Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Speaking of déjà vu, consider the devastating Penn State findings reported by former FBI Director Louis Freeh and the scandal that rocked the Catholic Church.  Both involved child abuse perpetrated by  trusted authority figures and both a massive cover-up justified in the name of institutional protection.  Not inconsequentially, each was also a product of a buddy system, the kind of protecting one’s own so often associated with corrupt police departments.  To be sure, Penn State’s scandal is far more contained focusing mostly on two men, the legendary late coach Joe Paterno and his sidekick, the now convicted Jerry Sandusky.

Paterno appears to have been more concerned with protecting his own legend than protecting the youngsters whom Sandusky abused.  University officials, now fired, were likewise more interested in protecting their beloved athletic program than in performing their fiduciary responsibilities.  But the real long-term story here transcends the despicable behavior of those involved.  It shines a light on a larger question, which is whether athletic programs  — particularly competitive sports like football and basketball — have taken on a disproportionate centrality in many of our greatest institutions of higher learning.

Coaches and players in contrast to professors and non-playing students live on the same campus in parallel and at times grossly unequal universes.  Looking at how the members of the first are compensated in salary and scholarships compared with the second, one might conclude that a university’s primary job is to play and win games rather than to educate or advance scholarship and learning.  There is something totally out of kilter in that picture.  Not so surprisingly, these parallel universes, along with a dislocated sense of values, reflect the current state of American society.  It has rightly become a primary issue in the presidential campaign.

I doubt Joe Paterno ever questioned why his own salary and his own program was funded so richly compared to the humanities and social sciences at Penn State.  The same holds true for similar level coaches at other schools, for example those who lead the rivaling basketball teams of Duke and UNC here in North Carolina’s Triangle.   The financial crisis brought Duke faculty a two-year pay freeze and meaningful salary cuts for their UNC counterparts.  I doubt commensurate burdens were born by coaches Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K, ($5 Million) and Roy Williams ($2 Million).  Full disclosure, I am not a sports enthusiast or fan, but that’s not the point being made here.  The fact is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current compensation imbalance in the land whether at our universities (where president pay has also skyrocketed) or in the larger community were the fabled 1%, at least those still in the workforce, receive compensations that can only be described as obscenely out of touch with reality.  How does one justify CEO’s earning 209.4 times that of the average worker?  What year’s work can possibly merit the $131 Million compensation of McKesson’s John Hammergren?   You likely have never heard of him nor do I remember Mr. Hammergren having discovered a cure for cancer, not that a scientist credited with that game-changing breakthrough could even dream of such a payday.

The thing about Joe Paterno, the leadership at Penn State and the hierarchy of the Roman church is not so much that they were protecting their institutions (or self interest), but that they seemed so clueless about how it fit into the normal scheme of things.  It isn’t only that they possessed some sense of misguided entitlement, but that in some profound way they didn’t seem to understand the destructive implications of what they were doing nor how out of touch they are with most ordinary people.  So Mitt Romney doesn’t understand why his income, or specifically his off-shore accounts and tax avoidance, should be relevant to his run for the presidency.  It isn’t that he apparently eats an ice cream cone with a spoon, but that he is clueless as to how curious doing so is.  It’s like George Bush senior being befuddled by a checkout scanner or unaware of the price people were paying for something as basic as a quart of milk.

The Romney kind of folk live in a different universe, one in which quadrupling the size of your already $12 million dollar beach house in the midst of a deep recession — and while running for president — doesn’t seem in bad taste.  By the way, Democrat John Edwards was similarly clueless in presenting himself as a populist while building the most expensive house in the State of North Carolina.  In contrast, George W. Bush, whatever his failings maybe and whose fortune pales in comparison to Romney’s, tried to downplay his wealth.  Misleading as that might have been, it no doubt helped him win votes.  Romney is outraged that the President should question what was afoot during his Bain Capital stewardship.  He clearly considers more than the most minimal disclosure of his finances to be an invasion of privacy.  The candidate seems not to understand that people seeking the presidency give up the right to any such privacy.  When I give a man often unchecked power over my life, I want to know who he is and how he has conducted himself when no one was looking over his shoulder.

Penn State (and by association other universities and athletic programs) has lost some significant luster for what it did and also because its leaders were tone deaf.  The Catholic Church has seen its moral authority undermined for the very same reasons.  Mitt Romney is likely to limp into his convention a somewhat wounded candidate, one who also can’t seem to muster the thinnest thread for emotional connection with his supporters.  More than anything else, his past success and how he accumulated his fortune may cost him the White House.  Thanks to the Occupy movement, parallel universes are finally getting the attention they deserve.  While the inhabitants of one are busy talking to themselves and each other, the inhabitants of the other will be going to the polls — 99 to 1 still makes for a compelling majority.  Perhaps all is not lost.

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