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In the Name of the Father: How College Sports Came To Be Above the Law

The sports journalist Michael Weinreb, who grew up in State College, Pennsylvania and went to school at Penn State, where his father was a chemistry professor, last week cited an article on the front page of his old college newspaper. In it were recorded the laments of Andrew Hanselman, a senior marketing major at the school. "Being accepted to Penn State felt like a family,” Hanselman said, “and Joe Paterno was the father."

It is a sentimental quote, but also a revealing one. It’s important, in fact, to stare hard at the feeling articulated by young Mr. Hanselman, for it goes to the heart of what is perverse about the place of college athletics in American life. Reading about Penn State confronts us with a primitive aspect of our culture that we normally prefer not to acknowledge: It is an encounter that demands our scrutiny, precisely because it solicits such a pained pang of recognition.

Throughout our country are institutions of higher learning—schools that are supposed to be nurturing the independence of young minds—that find themselves somehow becoming families writ large, families that feel compelled to gather around a team in search of a collective father. It is a transformation inspired by good faith, and the well-intentioned belief that college football builds character and heightens the experience of life. But it produces nonetheless a culture that must be called savage.

The particular form this savagery takes is the worship of the team, the solidarity of the family that ennobles the team, and the shelter of the father who selects, shores up, guards, patches up, promotes, and personifies the team (or at least its management). Obviously, this is a type of savagery that is cultivated and indulged across our country, not only in State College, Pennsylvania.

The culture has practical payoffs, obviously. The stunned Weinreb writes cogently of the peculiar logic that informs the “bond...forged through football”:

[Which] is why schools work so damn hard and often take ethical shortcuts to forge themselves into football powers: If they are successful, then the game serves as the lifelong bond between alums and townspeople and the university, thereby guaranteeing the institution's self-preservation through donations and season-ticket sales and infusions into the local economy. It is a crass calculus, when you put it that way, which is why there will always be skeptics and there will always be those of us for whom college football is (other than our own families) the purest emotional attachment of our adulthood.

The relationship is transactional, though not purely materialistic. The family worships the team because it delivers—membership, victories, profits, thrills. The rituals of worship—the fight rallies, the cheers, and eventually the riots—sustain the sense that each of us have roots and a future. It furnishes people with a new “identity,” to use the buzzword, this one fired with intensities of emotion that protect people against their loneliness.

So it is not sinister that, at work and on the field, in management and in the military, in law enforcement and criminal gangs alike, we adore teamwork. No surprise that testimonials to the virtues of teamwork are as easy to find as, well, teams. “Get the right people on the team (and the wrong ones off),” writes one McKinsey partner, channeling the findings of the consultancy’s research. Companies spend vast sums to have such notions instilled in them and ratified for them.

Frankly, I do not know whether the fervors and loyalties that thrive around American college football, the suspension of moral rules so typical there, are any more or less crazy or wicked than those around soccer teams from Britain to Brazil. But it would seem to make sense that the adoration of teamwork would run especially rampant in a wildly individualist culture like America's, compensating for its other moods of self-justification, when it seriously maintains that its members should stand or fall by their own self-contained, self-created talents and nothing else. Teamwork leavens such ferocious fancies. The family—even the figurative family— is, in the end, the cushion for the society of sharp elbows. To imagine the university as a family is to imagine it freed of its own sharp elbows, its own ethic of relentless meritocracy.

But the university that wants to have its team fervor and forego the price has made a deal with the devil. James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan, put it pithily in a conversation with the Times’ Joe Nocera the other day:

College football and men’s basketball has drifted so far away from the educational purpose of the university. They exploit young people and prevent them from getting a legitimate college education. They place the athlete’s health at enormous risk, which becomes apparent later in life. We are supposed to be developing human potential, not making money on their backs. Football strikes at the core values of a university.

I claim no particular expertise on Penn State or its administration, nor do I bear the institution any particular animus. But the chiefs of the Penn State football team who granted de facto immunity to a coach who (according to witnesses) raped a number of boys in the Penn State football locker room —rapes reported over the course of fifteen years—must have felt secure in the knowledge, after all was said and done, that they had been granted a special position, that they had been placed above the law—both the criminal and the moral law.

So the path of glory led but to the locker room shower, and rape after rape. In the name of the team, the family, and the father.

Todd Gitlin is a professor at Columbia, and the author, most recently, of Undying, a novel.