The Business Case for Closing Penn State Football

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Business Case for Closing Penn State Football

  1. Your attempts to link the actions of one individual–and even this one has yet to be found guilty of anything–to all the players, coaches, students, and fans of Penn State football is interesting, but seriously flawed. Your argument could be extended to a criminal act by one lawyer at one firm in one city. The claim would be that wrong-doing by one individual equals wrong-doing by the firm, in the city, and therefore the legal profession sends the wrong message. Most people with any sense of fair play will see the flaws. Have a great day.

    • Hi John: if your assumption proves true and the allegations are false or it is one individual acting alone without the knowledge of higher-ups, I would not support closing the program. The key in my mind is institutional cover- up or gross indifference to the situation….if this occured, then I think the case for closing the program is strong. The legal process needs to unfold, but the decision to summarily fire the President and coach Paterno suggests the Board believed that inappropriate actions or inactions were done by people throughout the institution. I hope that is not the case and these people will be cleared, but if not….no football program should be put ahead of the academic institution and the damage here will be very great…..

  2. What an absolute overreaction this would be. How exactly would this be a “heroic decision” on the part of the university? Seriously, just quit when things get tough, that’s your answer? And good luck funding all of the other sports that you would keep without profits from football paying for them. How do you propose paying for them, with higher taxes or higher tuition? The PSU football program made $100 million last year. That’s a profit of over $50 million. Yes, that figure will take a hit. But even at half, how do you propose replacing that $25 million per year to fund the remaining sports? Your title suggests that you will discuss how it makes business sense to kill the program, but you make no mention of the business aspects of the decision. Yes, I checked the link you embedded. It seemed like good general information, but Penn State football on a different financial level than the average program. Instead, you focus your argument on quitting out of embarrassment. I find it hard to imagine that academics, such as yourself, would be calling for an end to the English department if a retired creative writing professor were accused of the same acts as Sandusky.

    • The essence of the business case lies in the fact that athletics is a marketing tool for the university. It needs to support the core mission. It is not a mission in itself. I certainly wouldn’t support tuition or tax increases to fund the athletic program. If revenue from football were lost a combination of higher ticket prices and scaling back operations would be required to make ends meet.

      Little athletic department profit funnels back to academic programs directly. The effects are largely indirect…through student enrollment, state support, and private donations to the academic enterprise. Will more donors, to say that English department you mention, be likely to give money to support those programs if PSU ends Football or keeps it? What about state legislators who vote for appropriations to the University? Again, we don’t know all the facts yet and maybe we never will, but if the basic facts are true and an institutional cover up took place, I think the impacts are going to be pervasive and long lasting. These are not events people will soon forget. And yes, if parallel facts were to be found in the English department (or business, or any other department) I would advocate ending it too. English lectures, unlike football games are not broadcast into millions of homes, and unlike acquiring football skills, college students need to know how to read, write and think, but those skills can be taught in other departments…..no department is bigger than the university.

  3. How sure is everyone that it was the football team who failed the university or a university that failed the football team…..remember the universities #2 man and head of university police alone knew of a prior occurrence by Sandusky on Penn State property and yet did not head Paterno’s directive if “get to the bottom of this and find out what happened”…. Remember it was also university administration and it’s lawyers who negotiated the deal fir and continued to allow Sandusky to use Foootballs training facilities……so who failed who???? Certainly not as juicy a story as big football dooms institution but keys not start killing off perceived villians until we know for sure.

  4. Hi,

    Your argument, while based on assumed guilt of all parties involved and that each individual in question is totally and completely culpable of all actions, is premature and rushing to judgment based on the reportings of the clearly-biased media is also premature.

    Without getting into the details of the actions of each individual outlined in the Grand Jury report, I think it is way too early to comment on the future of the Penn State football program. To be clear, the Penn State Board of Trustees mainly fired Coach Paterno and President Spanier as a result of extreme pressure and the intense spotlight from the media, not as a result of a through investigation which revealed any facts. Even a Board of Trustee member noted that the media (which blew this situation out of proportion, it did not need to cover national news for 2 weeks and ESPN should not have camped out on the lawn of the former coach for over a week) forced the hand of the BOT and produced a kneejerk reaction by the Board.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/mc-penn-state-trustees-turnaround-20111110,0,3981700.story?page=2

    As a Penn State alum, I find it deplorable for those outside the University to be openly bashing this fine institution based on what they hear from the biased media such as an ESPN reporter’s hunch or the impressions of a clueless CNN reporter who probably had never heard about the accomplishments of Penn State prior to their reporting.

    Saying that the football program should be “killed off” at Penn State based on the actions of a former coach and the still unclear linkings between the reports and Coach Paterno is completely off base. This program is an integral part of the University and we should not punish the current players or future players who can benefit from the quality academic program at the University because of the alleged actions of a former defensive co-ordinator.

    Also, you mention that the University should have not accepted a bid to a bowl game. That is the most ludicrous statement I have possibly ever heard. How does it make sense to punish players who have spent 4-5 years working, studying, and playing extremely hard for their opportunity to present their talents on the national stage while also earning a degree? Punishing them would probably have been as big a misstep as the fumbling of the BOT when these actions first came to light.

    Thank you.

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