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The PSU scandal, student riots, & “the magic sphere of Div IA invulnerability”

On Wednesday night, an angry mob of PSU students rioted and toppled a news van in reaction to Joe Paterno's firing.

William Dowling, a Professor of English at Rutgers University, has been described by the New York Times as “an idealistic absolutist, an intellectual convinced that the thunder of big-time athletics was crumbling the ivory tower of academe.”  Such “absolutism” is evidenced in an Inside Higher Ed interview in which Dowling claims that “the university is still securely in the hands of the same culture that watches American Idol and reads People magazine.”  I disagree with Dowling’s “us versus them” attitude and blanket dismissal of consumers of popular culture.  Nevertheless, I have been pondering the PSU scandal and the riots following the firing of Joe Paterno and think that Dowling’s biting critique of Div IA sports in his Confessions of a Spoilsport, a book published in 2007 by (ironically enough) Penn State University Press, is unfortunately relevant once again.

Dowling’s introduction, which is available as a free preview by PSU Press, tells a narrative of the demise of “democratic education” “at the hands of ‘professionalized’ college athletics.”  Dowling recounts the scandal involving Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss, who attempted to frame player Patrick Dennehy as a drug dealer after Dennehy was shot and murdered by fellow player Carlton Dotson, in order to expose “the separate sphere of reality inhabited by everyone involved in Div IA athletics—players, coaches, academic tutors, Athletics Department personnel, sports-friendly trustees and administrators.”  Dowling also discusses Ohio State football player Maurice Clarett, who maintained eligibility through “bogus grades and credit for nonexistent courses,” and star point guard Tony Cole, who took courses at the University of Georgia such as “Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball” taught by the coach’s son.  Cole received an “A” for the class despite never attending classes or taking the final exam, which had such multiple questions as this one:

    3. How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?

a. 1

b. 2

c. 3

d. 4

The logic of the PSU riots is nicely accounted for in the following passage from Dowling’s book:

When the athletes recognize that they are virtual demigods on campus, real students come to regard themselves as marginally important to the university, less real in the life of the school. When every institutional resource is dedicated—and known to be dedicated—to the support and celebration of specialized physical skills, intellectual talent and the pursuit of learning come to be disregarded and displaced, even, at many schools, despised. In the world of Div IA institutions, the Maurice Claretts and Tony Coles are real. The student who has come to college hoping to learn about Greek philosophy or Renaissance poetry or molecular biology walks the campus as a ghost.

This is the significance of that curious phenomenon, the undergraduate sports riot. The masses of Ohio State students who broke store windows and overturned automobiles in downtown Columbus after their football team beat Michigan, for instance, or the University of Connecticut students who set fires and passed out drunk in public after a basketball victory, were responding to the hallucinatory reality projected by Div IA sports. Dazzled by the celebrity and media power of their teams, students at OSU and UConn and other schools were doing their best to lay claim through postgame rioting and vandalism to the sphere of moral and legal invulnerability already granted to the athletes on their campuses. They were enacting the belief that professionalized sports are the only thing that matters, in just the terms already enunciated by a university whenever new stadiums are funded while library acquisitions are cut, or the coaching staff is enlarged while the honors program is curtailed.

Moreover, Dowling’s indictment of Div IA sports as “a magic sphere” of “powerful men” who “could bestow a cloak of invulnerability” sounds all too familar in light of the seeming complicity of the PSU football machine regarding the sexual assaults allegedly committed by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.  The PSU scandal demonstrates, once again, that we need to rethink the role of Div IA athletics in higher education.

25 thoughts on “The PSU scandal, student riots, & “the magic sphere of Div IA invulnerability”

  1. Here’s the deal- I love college football. I love hockey. I love watching professional sports. I do understand there are problems with them within society- within Universities- but- BUT – this in no way excuses individual behavior. And that to me is what this story really is about. One man raped. Others did not do their job wit their knowledge. They should all be punished accordingly.
    Regarding the rioting- hm. It makes me think of the old Granta issue- “What Young Men Do” (fairly certain on that title). This is a far broader issue to me- what to do with groups of men, usually on drugs (alcohol is a drug)- looking for a fight. This is a worldwide issue, and one that is neither liberal or conservative. Does anyone actually think that some– SOME– of the violence at all the OWS isn’t a bunch of drunk college kids looking for a fight? I’m pro the movement, consider myself a serious liberal- but group violence — regardless of politics- has been heavily examined. And yet, we still can’t make it go away.

