Americans dote on sports celebrities like Joe Paterno

 

A little over 19 years ago, Donald Fehr and I were sitting in the dugout at Chain of Lakes Stadium in Winter Haven, Florida just talking. In March 1992, Fehr was performing his duties as the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association by visiting every Major League player during Spring Training and talking labor.

Donald Fehr is a very intelligent man and the conversation turned to money and fame and the great players of the day, 1992, which included Bobby Bonilla. There was one sentence out of that conversation that has stayed with me for almost two decades.

“Americans,” said Fehr, “dote on celebrity.”

Fehr’s words have once again cropped up in light of the arrest of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky for allegedly committing crimes involving children.  Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired because he didn’t do enough in alerting law enforcement officials in the Sandusky case.

Law enforcement officials will continue to investigate but the fallout from Sandusky’s alleged crimes should have wide-ranging consequences including a self-evaluation of doting on celebrity. But it won’t.

Joe Paterno is a Keystone State celebrity with a national following.

For some reason college football and basketball coaches like Paterno, Woody Hayes, Bob Knight and Jim Tressel have been granted an absurd amount of respect because they coach winning teams. They are part of an American royalty when in reality all they do is coach a game. But jock sniffers, who include men and women who went to a school coached by a “legend,” routinely genuflect in front of the coach.

Paterno was bigger than anyone in Pennsylvania because he coached a state university football team. He was just a coach, nothing more, nothing less. But our society elevated him to an unrealistic level. Maybe we should start looking at why we shower these people with adulation and awe. They are just coaches nothing more, nothing less. They don’t cure cancer or solve economic problems. But we over-value them.

In New Jersey, the governor makes far less money than the Rutgers football coach, the Rutgers woman’s basketball coach and the Rutgers men’s basketball coach. Grown men (and usually it is men because the sportswriting field along with the TV-radio side is predominately a man’s field) have cowered in fear of asking these individuals a question that might upset them. Paterno was nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pennsylvania Senators Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey, a Democrat, along with Pennsylvania Congressman Glenn Thompson, also a Republican (who says there is no bipartisanship on Capitol Hill—when it comes to stuff that has no real bearing on Americans like giving out a medal).

The nomination was withdrawn after Paterno was fired.

The doting on celebrity part was enhanced by the reaction of Penn State students after some students started rioting on the campus when news came that the 84-year-old coach was fired. The students were miffed that the famous coach was canned as part of the ongoing criminal investigation, along with other top Penn State officials.

Paterno was the king of State College, PA. There is no doubt about that. He won 409 football games and society seems to like that. He ran the program with an iron fist and in the process raised a lot of money for Penn State which was used for more than just the football team’s financial needs. Paterno and his wife donated several million dollars over the years to the school library.

That’s the Faustian deal college presidents, chancellors and provosts make with coaches. Coaches like Paterno will make a lot of money for the school and the school board of trustees will look the other way until they day comes where they can’t.

That day has come at Penn State. In sports as John Madden once told me, winning is a great deodorant. But in Penn State’s case, no amount of winning is going to cover up the rancid smell surrounding the program. Apparently Paterno knew of the Sandusky problem since 2002 and everything only came to light nine years later.

In college sports, it is all about making money anyway you can. So it is easy to overlook the rantings of Bob Knight, the ongoing scandals at numerous programs that bend National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, if there is such a thing as college sports rules.

All college presidents, chancellors and provosts seem to care about is money rolling into a school. An athletic director like Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin presides as a CEO of a $90 million industry, Badgers sports.

The coaches recruit players – players who don’t get paid for their services in sort of an indentured servant setting in exchange for the promise of being able to pursue an education when they are freed from sports duties – and coach a game. All sports TV and all sports radio stations elevate the coach into a higher level of humanity and some like the Paternos and Knights become deities and journalists (along with faculty members) are urged not to cross them.

The coach is protected by a sports information director who by his/her very presence makes reporters aware that some questions better not be asked. Paterno had a good guy aura as did Bobby Bowden down in Florida. There was an implied trust that Joe did no wrong and was as pure as Caesar’s wife.

If there was dirty work to be done in recruiting or dealing with boosters for cash payments to a program, Joe was above board. He was a famous football coach who won championships and was above board.

Americans, or at least Pennsylvanians, could dote on his celebrity. Joe seemed safe enough and Penn State had a winning football team.

The doting on celebrity has turned ugly. University of Nebraska officials  openly questioned the security of the football team and the “fans” who traveled to State College to watch this past weekend’s game between the two universities’ football teams. Nebraska officials  told Cornhuskers fans not to wear red, the color of the Nebraska football team. It might have caused trouble.

This is not an Occupy Wall Street type confrontation between police and protestors. This is not about college kids with no job prospects heavily in debt because of college bills or alums who have lost their jobs and their homes because of bad political decisions made by elected officials.

This is all because of the Paterno firing which should be a side product of the charges that Sandusky is facing. Someone is charged with a heinous crime, Paterno told his superiors but not law enforcement officials and the students’ rioted after his firing.

Pennsylvanians dote on fame; at least some college kids did and took matters into their own hands.

Suddenly the Big Ten Conference expansion doesn’t seem all that important. Penn State is part of the Big Ten. Suddenly the entire specter of college sports realignment seems petty and a just a naked money grab for select schools.

Paterno and his coaching peers have presided over fun and games and provided entertainment for a bevy of people—jock sniffers—-which included college presidents, boosters, marketing partners, advertisers, well-heeled alum who wrote checks for programs and others who wanted to rub elbows with coaches because they doted on celebrity.

It really is hard to understand why a coach in football or basketball on the college level becomes a deity, like Paterno, Knight, and Woody Hayes. Why they become the state’s highest paid employees at state universities. It is insane. They give motivation speeches; get paid for TV shows; they are the object of genuflecting adults who throw money at college sports teams. Paterno was bigger than anyone in Pennsylvania because he coached a state university football team. He was just a coach, nothing more, nothing less. But our society elevated him to an unrealistic level. Maybe we should start looking at why we shower these people with adulation and awe. They are just coaches–nothing more, nothing less. They don’t cure cancer or solve economic problems. But we over-value them and over-emphasize what they do.

Don Fehr, who controlled a whole bunch of famous people during his tenure at the Major League Baseball Players Association and now at the National Hockey League Players Association, was 100 percent right.

“Americans dote on celebrity.”

Americans dote on celebrity to their detriment.

Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or Amazon Kindle.

 

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