Innovation/Global Risk

Joe Paterno 1926-2012: Can Football Build Research and Academics?

By Shlomo Maital 


 Joe Paterno 1926-2012


 Joe Paterno coached Penn State U. football for 62 years, and was head coach since 1966.  He passed away on Jan. 22 from lung cancer, after his family honored his wishes and asked that life support be removed. 

  His eulogies focus on his record of most  college football wins.  Paterno, nicknamed “JoePa”,   holds the record for the most victories by an NCAA Division I  football coach  and is the only Division One coach to reach 400 victories (his total is 409, which will never be equalled).  He coached five undefeated teams that won major bowl games and had 23 finishes in the top 10.

    I think the real story is very different.  U.S. college football is an enormous and utterly unfair business.   A study by Drexel Univ. shows “TV revenues from five major athletic conferences     have soared to $1.8 billion per year.”   Current and past spending patterns indicate that colleges are likely to spend all of the new revenue on luxury athletic facilities and salary increases for coaches and athletic directors.  Many coaches get salaries of $1.5 m. or more.  At the same time, the athletes who fuel this revenue (many of them African-Americans from very poor backgrounds) are strictly prohibited from taking any share of this windfall.  They get scholarships but they and their families remain poor, until they leave college and turn pro. Because of this, many top athletes do not finish their degrees but enter the pro draft early.  Many big colleges pay athletes under the table, and some get into trouble when they’re caught. 

    Penn State U. is in State College, Pa., in rural Pennsylvania.  When Paterno  began coaching, Penn State had 9,500 students; today it has 45,000 and is recognized as a major research university. Penn State’s football achievements spurred major alumni/ae donations and helped President Graham Spanier build excellence.  Paterno recruited players by speaking first about Penn State’s academic excellence, and his players had higher graduation rates than other schools.  His integrity kept Penn State out of scandals that afflicted many other football universities.  Paterno himself gave money, supporting (for instance) a penniless program in classics and Mediterranean studies.  Paterno was a graduate of Brown Univ., an Ivy League school, and stressed the importance of education to his players.  It is the ultimate irony that he was fired for ethical breaches, after 62 years of sterling behavior.  “I should have done more”, he said, summarizing his actions in the Jerry Sandusky pedophile scandal.  It is ironic that Penn State is now a pariah, when many other football universities have blatantly violated NCAA rules for years.

   I believe Paterno’s model is catching on. Great academic schools like Stanford U. and Northwestern U., which used to lose in football regularly, now have strong teams that compete against powerhouses like Ohio State and U. of Southern California.  Stanford’s team was 11-2 this year;  Northwestern finished 6-7 (7-6 last year) but play in their conference against schools with huge football budgets.   They recruit, like Paterno, by stressing academics, and fund-raise, like Paterno (indirectly), by leveraging football achievements. 

   The enormous hypocrisy of that $1.8 b. in college sports revenues, mainly from TV, must end. The players who create it, with their bodies, energies and skill, must be given immediate need-based help, to keep them in school and to avoid terrible injustices when, for instance,  U. of Michigan basketball player Chris Webber took money while playing in college, denied it to a federal jury, and got into deep trouble.  Four top Michigan players borrowed a total of $616,000 from a rich supporter. Webber’s contract with the NBA  team Sacramento Kings is valued at $122 m.  Players with such immense human capital should be given financial assistance above board, provided they stay in school and complete their education.

    Paterno’s record at Penn State showed his players had far higher graduation rates than most other schools.  According to a 2011 study:

   The Penn State football team is tied with Stanford for the top Graduation Success Rate (GSR) among teams ranked in the Oct. 30 Bowl Championship Series and AP Top 25 rankings, according to data recently released by the NCAA.   Penn State football student-athletes that enrolled in the University from 2001-04 earned a superlative Graduation Success Rate of 87 percent, tied with Stanford for No. 10 overall among the nation’s 120 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions. Penn State’s 87 percent GSR was significantly higher than the 67 percent FBS average and was second to Northwestern (94) among Big Ten Conference institutions, according to the NCAA.

 This is the lesson we should learn, I believe, from his life and work.   It is his legacy. The question is, will anyone pay attention, while focusing solely on his 409 football victories.