Penn State football


"For thirty years and more the University of Chicago was a great institution of learning with a good football team," the Tribune editorial board wrote in 1939. "For perhaps ten years it has been a great institution of learning with indifferent-to-poor football teams." The legendary Big Ten powerhouse—my alma mater—had fallen on hard times, like Notre Dame under Charlie Weis but worse. Its competition was adding students, and with an enrollment of around 3,500 the U. of C. was finding it hard to recruit competitive teams. The glory days of Jay Berwanger and Amos Alonso Stagg were over.

So that year Robert Maynard Hutchins, with the unanimous support of the board of trustees, put the program out of its misery. It returned as a football "class" in 1956, and later as a varsity sport in 1969, but it remains "a teaspoon of sand" that doesn't award scholarships. 60 years later, when I attended, the undergraduate population was about the same size, football games were free, and the most exciting, most competitive teams on campus were the women's soccer and softball squads. The baseball team did produce one professional athlete, who had a brief minor league career; last I heard of him, he was a clerk for John Roberts.

Hutchins was roundly derided for his decision, despite the Maroons' incompetence on the field. "There have been times when I wished that we might have colleges and universities without football," Purdue president Edward C. Elliott told the Tribune. "This is perhaps a bit Utopian. Perhaps Chicago will prove that Utopia is possible. But Purdue is not Utopian and intends to continue to play football—and, we hope, good football."

Notre Dame's president, the Most Rev. John F. O'Hara, while supportive of Hutchins's decision, was even more insistent on the game's necessity: "If the public wants to witness intercollegiate contests, I don't see why the public shouldn't see them. They are a factor in preserving the sanity of the country. They engender a healthy state of mind, eliminate moods and germs of revolution."

The Tribune's own Arch Ward continued the anti-American insinuations (ellipsis are Ward's).

In the first place, there is nothing new about the Maroon's policy. . . . It has been tried before and abandoned. . . . There's a school down in Arkansas called Commonwealth College which never has had a football team. . . . It was found by and is operated for communists. . . . The country at large has no great concern whether the University of Chicago plays intercollegiate football or not. . . . It has an interest, however, in the motives for dropping the game as advanced by the school's president. . . .

And no red-baiting would be complete without a chaser of gender-baiting:

[F]ortunately for Chicago and America there are young men with enough virility to enjoy contests involving strong physical contact. . . . Football has many of the attributes of boxing. . . . it is no sport for the fainthearted. . . . It takes courage to tackle an opponent who is bearing down on you with terrific speed and possibly much greater weight. . . . It's courage of a different type than is required in tennis, swimming, golf, and other sports which the Maroons hope to maintain. . . .

Harvard's athletic director accused Hutchins of cowardice: "Since he [Hutchins] has the physique of a Sir Galahad, he is convinced that he speaks with authority…. Many [college presidents] share your fears, but they have not run away from the problem or washed their hands of it."

But Hutchins held fast, delivering an hour-long oration to the student body entitled "Football and College Life," in which the prickly administrator fired back at his competition: "The educational program at Chicago, tho not hard—not, in my opinion, hard enough—is more time consuming than it used to be. It is estimated that 50 per cent of the football players in the Big Ten are enrolled in schools of physical education. Most of these have grown up since the war. The University of Chicago has none."

At the end, the students cheered, and with that one of the most storied programs in the game's history was eliminated.

Despite my willingness to attend a school that chose to kill off its athletic legacy, I grew up a college sports fanatic. I attended games at the Dean Dome, Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Reynolds Coliseum—my dad went to N.C. State during the legendary David Thompson/Monte Towe/Tom Burleson years, when Thompson and Towe invented the alley-oop. Seeing a tight Duke-UNC game at sweltering, beautiful Cameron, years before they installed air conditioning, was one of the highlights of my childhood.

But since then my interest has slowly waned. Some of that, I admit, could be attributed to the fact that N.C. State's major-sports teams have been profoundly uninteresting for a decade; the basketball program has never really recovered from its late-1980s scandal. But some of it is the culture of college athletics, as memorably detailed by Taylor Branch, himself a former athlete, in his recent Atlantic cover story, and the endless string of violations and penalties that perpetually claim one program after another.

As a result of Branch's article, the scandal that brought down respected Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, and the death of Declan Sullivan, Penn State has been inserted into discussions about the power structures and inequities that exist at the heart of college athletics, especially football. As Dave Zirin caustically writes about the importance of football to the school, "In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company." But a friend of mine notes that, of all the sorts of scandals found among institutions, the actions alleged at Penn State are, if anything, less unique to college football than the other ones that have cast a pall on the sport in recent years:

The unfortunate fact is that it appears to be, even at this late date, rather easy to get away with sexually abusing minors. What McQueary claims to have witnessed is more severe and frankly abusive than most cases of molestation, but it would surprise me very much if the same factors that make it feasible for the kindly neighbor, touchy-feely uncle, or beloved teacher to get away with more or less open misconduct were not at play in this case.