    1. I hear your point about group violence, Paula…it’s certainly a worldwide issue. I remember reading coverage of the late summer riots in England and reading about kids who didn’t really know why they were tearing shit up.

      But I disagree with your point that the PSU scandal can be chalked up to “individual behavior.” To me, there is a culture of high-powered college athletics that make coaches and athletes think that they are not accountable for indiscretions like rape. I agree with Dowling and think it’s an endemic problem:

      “The Baylor scandal is in this sense all Div IA scandals: academic fraud at Ohio State or Georgia or Minnesota, booster bribery as in Michigan’s ‘Fab Five’ case, sex-and-recruiting parties at the University of Colorado, rape and assault and financial fraud at Miami or Virginia Tech, and others too numerous to count.”

      The PSU scandal is just another example in this litany.

      Athletes just flat out get preferential treatment. I remember when I was an Expository Writing instructor at Rutgers I got a call from one of the deans about a particular student who was, at the time, failing the class. This student happened to be an athlete and the dean was suggesting that I should do everything in my power to help this student. Yet the fact of the matter is that I take teaching very seriously and try to help ALL of my students to the best of my ability. The dean was oh so subtly implying that I wasn’t doing my job correctly and I took great offense to that. There are a lot of struggling students at Rutgers and the deans sure as hell aren’t calling instructors on behalf of all of them.

      But this is, of course, peanuts in comparison to the big scandals that we’re talking about.

      1. Michael,
        I’m sure you have a point and I did the wrong thing if I meant to belittle it. But- I do think a bigger issue is at hand. It just breaks my heart- because I LOVE watching Div 1 sports. I guess I meant that also- the individuals need to be the focus, and they need to punished.

  2. And I’m tired and it’s late- but how do Universities keep up the quality of sports– this would be impossible to expect them to do the same work as other students. This needs to be addressed- and frankly, it should just be adjusted. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have these amazing college sports. So. Hm. More transparency? Honesty about how a serious college athlete can be one, and do academics? My sons are high school athletes and want to do well at their advanced classes. It’s brutal. I think now about Europe- and how they specialize academics- Gymnasiums and so on- early, like at 14- and send others to more specialized program. Maybe that’s not something to look to. But- something needs to give. And I’m not sure if it’s giving up Div 1 sports.

    1. I was a high school athlete myself — captain of my wrestling team. It is brutal, you’re right. I woke up at 6am to catch the bus, ran two miles during my free period before practice to maintain my weight class, and did hours of homework every night — translating Catullus and reading Shakespeare.

      And, you’re right — perpetuating the charade that professionalized college athletes are also doing the same kind of academic work as everyone else needs to go…I’ve also thought about the European model…to me, it seems better to specialize early and make no pretenses about it.

      1. I don’t see why college athletes are held to the same academic standards that non-athletes are when non-athletes are not held to the same athletic standards.

        Athletics is a wonderful calling, and a (potential) profession. It’s legitimized in a million different ways in our culture. I don’t see why a person can’t major in “football” in college. Make it a performance degree if that helps rationalize it. By all means, make there be some other requirements to the degree, diversify it somewhat. But end the charade.

        FWIW, I’ve been saying this since my freshman year at Penn State, when the Lions went undefeated, and I didn’t attend a single home game (I sold my season tickets).


        1. Hmmmm… I agree, Adam, that the charade should be ended.

          Though I don’t following your opening logic: non-athletes are not held to the same athletic standards as athletes for the very reason that they are attending a university not a sports academy. I think Dowling is right that one goes to college precisely “to learn about Greek philosophy or Renaissance poetry or molecular biology.” One doesn’t go to college to rack up triple-doubles or squat 500lb–as impressive as those feats may be.

          1. My argument is precisely that the university should include a sports academy. In fact, my argument is that it already does, de facto.

            I myself didn’t study Greek philosophy or molecular biology at college. I did have one class that included some Renaissance poetry.

            1. Ah, I see, Adam. I suppose we have a big difference in opinion then. I find the status quo to be quite untenable. I think that D1 universities contain not so much sports academies but sports franchises with all of the corruption that the latter entails. And such franchises are funnelling a disproportionate amount of financial resources as well as symbolic and cultural capital away from what I take to be the raison d’être of the university: the intellectual pursuit of the humanities, liberal arts, and sciences.

              And, by the way, in the comment above, I meant “I’m not following your opening logic” not “I don’t following your opening logic.” I suppose “I don’t follow your opening logic” could have sufficed as well. :)

              1. It’s a tough row to hoe, arguing that Penn State’s football program funnels a disproportionate amount of money away from the school. Quite the opposite, in fact, I think: without the Lions, PSU wouldn’t have anywhere near the capital it has.

