I love college football. Some of my fondest memories involve spending New Year’s Day with my dad watching bowl games until my eyes fell out. My college days included Saturdays at the Big House. Like my father, I bleed maize and blue. So does my son Tyler. I am not one of those faculty who thinks that college athletics are antithetical to academic ideals. So it saddens me to tell you that if the allegations of abuse and institutional cover-up involving the Sandusky incident are all true, the business case for closing down Penn State football is a strong one.
There are lots of teachable moments in this incident for business students. There are the human resource management lessons around reporting misconduct, investigating it, protecting the rights of the accused and communication about the disposition of the investigation. There are the public relations lessons involving protecting the brand in a time of crisis and how the cover-up only magnifies the initial problem. And there are the leadership lessons in how the governing board sent one message in terminating the President and Coach Paterno, but sent another in accepting a bowl bid. But these lessons are best addressed in the classroom, not a blog post, and I know some LBS faculty have done so.
I also fear that this post will be seen as “piling on”, but the PSU incident goes to the heart of the debate about the proper role of athletics in academia. That role is not to make money for the university. Many athletic departments barely break even. No, the business case for athletics in higher education centers on projecting a positive image of the brand into the community. It is to be a source of pride that associates the institution with success in life. When I was young, watching the Wolverines pile up victory after victory made me want to attend that institution. I saw it as a place that was committed to excellence and produced winners.
Penn State football no longer sends that message. Instead, it has become a liability for a great academic institution, a constant reminder of the school’s shortcomings broadcast regularly into living rooms around the country. Americans have short memories and there will be great temptation for people at Penn State to believe that they can weather the storm, that in a few years this will all be behind them.
I doubt that. These were horrific events. The media will be covering the trials and recalling the offenses for years. And then there is the NCAA and Big Ten to consider. Again, if the facts are true, I can’t image a situation that defines “lack of institutional control” more than this one. Ohio State just got a one-year ban from appearing in a bowl because some athletes exchanged their memorabilia for tattoos. What’s the appropriate penalty for Penn State? The NCAA would be wise to consider the death penalty as a way of showing that higher education puts academics and decency above athletics. And if the NCAA won’t use the death penalty, the Big Ten should certainly consider kicking PSU out of the conference. I don’t know all of the provisions of a university’s contract with an athletic conference and whether something like morals clauses are typical. But the Big Ten doesn’t need Penn State—they are the Big Ten. Penn State got a huge academic boost when it got invited into the Big Ten. If the conference expelled PSU, some other big name school would be willing to join them tomorrow. If Penn State would want to prolong the story by fighting it out in court, let them. The public would say “Good for the Big Ten.” Their stock would go way up, even more schools would want to join the conference and Big Ten games wouldn’t be used as a vehicle for constantly talking about what went on at Penn State.
If I’m the President of Penn State, I don’t want the institution to endure this. The quickest way to limit the damage, redirect the president’s time to more productive endeavors and send the message that the institution is about academics first, is to end the football program (not the entire athletic program—just the football program).
I know this would be a heroic choice for a college president. The decision to close the program would be met with harsh criticism by a legion of boosters. The revenue loss would make it difficult to run the rest of the athletic department and the closure might also harm state appropriations to the university. But many great universities thrive without great football programs (ask UCLA), the evidence with respect to state budget support based on football prowess shows only modest effects and some renowned private universities don’t have big time football at all (e.g., MIT and Chicago). It is time for Penn State to focus on its core mission and shut the doors on football.