Thursday, November 10, 2011


Back in 1984 I was still clearing my throat as a sports columnist but had already made a recurring topic of the crimes and deceptions of big-time college sports. My November 9 column of that year was about schools that hoked up their jock-graduation rates for public consumption.

Exhibit A was Penn State. In interviews and in university publications Nittany Lions’ head coach Joe Paterno and his aides, and other university officials, noised it about that the school graduated more than 90% of its varsity football players, a very high figure. As was (is) their wont, most sporting news mediums repeated those claims without verifying them, which amounted to endorsements.

To see what was doing I phoned the Penn State athletics department. I was shuffled around until I wound up with one Dave Baker, its information director. He told me the 90% figure was “pretty accurate,” but only if one counted players who’d reached their senior years at the school. “Actually,” he hedged further, “the figure used to be 90%. We think it’s dropped a shade the past few years but we don’t know. We haven’t calculated it lately.”

I asked about players who flunked out, transferred or otherwise dropped out before their four years of athletic eligibility expired. Baker said Penn State had never kept track of those, yet in the next breath he contested as too low one published report that had put the school’s overall football graduation rate at 67% because he said it miscounted dropouts. He took issue with an NFL Players Association finding that 61% (24 of 39) of the Penn State products who were in the NFL the previous year (1983) were degree holders, on grounds it was based on self reporting. Why he thought anyone with a degree would claim not to have one, he didn’t say.

In the piece I nailed a few other schools for similar fibs, including Alabama and Nebraska, but I’ve since regarded Penn State athletics with special skepticism. That’s because outfits that lie about small things will lie about larger ones. Also, under Paterno’s “Success With Honor” banner, it was one of a handful of universities that make, or have made, special claims to sanctity, a “We Do Things Right” Club that sets itself above the common scrum.

Michigan was part of this group until it was revealed that Ed Martin, a Detroit racketeer, was the sugar daddy of its Fab Five-era basketball teams. Notre Dame’s long membership has been punctured many times, most lately by episodes involving a young woman who committed suicide after the university didn’t promptly pursue her claim to have been raped by a Notre Dame football player (no charges have been brought against the player, partly because the woman isn’t alive to testify against him) and another in which a student died after coaches sent him up in a cherry-picker during a wind storm to videotape football practice, and the thing blew over. It doesn’t get worse than that, and it’s beyond me why no Domer heads have rolled as a result.

Strictly speaking, the current Penn State scandal, involving a long-time top assistant of Paterno’s who is accused of sexually molesting (so far) eight boys over a 15-year period, isn’t about sports. Rather, it’s another example of the corporate “damage control” mentality at work in institutions that, supposedly, are devoted to higher things than profit and hierarchal protection. The Roman Catholic Church’s leaders in many countries have fit that mold during the seemingly endless revelations about sexual-predator priests. So has the Boys Scouts of America in its handling of similar matters.

The involvement of Penn State coaches and officials in the alleged predations of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky pivots on a night in March, 2002, when a graduate-assistant coach, visiting the football locker room to complete some chores, reportedly witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in a shower room. Rather than go to police immediately (or punch out Sandusky), the young man reportedly went home to mull his options. The next day he told his boss, Paterno, who told his boss, the school’s athletics director, who told his boss, a university vice-president, who told his boss, President Graham Spanier.

Apparently, none of them told the cops, meaning that, for at least the last nine years, they engaged in a coverup, allowing Sandusky to pursue his pleasures at the expense of boys involved in the youth charity he’d organized. For that entity’s events he was given the use of Penn State facilities, and he was spotted in the football complex as recently as the week before the allegations surfaced.

Knowing what they did, the thought that the Penn State honchos allowed ol’ Jer to go on doing what he was doing—maybe even under their noses-- boggles the mind. Paterno was rightly fired, along with the AD, VP and prez. Along with Sandusky, the AD and VP face criminal charges for not reporting his violations. Based on available evidence one must wonder why Paterno and Spanier haven’t been charged, too.

Among the many appalling things in this appalling episode was the reaction of some Penn State students. They chanted in Paterno’s support before he was fired on Wednesday night, and rioted in protest after the move was announced. The college-sports Establishment, including its governing body the NCAA, is ruled by the principle that the show must go on, no matter what offenses surround it. Now it seems that some of our young believe this, too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


What’s up with this National Football League season, now firmly underway? If I knew I’d tell you, but I don’t. What I do know is that the “experts” (note the quote marks) have been wrong, as usual. If I said I knew that would make me an expert, and I’d be wrong, too.