                Do sports have a monopoly on corruption? And are they inherently corrupt? I don’t see why that should be the case, not any more so than anything else.

                But in any case, neither of those points has anything to do with what I’m proposing, which is that universities adopt degreed sports programs. The “universe” of the university has, after all, evolved over the past 150 years to include hundreds of programs and degrees that weren’t a traditional part of education. (And there’s plenty of classical precedent in both the East and the West for making sports part of the academy.)

                I received a performance degree in writing fiction, which didn’t exist in the academy until roughly 50 years ago. Other students regularly receive performance degrees in dance and theater and sculpture; what’s really so different about receiving a performance degree in, say, football? The degree need not be entirely “non-academic”; there’s plenty to study in terms of sports: history, sports medicine, anatomy, game design principles, strategic thinking, sports finance, etc. Make the degree incorporate as much or as little as that as you’d like, and include a few general requirements. I think the resulting situation would make everyone a hell of a lot happier.

                Essentially, I’m trying to address the complaints you make above about student athletes taking fluff courses and teachers being pressured to give them A’s in regular classes. My fix removes those problems, not to mention makes the whole system much more transparent and honest.

                Whether people like it or not, sports is a very viable career in the US for a tremendous number of people, and students do indeed go to college to major in it. We just don’t recognize it as such. My father, for example, attended college on a baseball scholarship and considered going pro. (He suffered an injury and ended up getting an English lit degree—but he did that only after baseball ceased being a viable career path for him.)

                But if not that, why not professional sports academies? We let students attend arts conservatories, and have specialized schools for all types of physical health studies. I just don’t get the double standard. Why is sports regarded as something so completely different?

                1. I suppose my point is that D1 athletics commands an unnecessarily high amount of attention within the university–the fact that college sports rakes in a lot of cash is incontrovertible, as you say. Though I would be interested to know if that cash is directly funding, say, a new kiln in the ceramics department or new hires for Latin American studies… I’m not particularly well-informed about how universities make these kinds of financial decisions and would welcome some enlightenment about university fiscal policy.

                  Academic fraud is really only a portion of what’s alarming about D1 sports culture…and one doesn’t need to adopt the straw man arguments of “sports have a monopoly on corruption” or sports are “inherently corrupt” to realize that there is indeed a connection between all of the sports scandals that Dowling discusses: not only the Baylor murder scandal and the recent allegations at PSU but “booster bribery as in Michigan’s ‘Fab Five’ case, sex-and-recruiting parties at the University of Colorado, rape and assault and financial fraud at Miami or Virginia Tech”… and when one thinks about professional sports–steroids in pro baseball, for example–one does see a particular type of corruption that is native to what Dowling calls “the sphere of moral and legal invulnerability” that big time athletics projects. And this is to the detriment of university culture at large. I wonder if a mob of rowdy students would overturn a news van and throw beer cans at cops in protest of a high-profile professor in cultural studies being fired? I’m not sure if your fix would prevent an incident like what happened late Wednesday at PSU.

                  I’m not exactly sure what “double standard” you’re talking about, Adam. A professional sports academy–analogous to a ballet school or music conservatory–seems a better solution to me. It would help disentangle the university from the corruption and anti-intellectual culture that we’re talking about and give a place for committed athletes to develop their skills.

                  1. By “double standard” I just mean that we don’t officially acknowledge the fact that people kinda do major in sports. Why not officiate it?

                    I’m glad we’ve reached a kind of agreement. I don’t really know anything about corruption and don’t want to argue that; no doubt sports are corrupt. What isn’t? Anyway, my whole point all along is that I think everyone would be better served if we had some other way of navigating athletes to professional careers than the way we currently do it, which is having them major in something else, while playing sports “on the side.” Because it’s clear they’re at college to do the sports thing. So why not make that their primary focus? How it’s done. I don’t care. It has just always seemed rather silly to me. No doubt attending Penn State for my BA did a lot to open my eyes in this regard. Let the athletes be athletes! I think athleticism is great, a noble and wonderful calling. They don’t also have to be biochemists. It’s lovely to see a well-executed football play; it is in its own way a kind of poetry.

                    Always nice chatting with you, Michael!


