Note: This is the first of a two-part review; the second part can be seen at “Posnanski on Paterno: You Can Lead a Whore to Culture, But You Can’t Make Her Think.“
“Don’t underestimate the world. It can corrupt quickly and completely.”
— Joe Paterno, 1973 PSU Commencement Speech
The Big Question: Joe Posnanski’s book “Paterno” doesn’t tell us much that’s new. I’ll focus for now on one ostensibly small, glittering new detail he does give us, the significance of which either escaped him, or which he intentionally chose not to explain within a narrative which can only be described as one long effort to gloss-up and gloss-over the Big Booming Question in all our minds: Who was Joe Paterno?
Below is just one of many investigative and analytical trails Posnanski should’ve followed, if he’d really wanted to give us a well-founded answer to that Big Question.
The McQueary Molestation Report: Everyone knows that former PSU star quarterback and then Grad Assistant Mike McQueary requested and was granted a rare vist to Paterno’s home one February 2001 Saturday morning, at which an agitated McQueary relayed to Paterno that he’d witnessed former coach Jerry Sandusky molesting a boy in the PSU football showers.
And we’ve known that Paterno has since vaguely asserted, allegedly because he didn’t want to “interrupt anyone’s weekend,” that he’d waited until Sunday night to tell his AD Tim Curley about the Sandusky molestation – the kind of polite delayed reporting which would have been just as appropriate – or plausible – after having suddenly discovered in one’s own back yard a severed human hand.
Paterno Hears McQueary While Preparing for Hawaii: What Posnanski does tell us for the first time is that Paterno was, as he met with McQueary on that fateful Saturday morning, preparing to leave that week for the annual Nike-sponsored “Coaches’ Meeting” Hawaii junket. (We are also told, at an earlier point in the book, how much Paterno loved these all-expenses paid junkets, since they were, his wife alleges, the one time when he could get away and relax.)
Coaches’ Meeting? Hawaii? Nike? What’s that all about?
Posnanski’s Shoe-Box Diorama: Posnanski never answers those questions, or many, many others which come to mind about a man who is by now a bona fide major cultural icon around which controversy — adulation and condemnation – will always swirl. By now, Joe Paterno is a Robert McNamara character: one who met great professional respect and national fame in his forties and fifties, but who, several decades later, had shrunk to a sometimes ridiculed, even reviled character overcome by action or inaction, propelled by his own dark side, to help destroy the bubble of success he’d previously fashioned, and perhaps had never really earned.
In fact, Posnanski’s shameless effort to blindfold and lead us toward Paterno-adulation, along with his failure to plumb Paterno’s revealing, massive career-long role in the development of the big business of college sport over the last sixty years — during which time college football lept from leather high-topped cleats, metal lockers, sliced oranges and concrete floors all the way to multi-million dollar weight rooms, private jets for coaches, and conference-jockeying and formation by colleges acting like so many competing for-profit corporations – gives his book the appearance of some tiny shoe-box diorama, replete with stick-figures and perspective grotesquely distorted.
Posnanski Ignores Paterno’s Gigantic Role in the Explosion of College Football: That Posnanski has apparently intentionally not bothered to thoroughly research and analyze Paterno’s pivotal – and gigantic – role in what I’ll call the four great earthquakes in modern (post-1950) college sports (1956 Creation of athletic scholarships; Post-1978 Intrusion of Apparel manufacturer money into the relationship between colleges, players, coaches and fans; 1982 Board of Regents decision allowing explosion of TV influence and dollars; and the Freeh Report) – many of which created the money-tsunami which has obliterated almost all traces of pre-existing college sports architecture — is stark evidence that Posnanski never really wanted to know the answer to the Big Question, and had been hired, like some vanity biographer, to just write the best possible Paterno spin around it and foist upon his audience an urgently ‘Buy Local’ version of Joe-in-Happy-Valley
Paterno and the Bruce Pearl Model: And spin Posnanski does. Every inference runs in Paterno’s favor. To take just one example, Posnanski states that “from more or less his first days as a head coach, Paterno called out those coaches at other schools who cheated and committed academic fraud,”apparently as evidence of Paterno’s thoroughgoing commitment to integrity –without acknowledging that such early-career tattling may accurately be seen in long retrospect as a switchblade used by an ambitious coach to help more swiftly clamber up and over others to make his name in the world, particularly when later post-climb career evidence suggests, as it does in Paterno’s case, a less-than-rigorous adherence to professional integrity.
