Football has long been beloved at Penn State, and the program is one of the most lucrative in the country. But as the biggest scandal in the school's history continues to roil the campus, some in State College, Pa., are beginning to question football's influence.
At his news conference this week, interim Penn State football coach Tom Bradley tried to focus on Saturday's game in Columbus.
"It's still Ohio State-Penn State. This is all about the players. This is about our team; it's about their team. It's still football — great atmosphere, college football. And it'll be a very spirited match regardless of what's going on outside," Bradley said.
What's going on "outside" — a child sex abuse scandal — has already brought down legendary football coach Joe Paterno and university President Graham Spanier. Still, interim coach Bradley said he would not rule out a possible post-season bowl game appearance for his team.
"The players and the guys on this team didn't have anything to do with any of this that's surrounding them. There were rumors swirling around that if we make it that we won't be able to go to a bowl game. I told them that was untrue," Bradley said.
Football is a huge source of pride for Penn State — and a big source of revenue, too. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the football team brought in more than $70 million during the 2009-10 season.
"This is only the tip of the iceberg. The big money that Penn State generates from its football program actually relates to its fundraising," says Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a consulting firm.
Ganis says Penn State used its winning football program — epitomized by coach Paterno — to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
"He is used at alumni events. He is used to meet with big donors, people who are big contributors to the university and not just the athletic department," Ganis says.
Those dollars literally helped to build Penn State from a remote agricultural school into a major research university. Football helped enrich local businesses, too. But critics say those dollars also silenced debate about the growing power and secrecy of the football program.
'In Proper Perspective'
Peter Buckland grew up in State College. His father taught English at Penn State for 35 years; now Buckland is a grad student there.
"People have this kind of consciousness that they think they're not supposed to say anything bad about football. You could say, 'Oh, the team isn't doing any good,' or this or that. But you can't criticize the structure of football, the institution of football. It's kind of like making fun of Jesus," Buckland says.
Even Buckland admits, though, that the team's reputation for high academic standards is well deserved. Paterno donated money to the campus library that bears his name. And many students at Penn State still see the football program as a force for good.
Senior Michael El-Saleh is president of the Student Athlete Advisory Board and a member of the men's fencing team.
"As a fencer with a smaller sport, a nonrevenue sport, the majority of a lot of sports on campus, including mine, run solely on the football program. Most people on the campus love football. It's something to be proud of," El-Saleh says.
But there are some on campus who think that love for Penn State football goes too far.
"The central thing for many of the students is football — football culture, tailgating. I think it's out of balance," says Mindy Kornhaber, a professor at Penn State's College of Education. She hopes the current crisis will lead to some soul-searching at Penn State.
"There's a reorientation that could happen as a result of this, where the academic side of this really strong university gets bolstered, and the football side — which isn't inherently bad — takes its proper role and gets in proper perspective," she says.
Kornhaber says the initial signs from the university's interim administration are hopeful. But she says a real debate about the role of football in campus life has yet to begin.
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