widely admired coach Joe Paterno and the university president, protected their cash-cow football program instead of young boys who were assaulted by former Nittany Lions assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
The report indicated a clear choice was made by those running the school.
“The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized,” Freeh said.
Freeh’s report said that Paterno and other officials hushed up allegations against Sandusky for fear of bad publicity and, by implication, all that bad publicity could bring — a loss of power, prestige, fame and money.
“People have attached a $50-million price tag on Penn State football,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport In Society at Northeastern University. “Obviously, people made an egregious decision to err on the side of the $50 million rather than on the side of the rights of children.”
To those who may be shocked the situation in State College got so out of hand, people who study sports have a message: Don’t be so surprised.
College coaches and their teams bring in truckloads of cash, feeding a beast that sometimes overwhelms many of the loftier goals of a university. Examples have been around since the first leather helmet, but seem to have multiplied in recent years.
“In these small towns, in these bubbles, the main thing is these sports teams and the coaches,” said Murray Sperber, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of several books on the negative effects of big-time sports on higher education. “I can’t believe people didn’t know, but they didn’t want to know. So there were huge amounts of deniability.”
The Penn State debacle is just the latest example of problems that skeptics blame on the culture of major-college athletics.
Ohio State ultimately vacated all its wins from that 2010 season, including a Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas. Tressel was forced out for his actions, though fans still held a pep rally supporting him at his house. He has now landed at the University of Akron, as a vice president outside of athletics.
Southern California was hammered by the NCAA for allowing an agent to pay Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and his family. The Trojans lost their 2004 BCS national title, 30 scholarships and two years of bowl eligibility. And yet the penalties may ultimately amount to a speed bump for USC, which is expected to contend for a national championship this season as it returns to bowl eligibility.
Dozens of Miami Hurricanes took money from a shady booster now in prison for running a pyramid scheme. The payouts and gifts went on for years, and the NCAA is still investigating the case.
How does all this happen?
The answer can be found partly in packed stadiums on autumn Saturdays. Two weeks after Sandusky was charged last November, for instance, Penn State beat an Ohio State team still under the shadow of the “Tattoo U” scandal before a sellout crowd of more than 105,000 people in Columbus.
Neither scandal could stop the passion of fans, whose love for their schools brings in not millions but billions of dollars across the country, paying for other sports, building natatoriums and rec centers, and luring the coaches who win with salaries of as much as $6 million for 12 games each fall.
Those same coaches — including Paterno, who won a major-college record 409 games — have incredible power and must police themselves to do the right thing. Sometimes there are few other checks.
In the Freeh report, a janitor at Penn State told investigators why he did not report an incident in 2000 when a colleague saw Sandusky molesting a boy in a Penn State shower room.
“(It) would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes,” he said. “I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone.”
The janitor, who was not identified, added that “football runs this University” and that the “the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.”
Many in the community did close ranks last year. When Paterno’s job was in peril, students rallied at his home and then poured into the street after he was fired.
Somewhere along the way, Penn State’s officials apparently lost their way, the Freeh report said. At some point, maintaining King Football and keeping the machine running overtook the most basic human emotions.
Bobby Bowden, the retired Florida State coach who is second to Paterno in all-time wins at the Division I level — and whose team was sanctioned for a major academic cheating scandal — said he thinks the Sandusky case will spark new vigilance, particularly around child abuse.
“I think it has awakened everybody in the country. I don’t think there is a college professor, a college administrator or college coach that has seen what’s happened who wouldn’t say this must never happen again,” he said. “You can’t let things like this slide by.”
The feeling was much the same in Columbus, where the Buckeyes will not be eligible for a bowl game this season.
“Creating an environment where everyone is empowered to communicate, share and report any incident, real or perceived, is important,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon maintains it is possible to run big-time athletic programs — specifically football teams — and avoid letting it get too big, partly by using tight campus communities not to insulate but to keep close tabs on what’s happening.
“These programs are not spread out over large expanses of geography, there are a limited number of people connected and they’re typically a short walk from the administration office,” Brandon said.
“There’s no reason in the world that big-time college football programs can’t have the appropriate controls. It doesn’t mean there can’t be problems from time to time, but there’s no reason the model can’t be properly supervised like any other organization.”
Sperber, the professor at Cal, wasn’t so sure.
“I feel sorry for Penn State. If you say ‘Penn State’ to the average American, they’re going to say ‘Sandusky’ and ‘pedophilia,’” he said. “Eventually they’ll go back to Penn State and Nittany Lions, and all of that. I would hope people would learn (from this), although I’ve lived long enough to see so many instances where nobody learned anything.”