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Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011

Searching for a Brand of Integrity

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A legendary college football coach, revered for his character as well as his success on the field, loses his job because he didn't do enough to stop the alleged sexual abuse of children by a longtime associate.

Another coach in the same conference loses his job because he knew about violations of NCAA rules by his players but did nothing about them.


A local university acknowledges that it did not comply with state law when it failed to report two allegations of sexual assault by student-athletes.


A common theme, and a common lesson, in these three matters? The Observers think so.


Frank
: It's so sad, the departure of Joe Paterno at Penn State. By all accounts he did so much good, holding his players to academic standards and contributing so much to the local community.

Artie
: But he couldn't stay on in light of what else happened in recent years.

Frank
: He was told years ago that Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant who still had access to the team's facilities, was seen sexually abusing a young boy there. Paterno told a higher-up but apparently did nothing else, including confront Sandusky, and other boys allegedly were victimized.

Artie
: Paterno, of course, wanted to go out on his own terms, coaching the rest of this season.

Frank
: But the Penn State Board of Directors correctly decided there was no way that could happen. So "JoPa" was fired, and meanwhile the university president resigned.

Artie
: Probably just as well for Paterno. He wouldn't have been well-received by our, shall we say, boisterous crowd at Camp Randall in two weeks when the Badgers play the Nittany Lions for a spot in the first Big Ten championship game.

Frank
: But the Penn State mess is sad for so much more than its effect on Paterno. Clearly, people in the athletic program knew that Sandusky was allegedly committing heinous acts, but it took years for it to become public. Why?

Artie
: For the same reason that any scandal stays hush-hushed, at least initially. It was a threat to an organization that thrives—and makes a lot of money—through a positive image.

Frank
: "The brand," as we hear such things referred to these days. Triumphs on the field, integrity off the field—that was Paterno and Penn State's "product."

Artie
: The Board of Directors, in firing Paterno, was acting to preserve the brand.

Frank
: I heard a very good quote from a Boston Globe reporter who compared the Penn State case to the Catholic Church's lengthy refusal to deal with the scandal involving sexual abuse by priests. "The institution took precedence over the protection of children," he said.

Artie
: It's the mentality of "circle the wagons," just like the Nixon White House or any politician who gets accused of misdeeds.

Frank
: And just as we observed when Jim Tressel lost his job as Ohio State's football coach because he didn't tell what he knew about improper benefits to his players. The Buckeyes had a lot at stake—keeping key guys on the field for what they thought could be a national championship run in 2010. And under any circumstances, the OSU football program is a huge part of the university's "brand."

Artie
: In other words, it's a golden goose that rakes in the dough.

Frank
: So the first reaction is to protect that. Of course the Penn State matter is much more serious, but the institutional thinking is the same.

Artie
: Coaches like Paterno and Tressel become the real "big men on campus"—more important than the administrators and certainly more important than the professors.

Frank
: Remember that quote from Gordon Gee, the OSU president, when he was asked if Tressel would be fired?

Artie
: You betcha. It was, "I hope he doesn't fire me." How's that for boot-licking, ain'a?

Frank
: It shows how skewed universities have become because of big-time sports and the money they generate. In many cases football and/or basketball coaches are by far the highest-paid university employees, and in all cases they run programs that are really independent corporations that happen to operate on campus.

Artie
: And just like any corporation or political operation, a high priority is keeping a lid on things that are bad for the corporate image.

Frank
: We have a local situation with some parallels to the Penn State matter. That became clear last week when the Journal Sentinel reported that the U.S. Department of Education—which is investigating Penn State under a law grounded in federal financial aid—is also reviewing how Marquette handled two cases of alleged sexual assault by MU athletes in the last 13 months.

Artie
: The cases that Marquette handled internally and didn't report to police, as it should have under state law.

Frank
: Which MU admitted a few months ago, pledging that it would comply with the law from now on. No one has publicly identified the accused athletes, or even their sport. But it was significant that when the university held a news conference a while back, basketball coach Buzz Williams was involved.

Artie
: And basketball is king at MU, which makes Williams' team a big part of the university's brand.

Frank
: No charges have been filed, and I'm not saying MU officials deliberately planned a coverup, but the situation gave rise to perceptions that, to use that phrase again, "The institution took precedence."

Why Get So Stern?

Frank: As we speak, the NBA players' union has just rejected the league's latest contract offer and is talking about an antitrust lawsuit, which might erase any chance of a 2011-'12 season. The NBA czar...um, commissioner, David Stern, said the offer was as good as the players would get, and if the answer was no, well, it would be back to Square One.

Artie
: I'm just not buying that. I can see this going all week. And I'm certainly not buying Stern's either-or: a 72-game season or, presumably no season.

Frank
: Me neither. Why couldn't they negotiate a little longer and have a 60-game season, or 50 games as they did in 1999?

Artie
: Hell, the games aren't really important until the playoffs anyway.

Frank
: And as we said a couple of weeks ago, as long as football's going on no one's really pining away for the NBA anyway.

Artie
: And now we have college hoops starting up. I prefer that anyway. But I do feel badly for the people who work at the Bradley Center for Bucks games, and at all the bars and restaurants in that area. That's a major chunk of the income they budget for, and if they lose a full 41 game-days that'll really hurt.

Frank
: Speaking of the Bucks, owner Herb Kohl is assumed to be in the so-called "hard line" group in the negotiations—small-market owners with teams in financial distress who presumably want to wrestle as much money away from the players as possible.

Artie
: But that's just it; because Stern has imposed a gag order on owners, all we can do is assume what any of them thinks. I think what may be happening is that there's a more significant split among the owners themselves, over the degrees of revenue sharing and luxury taxes and the like.

Frank
: You mean between the haves and have-nots among the franchises?

Artie
: Yeah. Maybe it's Lakers and Celtics and Heat and the like vs. teams like Cleveland and Charlotte and Milwaukee. When you say "hard line" the implication is that instead of a 50-50 revenue split they'd like to cut the players down to 20%. Maybe the real fight is about how the owners should divvy up their share of the cash mountain.