Former long-time NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers, in fact, made unveiled and highly skeptical reference to Paterno’s early and consistent bare-knuckle approach to ethical issues as a method for, Byers thought, advancing his then second-tier Penn State football program. Tennessee’s now disgraced and terminated Bruce Pearl was known as such an early-career tattler who later, when he became Tennessee’s head basketball coach, operated in his own a moral tar pit. By all appearances, other than those fashioned for us by Posnanski, it’s now almost certain that Paterno followed that same Pearl downward moral arc.
Back to the Hawaii Junkets:: Those Hawaiian junkets ignored by Posnanski give us a wide window into the mystery of the man who (even spin-doctor Posnanski felt obligated to report) was labelled by many- including his own brother George – as “sanctimonious.”
Nike’s Phil Knight told us, in his January 2012 Paterno eulogy (the same speech in which he jumped the investigatory gun by imperiously pronouncing that if “there was a villain in this tragedy it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.”):
“Thirty-three years ago we started a college football coaches’ trip where coaches and their wives went with company people to a resort for five days to get to know each other, to exchange ideas, and maybe just let down a little bit where there was no media and there was no donors.”
Now I suppose it possible that these all-expense-paid junkets for all these influential, nascent god-coaches were funded by Phil “Knike” (as someone once called him) out of the goodness of his heart. But Knight – who once said of himself, “ I’ll never…quit worrying about Nike, and we’ll never stop needing to win…If you want to be loved, lose”- might also have had in mind his thundering, revolutionary marketing initiative which Nike was just rolling out at the very same time he began bribing, er… paying the Hawaii expenses of …. coaches like Paterno in the late 1970’s.
Nike Gets Approval for Players as Logo-Carriers: Phil Knight, in fact, wanted two things back then: to get NCAA legislation changed to allow, for the first time, commercial logos on uniforms, and to have big time college athletes wearing his Nike Swoosh. He got what he wanted, in the form of a 1978 Logo-allowing NCAA change, though it’s not clear if this happened before or after the first Hawaii junket which could’ve served as either reward – or carrot – dangled by Knight to get the coaches to support it. The change, remarkable now for it’s uniquely de-regulating effect, in light of the subsequent explosion of new NCAA super-regulations thereafter enacted and designed primarily to insure that no cash should ever land in the palm of a player, unleashed a tsunami of cash for almost everyone.
For the exhilarated, intoxicated coaches, it was then “Away we go!” to Hawaii every year — and to fabulous, mind-boggling, breath-taking, giddy lottery-win-type annual riches. All just to make sure that the boys back home would, in fact, be forced to wear Nike.
Paterno as One of First Nike Coach-Marketers’: Paterno was among the first Hawaii junketeers who travelled with and at the expense of their personal corporate partner (Knight); Paterno was also one of the early recipients of that first wave of an eventual tsunami of Nike, Adidas or other money directed at coaches and their universities, so that coaches’ salaries exploded from, for example, the $35,000 that UCLA legendary Coach John Wooden earned in 1975, to the $5 million 2012 salary Alabama’s coach Saban.
And Paterno and Other Coach-Marketers Didn’t Have to Market: But these massive coach-payments by Nike and others required no marketing by Paterno, because: a) the players were already under the absolute control of Paterno and other head coaches; and b) the ironclad control exercised by Paterno and his brethren also entirely eliminated any need to pay the players anything for their mandated agreement to wear the shoes or logos. Paterno (and other coaches) just did it by fiat: Wear the Shoes! Coach-Product-Marketers — who didn’t have to market.
There is no indication anywhere that I could find which suggested that Paterno showed any reservation whatsoever about taking the money; he habitually appeared to have always grabbed all the cash he could. Enough good cash and junkets, it appears, so that by 1994, when Paterno’s players collectively complained that they loved the uniquely plain PSU football uniforms and objected to any addition of logos, Paterno responded, as quoted in an Omaha World Herald article citing the Des Moines Register,
“I said we have to get that Nike patch on. That’s where we get our shoes from. They like ‘em that way, which is fine with me because I like ‘em.”
In fact, the Philadelphia Daily News reported in 1995 that Penn State was keeping the logos “as part of a $2.6 million agreement between the school’s athletic department and the shoe company.” Note that no one knows what payment, if any, was made on the side by Nike to Joe Paterno. Secrecy at a state university has its’ personal advantages for a guy like Paterno, and it apparently never occurred to Paterno to ask the very profound, troubling question asked at one point by former PSU President Bryce Jordan, of Nike: “Why should a university be an advertising medium for …industry?“
Posnanski parrots the accepted wisdom that Paterno “didn’t care about money”; I know that he lived in a modest house, and appeared to have little interest in many material things. But the events reviewed here (and other facts) suggest that money was very important – if not blinding – for Paterno, if not originally, then at least as soon as any largesse appeared within his reach.
