With Penn State football head coach Joe Paterno’s dismissal amid the sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed Happy Valley, college football is under scrutiny again. So too are the huge sums of money that sustain this monumental sports and media enterprise. Paterno will be paid a little over $1 million from Penn State this year. That is actually modest by comparison with his peers; in 2010, University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban received over $6 million in compensation. Paterno’s salary and celebrity stand out only in contrast with everyone else—his players for instance, as well the faculty who teach them. For good reason then, the head football coach’s salary is often treated as an index of the distance a college has departed from its core academic commitments (we’re still awaiting the first news van to be overturned in ousted PSU President Graham Spanier’s name), not to mention its ethical standards.
What is the history that got us here?
In his book Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era, historian Michael Oriard contends that the big change in college football occurred in the early 1970s. Until then, head coaches were paid much like deans or upper-tier professors. Moreover, many held tenured faculty positions. They were themselves part of the faculty. But with “the NCAA’s transformation of student-athletes into athlete-students in 1972 and 1973—making freshman eligible, dropping the 1.6 rule [which stipulated that a college could only offer you a scholarship if you were projected to receive at least a 1.6 GPA], and instituting the one-year scholarship” big-time college began to serve its own interests rather than the universities or their student-athletes (192). “When universities and conferences won the right to negotiate their own television contracts in 1984, and the competition for market share intensified, coaches were in a position to cash in.”* Huge, president-humbling salaries (PSU’s Spanier earned a mere $800K this year) followed.
But the exorbitant pay awarded to college coaches isn’t the only blemish on the system. While it has shot up shamelessly since the early 1970s, the compensation (essentially tuition, room, and board) at schools with big-time athletic programs has barely budged. “It’s socialism for athletes,” sociologist Allen Sack told New York Magazine, and “free enterprise for everyone else.” Agreeing that student athletes should be paid, Taylor Branch offered a devastating critique of the current system in the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly. “[T]he real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited,” Branch writes, “it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.”
Since its improbable emergence on the most cerebral of campuses in the late 19th century, college football has represented something of an anomaly—a consistently irresistible anomaly, it should be noted. Male-dominated and devastatingly brutal, it plays out its gridiron dramas nearly every Saturday at institutions which aim at very different ends during the week. Such tensions date at least to 1892, the year, Oriard notes, when the newly established University of Chicago hired Amos Alonzo Stagg, “a former Yale All-American, two years out of college, to start a football program [and agreed] to pay him as much as the school’s top professors in order to lure him from the East Coast.”^ In Stagg’s day, football deaths were common and corruption was rampant.
But don’t count on college football’s extinction, or even its radical reform, any time soon. Though the decimal points have moved to the right, the often indefinable allure of this sport—along with the celebrity it generates, the money it attracts, the ethical corruption and moral deprivation it sometimes invites—endures as ever. More on that, maybe, some other time.
*Michael Oriard, Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 192, 193.
^Oriard, Bowled Over, 191