THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
About 19 and a half years ago, Donald Fehr and I were sitting in the dugout at Chain of Lakes Stadium in Winter Haven, Florida just talking. In March 1992, Fehr was performing his duties as the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association by visiting every Major League player during Spring Training and talking labor.
Donald Fehr is a very intelligent man and the conversation turned to money and fame and the great players of the day, 1992, which included Bobby Bonilla. There was one sentence out of that conversation that has stayed with me for almost two decades.
“Americans,” said Fehr, “dote on celebrity.”
Fehr’s words have once again cropped up in light of the arrest of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky for allegedly committing crimes involving children. Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired because he didn’t do enough in alerting law enforcement officials in the Sandusky case.
Law enforcement officials will continue to investigate but the fallout of the Sandusky alleged crimes should have wide ranging consequences including a self-evaluation of doting on celebrity. But it won’t.
Joe Paterno is a Keystone State celebrity with a national following.
For some reason college football and basketball coaches like Paterno, like Woody Hayes, like Bob Knight, like Jim Tressel have been granted an absurd amount of respect because they coach winning teams. They are part of an American royalty when in reality all they do is coach a game. But jock sniffers, which include men and women who went to a school coached by a “legend,” routinely genuflect in front of the coach.
Paterno was bigger than anyone in Pennsylvania because he coached a state university football team. He was just a coach, nothing more, nothing less. But our society elevated him to an unrealistic level. Maybe we should start looking at why he shower these people with adulation and awe. They are just coaches nothing more, nothing less. They don't cure cancer or solve economic problems. But we over-value them.
In New Jersey, the governor makes far less money than the Rutgers football coach, the Rutgers woman’s basketball coach and the Rutgers men’s basketball coach. Grown men (and usually it is men because the sportswriters field along with the TV-radio side is predominately a man’s field) have cowered in fear of asking these individuals a question that might upset them. Paterno was nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pennsylvania Senators Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey, a Democrat, along with Pennsylvania Congressman Glenn Thompson, also a Republican (who says there is no bipartisanship on Capitol Hill---when it comes to stuff that has no real bearing on Americans like giving out a medal).
The nomination was withdrawn after Paterno was fired.
The doting on celebrity part was enhanced by the reaction of Penn State students after some students started rioting on the campus when news came that the 84-year-old Paterno was fired. The students were miffed that the famous coach was canned as part of the ongoing criminal investigation along with other top Penn State officials.
Paterno was the king of State College, PA. There is no doubt about that. He won 409 football games and society seems to like that. He ran the program with an iron fist and in the process raised a lot of money for Penn State which was used for more than just the football team’s financial needs. Paterno liked the school library.
That’s the Faustian deal college presidents, chancellors and provosts make with coaches. Coaches like Paterno will make a lot of money for the school and the school board of trustees will look the other way until they day comes where they can’t.
That day has come at Penn State. In sports as John Madden once told me, winning is a great deodorant. But in Penn State’s case, no amount of winning is going to cover up the rancid smell of the program. Apparently Paterno knew of the Sandusky problem since 2002 and everything came to light nine years later.
In college sports, it is all about making money anyway you can. So it is easy to overlook the rantings of Bob Knight, the ongoing scandals at numerous programs that bend National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, if there is such a thing as college sports rules.
All college presidents, chancellors, provosts seem to care about is money rolling into a school. An athletic director like Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin presides as a CEO of a $90 million industry, Badgers sports.