Wednesday, November 17, 2004

In Defense of Joe Paterno and Other Serious Matters

That's the title of this blog, but it also could have been "Time to Take the Gloves Off." Why? Because there's a lot of hypocrisy out there in college sports right now, especially big-time college sports, and while big universities, their administrations and their players all share the blame, so, to a certain extent, does the mainstream media, which seems to prize access to covering the stars of the spectacles over good, old-time journalism which uncovers unsavory practices.

Let me defend Joe Paterno first. His graduation rate is up there, and perhaps surpasses, those of even the service academies, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford and Notre Dame. If you look at those peers, only one of them is a huge, public institution. How impressive is that? And, up until say five years ago, his program was very competitive, and that it isn't competitive today may have more to do with decisions as to assistant coaches and offensive schemes than with overall recruiting (although the latter has suffered as a result of the former). This year's Penn State defense is rather amazing. Statistically it's in the Top 10, and what's amazing is that I'll bet that this defense probably has been on the field longer than almost any other defense in the country. So if there's a Bill James out there for college football, I think one could argue convincingly that this defense is, minute for minute, the best in college football.

But I have digressed, because the reason I want to defend Joe Paterno is not because of his current team's defense, but because of his body of work over his career. Yes, kids have quit, kids have transferred, kids have thought him to be unfair (and, given that we're all human, I am certain that Coach Paterno has made mistakes with his kids over the years), but no one has accused him -- ever -- of running an eligibility mill, of shuffling kids to silly classes that would lead to meaningless degrees, of doing anything that would put Penn State's reputation for integrity in any jeopardy whatsoever.

The Teflon Coach?

No, not close, as there are plenty of those, guys who dress nicely on the sidelines but who really don't care whether the ace linebacker majors in pet grooming or alumni shmoozing. That's not Joe Paterno, who's all steak and no sizzle, who still wears the white socks with black shoes, the thick glasses, and whose teams still wear the same uniforms they did 40 years ago. You want substance? You'll get it by the bushel-ful in central Pennsylvania.

Mr. Clean, perhaps?

That metaphor fits better. A man who can look in the mirror with pride, a man who can honestly say that he's been honest in his dealings with others, including the NCAA, over the years. He represents an oasis in a desert of ethical sandstorms.

It's a shame that national championships aren't awarded by a combination of factors that include graduation rates, the lack of recruiting violations, the lack of disciplinary problems (although PSU, like all schools, has had some, and when you have a sport that requires collisions on an almost daily basis you're bound to get a few kids who cannot always temper their aggressiveness), then Penn State would be a perennial BCS contender.

Every year.

And it is easy to pick on Joe Paterno today because his team is down, but, thankfully, the media recognizes his body of work and has only suggested that he step down, as no one wants to affront a Titan of the sport because of his most recent work. Still, the demise, as it were, of the once-mighty Penn State football program, is easy to write about. It doesn't require any digging, and it's right there, out in the open.

As opposed to the travesties that probably go on at certain major football programs in the country, where boosters give cash to players, players get no-show jobs, players get people to take tests for them, players take meaningless courses, coaches get freebies from boosters, and where schools get on probation without getting the death penalty. Do I have any first-hand knowledge of this? Do I have any cold, hard facts that could lead to a school's getting into big trouble with the NCAA? No, I do not.

But you know it's out there. There's just too much smoke. Colorado. Ohio State. Several SEC schools are on probation, and yet down in that neck of the woods the coach who gets excoriated is not the former assistant who transgressed, but the one at the rival school who allegedly turned in the transgressors. Go figure.

And what does the mainstream media do? College football is a big business, access is key, and for the television networks that cover them they want to avoid any controversies at all costs so that advertisers will continue to pay the big bucks and fans will continue to watch the games. Their reporters seemingly are more interested in covering the main event than the sausage-factory atmosphere that goes on behind the events (such as keeping Maurice Clarett eligible --at least according to Clarett) and helps make the events what they are. Can you say inherent conflict of interest? In some cases, yes.

As for beat reporters, well, there is the age-old question of access. Some reporters have been on the job for so long in towns so small that either they feel they are part of the team or believe that they risk unemployment or physical injury if they were to call into question practices at the local school. Question the coach, question whether the school you cover really deserves the national rank that it has, and, well, you could lose access or more. Why? There's a lot of money at stake in the BCS bowl games, and no one wants to see it jeopardized. Not one bit.

So how will things really change? Well, here are a few suggestions:

1. SMU was the last school to get the death penalty for repeat NCAA violations, and the NCAA needs to go back and re-examine what it will do to repeat or egregious defenders. Shutting down a school's football program for a year or two because they either are unable or unwilling to adhere to NCAA rules would be a good step in the right direction. The other schools who might try to skirt the rules on occasion would start taking compliance very seriously.

2. Full disclosures of the types of courses scholarship athletes take and their progress toward degrees. And I mean full disclosure. Of every course, every title, every description, and how the distribution lays out. Posted on the school's website. Updated every semester. It seems that for every Craig Krenzel at Ohio State, there were many more who got credit for playing football and who probably were not in biology labs. Take away scholarships every year from the schools that are at the bottom x% of the list, while we're at it. Remember, we're still talking about an extracurricular activity here, so let's make sure the curricular receives its proper emphasis.