In support of that rough conclusion, the weight of the evidence suggests that whatever Nike liked, Joe Paterno liked. And let’s let Knight’s eulogy speak here: “never once did he let me down, not one time.” Business partners, Joe and Phil.
Paterno Could’ve Refused the Nike Money: That paradigm of apparent probity, UCLA’s John Wooden, when faced with the mid-1970’s propect of receiving payment for forcing his players to wear Nike or other manufacturer’s apparel, reacted much differently than did Paterno. Wooden reported that he never signed one of those deals, declaring:
“I got one shoe contract offer worth somewhat more than my salary… I didn’t sign because I didn’t think that money belonged to me.”
Paterno Should’ve Refused the Nike Money: The public policy behind then-and-still-existing-NCAA bylaws, and some civil and criminal state statutes, supports Wooden’s razor-sharp ethical instincts, and should’ve similarly suggested to coaches like Paterno that the Nike payments didn’t rightfully “belong” to Paterno.
Nike Bribing Paterno: In fact, many state statutes back then made it illegal for a government official to accept bribes to influence the purchasing of materials or services by some governmental entity. (Many such statutes still do.) A number of statutes also explicitly preclude a public employee from accepting payment for the performance of actions already envisioned by his contract of employment.
Bribing Public Employees to “Run” for Third Parties:” It’s worth stopping the instant replay in a freeze frame here, both because the eventual course of events was, in that earlier 1970’s era, by no means predetermined, and because Paterno’s role was so critical in choosing the path taken.
Recall the NCAA’s recent (2011-’12) sanctions of UNC and UCF centered around condemnation of the presence on each campus of “Runners”: persons paid by a third party to “run” after athletes on campus, and to then persuade that athlete to do something beneficial to the person who pays the runner. Often the persuasion of the athlete occurs through payment of cash. Recall also Nick Saban’s famous 2010 trashing of player agents on campus as “pimps.”
The bald and largely unrecognized truth is that those original and ongoing “shoe payments” to coaches like Paterno were made because those coaches accepted what were, in fact, bribes from shoe companies to perform as their ‘Runners’ on campus.
Coach-Marketer-Runners Actually Did No “Real” Marketing or Running: These Coach-Marketer-Runners like Paterno were, in fact, the perfect ‘Runners’ for outfits like Nike trying to capture shoe market share. And a number of objective factors, in fact, make the role of Paterno and other coaches more reprehensible than that of the UNC and UCF Runners who were so recently roundly and publicly vilified by the NCAA:
a) the UNC/UCF Runners at least had to do some work to “get at” their prospective clients; in contrast, every player was, and is, an absolute “captive” of his head coach. These Coach-Marketer-Runners didn’t have to “Run“;
b) the players always have the power to say “no” to an agent’s Runner, while no player can ever say no a coach and still get any playing time; and
c) at least some of the money in the entire circumstances flowed to the player.
Paterno Ignores the Wooden Model: Paterno either ignored, or was not persuaded by, Coach Wooden’s “the [shoe] money didn’t belong to me” ethic, and the kinds of legal principles set forth above. [As in common in the now highly corporate, lawyered-up NCAA world, many of these factors have been “tidied-up” by lawyers, over the last twenty or so years, with provisions creating the fiction that payments are for the coach’s services or, more recently, new provisions requiring that the bribe be “laundered” by making the payment first directly to the university, which then passes it through to the coach in the form of salary. But none of those “tweaks” existed at the time these Coach-Bribes began.]
The Great 20th Century Sport-Content Grab–Tickets-to-Content: To fully understand the extent to which Paterno achieved extraordinary personal financial gain by engaging in and leading questionable behaviors, the late ‘70’s- early 80’s NCAA milieu needs to be understood. The 1978 Logo-Earthquake combined with the 1982 TV-earthquake (when the Board of Regents case returned ownership of TV game rights to the schools playing the game) to generate a “Content-Grab” not unlike the the big 19th-century Western U.S. “Land Grab” which enriched many individuals and corporations lucky, cunning, and/or corrupt enough to engineer receipt of fabulous incomes.
During the latter part of the 20th century, the NCAA was moving from the old (and relatively tiny) income-generating model based almost entirely upon live-attendance ticket sales, to an entirely different, exponentially larger – and substantially unregulated – income-generating model based on purchases of electronic transmissions of digital images of those live performances (a/k/a “Content”) to living rooms, computers, video games, and now smartphones.