We have not been especially protective of children, as a society, for all that long. Old habits die hard, and we still tolerate the mistreatment of children in a variety of ways (ahem*).

Just to take a couple examples, U.S. swimming and gymnastics have been at the heart of sex-abuse scandals just in the past year or so, neither of which gripped the public imagination like Penn State. Institutions, by their nature, turn insular and opaque in times of crisis. There's not much unique to football that makes it so, except perhaps its militaristically hierarchical nature. Mick Dumke, a political reporter during the week and a college football fan on Saturdays, writes:

I’m simply astonished how often people forget that human institutions—schools, churches, banks, football teams—are supposed to serve people, rather than the other way around. And that arrogance and corruption inevitably surrounds those who become ensconced in positions of unchecked power.

In and of themselves, the actions of Penn State's coaches and administrators, horrifying as they may be, may not be reason for the university to consider self-administering the death penalty. But if I was a trustee, I'd be much more concerned about the school's dependence on football. Not just its economic dependence, which Zirin details, but its emotional and structural dependence on the sport, which runs so deep that Joe Paterno's firing inspired an antagonistic, primitive night of rioting:

"We got rowdy, and we got maced,” Jeff Heim, 19, said rubbing his red, teary eyes. “But make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.”


Four girls in heels danced on the roof of a parked sport utility vehicle and dented it when they fell after a group of men shook the vehicle. A few, like Justin Muir, 20, a junior studying hotel and restaurant management, threw rolls of toilet paper into the trees.

“It’s not fair,” Mr. Muir said hurling a white ribbon. “The board is an embarrassment to our school and a disservice to the student population.”

In the wake of the riots, Michael Weinreb, a sportswriter who grew up in Happy Valley as the son of a Penn State prof, looked back on his alma mater and its codependence with the football team, and tried to understand what drove the students into the streets:

My dad has been a chemistry professor at Penn State since 1978. It is a far better academic institution than it was when he first arrived. It is a far better institution than it was when I graduated in the mid-1990s, and, despite everything we've learned in the past week, you cannot deny that a great deal of that has to do with Joe Paterno. There are serious students at Penn State, despite what you saw last night, and there is incredible research being done at Penn State,espite its reputation as a fallback party school for kids from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and all those little towns that dot the Keystone State. Joe Paterno raised millions of dollars for this university; his name is on its library.


A couple of years ago, This American Life aired an incredible episode called "No. 1 Party School," and it was all about life at Penn State on a typical weekend, and it is sad and infuriating and yet weirdly uplifting in parts, when the alcohol poisoning and the fighting and the rioting falls away and you realize that we did the stupid things we did because we were kids and, at a school with nearly 40,000 students, we just wanted to forge some semblance of a community. And that's the irony of Joe Paterno building a big-time football program: It brought out the best of us and the worst of us at the same time. I can only hope that what took place last night was the raging against the dying of that light….

I hope Weinreb is right, but I also find it somewhat disturbing, not least because of Hutchins's legacy to my alma mater. Seventy years ago Hutchins saw the direction college athletics were headed, toward the dynamic Weinreb saw at Penn State last night, as he wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1954:

[C]onsider the unconscious pathos of a recent address by the president of the College of the Pacific, an address that was thought so successful in justifying football that it was distributed by Tide Water Associated Oil Company, which likes football because people use gasoline to get to the games. After pointing out that philosophy was once the "integrating force" in higher education, the president of the College of the Pacific [where Stagg coached after the U. of C.] goes on to say that such an integrating force is missing, and is needed, today. He finds that neither science nor religion can play this role.


What a spiritual core! Here is a description of the spiritual contribution of big-time football by the late Jeff Cravath. "Nearly all colleges still playing big-time schedules have been forced into the open market to obtain their raw material. They must bid for the best players—and make concessions to keep them. The fact that the system reduces the boys to perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos is ignored."


On this rock all the great attempts of the last 30 years to "clean up" or "de-emphasize" football have split; intercollegiate football is no "cleaner" or less emphasized now than it was in 1925 because the temptation to break the rules of a conference becomes irresistible sooner or later to some of the members of it. You then have a scandal, a clean-up, new resolutions, and the process goes on as before.

I don't know enough about the culture and finances of Penn State to know if disbanding its football program would cause the students more harm than good. But history proved Hutchins right, that his university could thrive without the trappings of big-time sports. As universities still struggle with the fears and problems Hutchins washed his hands of, his "utopian" experiment to have a university without a football program succeeded. And Stagg Field, more famous as the site of the first atomic chain reaction than its place in the history of college football, was buried under a library.


Photograph: Caitlinator (CC by 2.0)