3. Post-eligibility, post-exit surveillance disclosure. Schools should be required to disclose what their former players are doing career-wise, as it would be interesting to see how many players from each school are working jobs for which no college degree is required. Again, updated by semester. Why is this important? Because it will tell potential recruits whether the well-dressed recruiter who comes into their houses, compliments their mother's cooking and says something funny to the bratty little sister whether the coach is selling character and career or snake oil. Plain and simple. Like a company's sales figures, the numbers do not lie. Eighteen year-olds can fall for the flash and dash because they haven't been around the block a lot. Come to think of it, the school not only should post the academic information and career information on their websites, they should be required to provide a written brochure to the recruit and get a signed acknowledgment back from them that they received the materials.

4. Increase the monthly stipend for scholarship athletes. It's been long overdue, and giving them a little more pocket money (especially because they aren't allowed to hold down jobs in-season) will remove the risks of temptation that sometimes can arise for young adults.

5. Tell boosters that it's okay for them to give money, to get a primo tailgating spot, to get a photo taken with the coach, and to get good seats, but that they should stay the heck away from the players. Too much booster influence seems only to help the boosters egos in the long run, and not the kids. And football coaches and boosters alike need to remember, in case they have forgotten, is that they're dealing with kids' futures; they are not running a plantation or football player mill. Kids are not inventory to be depreciated and written off. Each one of them matters. Any boosters who get too close to players should be banned from the campus and from having access to the team. Period.

The NCAA and its members schools have some choices to make about the type of institutions they want to be. Universities are supposed to foster innovation and are supposed to inspire better ways to live our lives at all levels. To do so truly, they need to walk the talk and ensure that all corners of their institutions are acting fairly, honestly and decently with every law, rule and regulation, and, as importantly, with every human being that they come into contact with.

Because winning the national title -- in anything -- at all costs does not make your school a champion.


Kris DeBlasio said...

Sports Prof,

First you have a beautiful and intelligent site. I saw your link on Yoni's CollegeBall Blog. I enjoy you very well written and thought provoking articles. I myself am an undisciplined writer who just spouts of at the mouth to get my point across, maybe more people would listen if I was as eloquent as you.

Secondly, about Joe Paterno you could not be more right. I do not care if he wins another game for the next ten years. That man has done more for one single University than any other atheltic Coach or administrator in the history of collegiate athletics. He and his wife have endowed more money to the University than any other donor. Heck, the freaking library is named after the guy, not the football stadium or athletic complex, the library. That tells you all you need to know. Enough with criticizing this guy when you have a whole host of flaming buttholes who could nto give to craps about any kid on their team once they have finished their eligability.

Lastly, I agree with most of what you said in order to help reign in college athletics. I like the points about full disclosure of grades and degree progress & also the post graduate surveys to see where these young men have wound up.

However, this is the toughest issue to tackle and that is the stipend or "walking around" money. I myself work in the University of South Carolina athletic department and see these young men and women on a daily basis. I have never been in favor of giving these people any type of stipend. Since I have been in collegiate athletics since 1999 I have become even less in favor of it. I know many who have graduated and once out of school they feel they would have been cheated out of learning the value of things had they been paid (and this came from poor kids and rich kids). About 95% of the former student athletes I know are in favor of the current system. These kids have every opportunity to have jobs in the off-season and during the summer just as ever other college student does. When I was in college I was engaged in a variety of extra-curricular activities whoch prevented me from having time to earn a living. Every summer during college I worked my tail off for 3 months and 7 days a week to earn enough cash so that I could continue with my active social life. Many of these young men and women would not even have the opportunity to be in school had they not been blessed with a certain amount of athletic prowess. They are given more opportunities than any other student at the University. The refute to my argument of summer jobs is these kids have to engage in summer school and off-season workout programs. Most of the kids who have to go to summer school do so because of their own failures to complete their course work during the normal semster. And off season conditioning and weight lifting and the like is usually confined to the early morning hours 3 days a week. They may have class until about 1 pm and then the rest of the day is theirs. Now most of them spend it sleeping or chasing as much tail as they can find, that is their own problem.

I am sorry to go into such a diatribe about this, I just get real upset when I see people talk about paying athletes. (Let's not forget about the checks they do get in the summer & over winter break if they are cross semester athletes). I wish there was some way we could start some kind of discussion site through these blog things. It seems their are many of us out there who could have a good discussion about the hot sports topics of the day. I am not good with computers so maybe I will leave that up to Yoni and yourself. Anyway I do enjoy your site and will check back often, be sure to check out:

Trojan Man said...

That's all fine and dandy, but Paterno has absolutely no business singling out USC receiver Dwayne Jarrett (that, "New Jersey receiver") or Michigan's Tim Massaquoi as being liars and academically questionable.

That is flat out nobody's business. And Joe made it public. What did they do to him?



I have no problem with his criticism of programs, but leave the kids out of it, plain and simple. This wasn't some tiny error, it was WAY out of the line for Joe, or anyone to say the things he did. That's my problem.

He hasn't apologized yet, and luckily Carroll and Carr respect him too much to basically bring the noose out and critcize him, they're classy guys, going above his lack of class in this specific pair of examples. But it was wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong what he said.

Someone apologize, please. How about Joe?

SportsProf said...

Kirk: Thanks for the kind words. As for stipends, I probably wasn't clear. All I really would like is say for $100 per month as opposed to the $15 or so per month that the kids get now. That's the extent of my largesse. Too much walking around money would send the wrong message. I agree with you there. (And who's that in the picture in your profile?)

Trojan Man: Thanks for your comments. Coach Paterno was wrong in singling out the other programs. He should not have done so. Again, let's give him a little bit of a break on that score. What do you think of Tommy Tuberville's comments about the BCS and why shouldn't people question whether USC, as opposed to Auburn or Oklahoma, belongs in the title game? I would be more worried about that argument gathering momentum, especially with the voters in the polls. Good luck.


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