One needn’t look past the standings to make that point. The team that went into the campaign as a Super Bowl favorite as a result of last season’s performance and between-seasons maneuverings was the Philadelphia Eagles. They seemed so well put together someone labeled them the “Dream Team.” Now they are 3-4 in the lost-won column and tied for last in their division.

Ditto, almost, for the New York Jets. Widely picked to finally recapture Namath-era glory, they are having trouble on both sides of the ball and trail both New England and Buffalo in the AFC East. The Atlanta Falcons, tabbed as the up-and-comer on the NFC side, are having similar difficulties gaining traction

Wronger yet have been the experts’ assessments of the likely affects of the owners’ lockout that suspended team activities from last March through July. The talking heads on ESPN and elsewhere unanimously decreed that that period of enforced idleness would weigh heaviest on rookie players and teams with new coaches seeking to install their “systems.” The mavens further intimated that without the endless string of rookie camps, mini-camps and “voluntary” workouts teams use to keep their charges busy during the off-season, the oh-so-sophisticated game would fall into a general state of disorganization.

Regarding the latter, the football still looks like football to me. Regarding the former, the best “stories” of the current season have been the revival of the San Francisco 49ers under first-year-head-coach Jim Harbaugh and the excellent play of Cam Newton, the rookie quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

It’s noteworthy that Harbaugh, who’d spent the big majority of his previous coaching career in the collegiate ranks, easily is the least experienced of the league’s eight new head coaches, and that Newton, with only two full college seasons as a starter under his belt (one of them at a junior college!) is the rookiest of the rookie QBs. Obviously, some guys just know how to coach or play football.

A couple of other things about the NFL have caught my eye this year. To wit:

PLEADING FOR PENALTIES-- Every year for the past several I’ve been dismayed by the blizzard of penalty flags NFL officials generate, and this season’s storm seems to be the worst so far. For this I blame the league’s growing instant-replay culture. With every play subject to microscopic video scrutiny and analysis, field officials are pushed to err on the side of caution, escaping possible criticism by calling penalties when only the hint of them exists. That raises the unhealthy suspicion that they, not the combatants, most determine scoreboard outcomes.

Last April I wrote about the book “Scorecasting,” by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim. Its key thesis, backed by research, is that the home-field advantage that’s universal in team sports results mostly from official bias caused by the human desire of refs, umps, etc., to be agreeable to the people closest at hand; i.e., the home fans.

It seems that many NFL players and fans also have read the book. Instant uproars over adverse calls, or the lack of favorable ones, have become the norm around the league, especially regarding the most-odious call of pass interference. Moreover, such demonstrations seem to be working.

I refer especially to a play in the Pittsburgh Steelers-Arizona Cardinals game on October 23 in suburban Phoenix. When a contested pass to Cardinals’ receiver Larry Fitzgerald fell incomplete, Fitzgerald raised his arms in protest as the current script dictates, and the home crowd howled in agreement. After a good 30 seconds, and an officials’ huddle, a yellow flag against the Steeler defender fluttered to earth.

When do officials confer over a pass-interference call? When the home crowd wants them to, I guess.

HOW MUCH IS ONE PLAYER WORTH? Plenty when the player is Peyton Manning. After a 3-13 rookie break-in season in 1998, the nonpareil quarterback led the Indianapolis Colts to victory in 72% of their regular-season games over the next 12 years (138-54) and into two Super Bowls. This year, with him out with a neck injury, they’re 0-8 and, seemingly, headed toward 0-16.

True, these Colts have defects elsewhere than at quarterback. Their offensive line, long a bulwark, has sprung leaks and there must be something wrong with a defense that allows 62 points in a game, as it did against New Orleans a couple of Sundays ago. Still, Manning’s absence has been the main cause of the abrupt 360 in their fortunes.

There’s a nice touch of irony to the Colts’ situation. If they do go 0-16 (or, even, 1-15) they’ll probably have a crack at the clear No. 1 pick in next April’s draft-- Stanford QB Andrew Luck. The only thing that might bother them about taking Luck is that the experts agree he’s a future star, a Manning in the making. That should give anyone pause.