The other day, I had a brief exchange on twitter with Dave Zirin, who covers sports and politics for The Nation. Normally, I agree with Zirin. For instance, I nearly wrote a blog post on the subject of Tim Tebow before I realized that Zirin had for all intents and purposes said what I wanted to say.

I didn't agree this time, though. Zirin was responding to a series of tweets in which former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington denounced the hiring of Bill O'Brien as his alma mater's new head coach. The context for this, as I'm sure practically anyone who follows the news in North America is aware, is the allegation that Jerry Sandusky, one of the team's long-time coaches, repeatedly sexually assaulted minors. Moreover,  others involved with the program, including members of the school's administration and head coach Joe Paterno, allegedly learned of at least one of these crimes and both failed to inform police and continued to allow Sandusky to be involved with the program. 

Zirin retweeted Arrington's tweets and then added, "This is real courage by @LaVarArrington. He's right. The bureaucracy at PSU needs to be cleared out, not the coaches." When I responded that I thought the coaches were also accountable, Zirin wrote: "@nkalamb @LaVarArrington But to scapegoat coaches and leave admin in place is worst of both worlds."

I must respectfully disagree. Certainly, if those in the administration at Penn State are not held respponsible for what they have permitted to take place, there will have been a serious miscarriage of justice. Yet, to place blame solely on the administration is to ignore the basic reality of US college sports: football coaches are often among the most powerful members of an American university's payroll.

It only requires a quick peek at salary information to get a handle on where priorities lie for top football universities. At a whopping thirty two of these institutions, head football coaches earn at least $2,000,000 per year (this does not include a number of top schools which have not released salary information). Of athletic directors at these schools, however, only four ("only" is, of course, a highly relative term) take home over $1,000,000. As of the year 2007-2008, just one university president earned over $1,000,000.

Needless to say, at least financially speaking, these individuals are not suffering. Still, the relative difference in pay reveals the esteem coaches enjoy and the amount of clout they wield on campuses across the United States. With this information in perspective, I find it difficult to see an attempt to hold a coach accountable as mere scapegoating.

The fact is, although Penn State is likely an exception when it comes to the particular nature of the dysfunction on campus (although it is not the only exception of this kind) it is nevertheless symptomatic of structural issues that permeate college revenue sports more generally.

This is a system that has come to revolve entirely around capital. Whether or not this makes sense as a business model is a separate question that I will touch upon in a forthcoming post. Regardless, what is clear is that in order to generate revenue, schools must win games and garner national attention. And winning games requires hiring coaches who are able to recruit talented players and utilize the most effective tactics. Coaches who are successful become invaluable to their employers, who are willing to fork over incredibly high salaries in order to ensure continued loyalty.
They are also willing to hand over near-complete autonomy.

This is the financial context for what happened at Penn State, just as it is the context for nearly every other major program around the country. There is a broader context here as well: the professional sports leagues that rely on colleges to provide occupational training. And even that is the tip of the iceberg. What professional sports really represent is the overarching context of global capitalism.

In an economic system based on the generation of wealth at all costs, anything that provides a possibility for profit (and college sports does) will be mined for all the wealth it has to offer. The ultimate solution to this problem is so fundamental and radical that it hardly bears mentioning.

The profit motive in college sport is not going to change until the profit motive is no longer treated as the principal guiding principle for human social relations.

Let's face it though, that dream is probably (definitely) not right around any forseeable corner.

This is a very long way of saying that there is more than one way to see scapegoating. Sure, we could say along with Zirin that the Penn State administration is scapegoating its coaching staff by forcing coaches to take sole responsibility for Sandusky and then claiming that the problem has been solved. We could also say, though, that Zirin's implicit assumption that firing the entire administration and coaching staff would have a similarly cathartic effect is comparably hypocritical. As long as we exclusively hold accountable individuals and their actions, while ignoring the system in which they live, we are all guilty of scapegoating.

It doesn't really make sense to get too worked up about who Penn State chooses to fire. The coaches had power and privilege and, allegedly, they failed in their moral responsibility. If what they were accused of is fact, they should be removed, and were. The same is true of the administration. If members of it are guilty of the behaviour that has been imputed to them, they should not retain their jobs.

Regardless, no matter who goes, we shouldn't be so smug as to believe that the problem is solved. As assenting subjects of an economic system that's sole end is to generate profit at the expense of the world and the people who occupy it, we are all complicit in what happened at Penn State. To claim otherwise is just another form of scapegoating.



Josh Birkhead-Kirk
01/17/2012 6:30am

"How do you fire Jo Pa? #noclass"

Very interesting reading Nate, those salaries are mind-boggling! It's amazing the difference coming from a Canadian scholastic perspective when reading this and your last post. In the states these guys are actually stars where as I could not have named a single member of either the Jarvis or UofT football teams!

Nathan Kalman-Lamb
01/23/2012 1:49pm

Thanks for the comment, Josh. Yes, it sure is a very different and wacky world down there. I wonder if hockey would be similarly influential in Canadian universities if it were not for the fact that there is a junior system that functions as a minor league in the way that the colleges do for basketball and football in the US. That's the only equivalent I can really imagine being possible up here.


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