                2. A side note…I’ve been looking into Murray Sperber’s _Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergradate Education_ (2000) and Sperber demonstrates that money coming into universities from sports programs never reaches academic departments. In discussing the corporatization of bowl games, he says, “all the corporate dollars and increased bowl game payouts did not translate into black ink for most college football programs, and, ironically, many bowl game participants lost money on their postseason trips.” And in discussing how the NCAA benefitted from the rise in popularity of college basketball, he says, “member schools, including many of the perennial basketball powerhouses, never managed to staunch the annual flow of red ink in their athletic department finances. On the other hand, any coach with a team in the tournament field could request a raise and contract extension, and if his squad reached the Final Four, he could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional personal income.”

                  So I stand by my statement that big time sports programs are getting undue investment and attention. Perhaps the PSU football program is anomalous if it actually does generate income for the operation of academic departments–I’m not quite sure if that’s what you’re claiming and I would be more comfortable if I could see more sources that can corroborate Sperber’s findings. Even so, it doesn’t seem like a good model for universities in general.

                  1. Thanks for starting this discussion Michael.

                    This: “On the other hand, any coach with a team in the tournament field could request a raise and contract extension, and if his squad reached the Final Four, he could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional personal income” is eerily similiar to the situation of Wall Street investment bankers getting huge bonuses no matter they need to be bailed out.

                    I saw a headline that another sex scandal in another college has started today. It’s amazing to think that this is probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of scandals. But how in the hell can there be more scandals when they are already tons? Is the world just propped up by scandal after scandal, the house of cards perfectly exemplified? I know this is simiplistic, but there it is.

                    In terms of general reaction, I am personally tired of the witchunt aspect of these investigations in which people express outrage. The culture of blame is a fine-tuned business. It’s easy to gang up on these people, but I sometimes wish we would put as much energy into why it happens and decrying that part of the culture- which I think you are doing here Michael. These things and worse go on all the time. Do we pay attention to how many civilians are killed by drone strikes in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan every day? The People’s History of America by Zinn is a first rate resource to demonstrate how injustice has been going on for over 500 years atop this land.

                    1. Thanks, Greg, for weighing in — you’re right, scandal seems to permeate so many facets of public life: politics, international finance, and, yes, sports. This is the point Catherine made as well. I’m sad to hear about another college sex scandal.

                      And to answer Some Thought’s question below quite directly: yes, college sports are that bad. The issue is indeed that “we wish people cared about the things we cared about more than they do” to the extent that we wish for and care about ethical and humane conduct. Period.

                      I agree with Paula that individuals need to be held accountable but I do think, as you say, that witch hunts or scapegoating takes pressure away from addressing larger systemic problems.

                      I need to refresh myself on Zinn — I dipped into that book ages ago, my brother’s high-school copy actually.

  3. Yes. This. I’ve been thinking this the last two days. As an arts student, I saw my beloved programs marginalized and all sacrificed to the great god of college sports. My school tore down the parking lot where most of the commuter students (ie: kids without a lot of money) parked every day and didn’t bother to provide parking anywhere else, so they could build a fancy pants new stadium we didn’t need. College atheletes are taught they’re better, and above the rules, which translates into bad behavior that they get away with over and over again, while the rest of us take heat for staying in college too long (when budget cuts cut staff and classes and force us to stay there b/c we can’t get the classes we need) and for taking out student loans because we don’t have a cash cow to pay for our educations. I’m so fucking tired of our worship at the feet of college sports. This is what we end up with. And people are surprised?

    1. Sure, Amber. It’s sad and disappointing to hear all of this. I don’t like to complain, but the enrollment cap in my creativing writing classes is currently 25. It’s just really difficult to provide personalized and quality feedback to every workshop participant. And I repeatedly get complaints in student evaluations about the unwieldy size of the classes. All the while, all is sacrificed to the great god of college sports, as you say.

      1. I dunno, I have 25 students in my CW classes too, and while yeah, that’s too many students (although a lot better than the 50 students in my lit class) I find it hard to believe that it’s “really difficult” to provide personalized feedback to every workshop participant. Are you physically in class more than you would if the class had 15 students? The reason I ask, I’m not sure how you would actually have time for more workshop slots–like if you have 15 students in a class, you still have the same number of “workshops” as a class of 25, only with 25, each student gets fewer workshops, right? I don’t run my cw classes as 100% workshop, but it seems to be about the same amount of work (excepting the amount of homework to look at) as a class of 15. You just have more students, but the number of actual “workshops” stays the same, if you follow.

