Joe Paterno: The Tipping Point or Just the Tip of the Iceberg?

Peter ImberContributor IIINovember 9, 2011

TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions walks out onto the field during warmups before facing the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 11, 2010 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“Money is the root of all evil” 

“All power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Have big time college sports become simply too big? Has the money they make created people so powerful that fear of them causes unthinkably wrong things to be ignored or excused?

That seems to be what happened at Penn State, but could it happen elsewhere? I’m afraid so.

What is playing out at Penn State is like the acts of a tragedy. Joe Paterno became so important to the university that no one could tell him no. No one wanted to challenge him or embarrass him, and no one wanted to endanger the football program he established that had brought the university glory and riches.

The sad truth is that in America today, the most successful top-rung college football and basketball programs are prized and valued more than the quality of the education offered at the schools they represent.

Coaches' salaries are one measure of how “skewed up” things have become. Take the average salary of a U.S. governor—according to the Council of State Governments' most recent compensation survey, the average governor's salary was $130,595 in 2010.

At almost any Division I state university, the football coach’s salary dwarfs the governor’s and makes the coach the highest-compensated public employee in the state. Joe Paterno was. Mack Brown is, and there are dozens of others.


President Obama’s annual paycheck is $400,000. So is Rich Ellerson’s, the Army football coach and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo makes over twice that much. You can joke like Babe Ruth did when told he made more money than President Hoover and say “But Niumatalolo had a better year.” But it’s hollow laughter.

Yes, Paterno’s tenure at Penn State coincided with a tremendous increase in the school’s endowment. Undoubtedly, alumni giving soared along with the fortunes of the football team. Nothing wrong there. Fans of the Nittany Lion had much to be proud about and ample justification to lionize JoePa. But an environment was created that blinded oversight and intimidated scrutiny and now apparently, after years of cover up, what is a storied history now has a shameful legacy.

Could it happen elsewhere? Yes, I'm afraid so.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”