Everyone’s Going to the Bank Except the Coolie-Players: And, just as the 19th Century Great Land Grab unfolded without much predetermined direction or regulation, so also has the late-20th Century Great College-Sports-Content Grab been uncharted and full of road-forks opening out onto some great wide-open spaces amongst Mountains of Money –fabulous riches now shared in 2012 by all the other structural members of this new economic juggernaut –Coaches, the NCAA, Universities, Athletic Departments, Apparel Corporations, Bowl-Games, thousands of Third-party contractors, and Conferences.
Everyone except the players: Except the players, who remain as the unpaid servile “Player-Coolies,” working on the “Content railroads” to enrich the tycoons – including tycoon-coaches like Paterno.
Paterno Present at the Creation: It didn’t have to be this way. The point of this history of the Great College-Sports-Content Grab is that Joe Paterno was present at the creation of a radically different “order of things,” but exercised the lowest form of moral, legal, and even NCAA Bylaw interpretive reasoning possible in the circumstances,and helped bring about the current result: an overheated, raging and largely dysfunctional for-profit Athletics-Entertainment Complex, utilizing unpaid performers, and illogically grafted onto ostensibly non-profit academic institutions.
Paterno and the other coaches acted as passive but avaricious Market-Gatekeepers, admitting Phil Knight and others to what was a public arena of public Player-Logo-carriers, but only after exacting a (huge) annual private “toll” from the apparel companies and others.
Better Options: There Were Other Much Fairer, More Legal, and More, Ethical Options:
a) Nike Could’ve Paid the Player-Logo-Wearers Directly: Without the NCAA’s artificial, market-controlling proscription against college athletes receiving money from third parties, Knight could have just made payment directly to the players for agreeing to wear the logos- either as payment of all school costs, or as “extra” payments. Which would not have been, within even the then-recent historical context, at all strange.
Player Paterno, in fact, had had his entire Brown University tuition, room and board, from ‘47 to ‘51, paid for him by a third party businessman named Busy Arnold, the comic book inventor. Most people now are entirely unaware of that long, ongoing struggle within the NCAA, going back to the 1920’s, which derived from the predominant opinion that any payment of any kind by schools to athletes – including athletics scholarship – would not only violate the NCAA’s principle of ‘amateurism’, but also make them employees by law. And when the NCAA passed its’1956 legislation allowing those athletics scholarships, everyone knew there was a significant risk that state courts would view those payments as just the kind of ‘remuneration’ which flows from employer to employee.
It’s not unfair to imagine the kinds of issues, for example, concerning which the then-recently retired John Wooden – not Joe Paterno – might have provoked discussion in that late-70’s era (had he been around), by asking some of the more abstract but pressing questions which I would contend that Paterno should’ve insisted be aired, like:
1) Are there no viable mechanisms to allow much of this tsunami of apparel and TV money to redound to the benefit of the players, either by direct payment, or the setting aside of amounts in trust?
2) Are we now not obligated to resurrect the debate which echoed through the NCAA for forty years prior to the 1956 approval of athletic scholarships, and look anew at the now-even-more-obvious conclusion that the players are employees? and
3) Even if they aren’t employees, aren’t players the ‘Talent’ that fans pay to see, so that their job here as ‘logo-carriers’ ought to allow them — even if we insist that they are amateurs – to enjoy income derived from advertising and other collateral, non-athletic functions people badly want them to perform?
Paterno As King Among Coach-Kings, Who Should’ve Excercised Moral and Legal Leadership:: But Paterno’s shortcomings were, in retrospect now, even more profound precisely because Paterno wasn’t just present at the creation of an entirely new for-profit, content-based model for the big business of college sport. Recall what Phil Knight also told us at the Paterno funeral:
“ A whole lot of hall of fame coaches have gone through those [Hawaii] trips over those 33 years including Bill Walsh, Jimmie Johnson, Bobby Bowden, Mac Brown, Urban Meyer, Barry Switzer, Pete Carroll, and hundreds of others and the one coach they deferred to the most was Joe Paterno.” [Emphasis added.]
The One Coach They [All] Deferred to the Most: Paterno was the King of All the Coach-Kings, and had in his palm the opportunity and duty to lead in the late-20th Century creation of a brand-new order of things, by considering some of the other options available – if not required -in regulating the tsunami of cash which revolutionized college sport. Instead, he followed his own self-interest, apparently blinded by the money mountains in the Great 20th-Century College-Sports-Content Grab, and we’re left now with a wacky, Alice-in-Wonderland NCAA for-profit cartel.
[Next post: Posnanski’s tiny, fake-out and completely erroneous evaluation of the Freeh Report and Paterno’s role in the Sandusky scandal.]
- copyright Wm Wilson, 2012