        Maybe I’m just arguing semantics, but it’s really a choice you’ve made–either you spend the time providing personalized and quality feedback to each student in your class or you don’t. I’m not criticizing your choice to spend your time doing something other than providing feedback for your CW students–it can certainly be time consuming–but I think it’s an interesting POV on the problem, how teachers react when the university says “you have to have 25 people in your class” when you think the right number is closer to 15. Do you put in extra time? Or do you sort of cap your hourly commitment to the class and put in less work? I’m not saying I would take the noble “put in more time” approach at all, more commenting on the fact that I think it’s a choice we make, how much is ‘enough’ in a field where we don’t clock in/out each day.

        Are college sports so bad? I think, really, the problem is we wish people cared about the things we cared about more than they do. Meaning, if a school’s musical theater or art museum or whatever-thing-you-care-about was packed with 100k people (or even 10k) every other saturday, then yeah, the school would pay attention to them, but given that they don’t, then of course they’re going to be lower priority. People absolutely love college football. It’s on TV! I’m not suggesting that schools should make their decisions based on popularity (this from a humanities teacher) but I do think that it’s a factor in a lot of decisions, some of which aren’t so obvious as w college sports. For example, that’s why maybe a school’s art department has a class on drawing, but maybe not a class on, say, mosaics–they’ve made a decision based on popularity. It’s why we have creative writing classes AT ALL, I would argue, because they are often the most popular classes in the English department. It’s why we teach poetry/fiction/non-fiction and not the picaresque. And so on…

        Also, does anybody really think university’s need to teach creative writing? This is a serious question, maybe for another time, but why bother? Like is there any reason other than the fact that students want to take creative writing classes to offer them? I do not buy into any arguments regarding “outlets for self expression.” I don’t know the answer to this, but it goes back to my argument about popularity and football–I’m pretty sure the only reason they exist is because both, to different extents, are popular with students.

        1. Hey there, Some Thoughts — Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by “personalized feedback.” This means marginal and end comments on workshopped writing at the very minimum; I do this whatever the class size.

          But I have also been in the habit (in smaller workshops) of attaching a poem or piece of writing that comes to mind when reading the student work–something I think the student can benefit from, something that might cultivate his or her sensibility beyond whatever local and general comments I can provide. For example, I might say, “check out what Brian Evenson does with point of view in this story” or “look at how Amy Lowell works with imagery in this poem” and I would staple the story or poem to the student’s submission. A lot of undergraduates want to write but they simply don’t read enough and I feel like actually confronting them with interesting models is pedagogically more effective than just saying “look up this” or “look up that.” In my experience, many students don’t actually do the research and track down the texts. And to me, “personalized feedback” often includes responding to student work by giving them a photocopied poem or excerpt or interview or image and my students appreciate it. Now doing this sort of practice for 50 students (two sections of 25) would be tantamount to compiling a mini-anthology every week. My hat goes off to you if you can provide that kind of attention in your large classes.

          The question of whether or not creative writing should be taught is an interesting one–and a complicated one. I do think there is an empty rhetoric of “self-expressivity,” as you say, though one needn’t be so cynical. This semester I have a Sikh student writing about Kashmiri independence and a student of African descent that is working on a post-colonial narrative set during the aftermath of the Nigerian-Biafran War. To me, these are authentic pieces of self-expression. We’ve also experimented, by the way, with techniques of appropriation in a K. Goldsmith “Against Expression” sort of way…I think the creative writing workshop does the work of training better readers if not better writers. The fact of the matter is that most students who go through the workshop will not become professional writers just as many college athletes will not make it to pro leagues.

          I really liked Louis Menand’s much-discussed review of McGurl’s _The Program Era_ in which he gave an impassioned defense/appreciation of the workshop:

          “I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make. And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other. I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

          Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/06/08/090608crat_atlarge_menand#ixzz1dcApfJxu

  4. Quoting the quotations and moving along: ‘… “a magic sphere” of “powerful men” who “could bestow a cloak of invulnerability” sounds all too familar in light of … ” the present state of American politics, economics, international relations and everything… why should athletics, college or pro, be in any way different?

    1. Sad but true, Catherine.

      Though athletics seems more innocuous than the world of politics, which most view with much more skepticism. And athletics creates certain affective and symbolic bonds that make a particularly “magic” sphere.

      It would be hard to imagine a group of young rowdy kids protesting against, say, Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaving the IMF.

  5. By the way, I got a bitter chuckle out of George Vecsey’s NY Times piece “Paterno at the End”–he quite sarcastically calls the PSU rioters “scholars” on at least three occasions.

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