11/12/2011 01:24 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2012

The Missed Call


For a quarter of a century I have kept the same seats in the Big House. I don the maize and blue, sing along with the faithful and even drink the Kool-Aid colored schnapps -- everything but the tattoo. I love college football -- the competition, pageantry and even the misplaced bravado that rumbles up to the big-top of the true blue autumn sky. Yes football is militaristic and decidedly capitalistic but in the past few years it's become surrealistic.

Hundreds of young men have opted to be early draft choices of the penitentiary league, championship teams routinely graduate less than half of their eligible seniors and obvious violations of the "rules" are debated in sports bars in working class neighborhoods but settled in the rarified courtroom air by a stalwart defense team of NCAA lawyers who couldn't quite make the cut at the white shoe firms on Fifth Avenue. While the letter of the law was being enforced the spirit of the game became a galloping ghost. Low expectations are easy to rationalize when your benchmark is the pro league -- the NFL where every type of capital crime and sordid conduct has moved that brand from the sports page to the front page. So up to now at least there was some solace in the knowledge that things could be worse. That is, up to now.

Sure Joe Paterno is the winningest coach in college football history. Sure he has collected a few national titles along the way. Sure he has developed a dozen or so Hall of Fame players. But that's not what makes this whole wretched ordeal so devastating to the game. Joe Pa is your first boss who saw the talent in you and got you on your way or that helpful grandparent who supported you through your college years or the friendly grocer down the street who always had a kind and wise word in your times of trouble. He has been the archetype of what is right in this most brutal of games.

At Penn State he has run one of the cleanest programs in the country. His graduation numbers are the envy of coaches everywhere. He has given millions to the University and charitable causes. At eighty-four he is the oldest man to ever coach in Division One Football which has made him the hero of the AARP set. He has built the Nittany Lions into one of the precious few college football programs that makes good on the promise of the student-athlete -- not the other way around. His legacy has been great players, great academics and great fans. Sadly, that will now change.

The lurid details will continue to bubble up from the depths of depravity and undoubtedly serious questions will need to be answered. Where were the janitors, grounds crew and drivers that stage a big time program? Where were the starry eyed coordinators and counselors that manage the kids on campus? Where were the red flags -- the notes, the texts, the tears? Where was Joe? That's what makes this whole ordeal so difficult to square up.

But what is the story here? Maybe it's about the fall of the hero -- that most damning of revelations that they weren't really heroes in the first place. Or perhaps it's just another morality play -- the old integrity and judgment blinded by power and ambition thing. Betrayal may be the theme of this tale -- something about how we can never know the dark hearts of men. Failure of command is a popular motif these days -- an expose on how superior after superior shrunk from their appointed duties. In any case this is surely a tragedy -- victims everywhere -- particularly the young boys.

What if there is no neat list of things to do? More governance? It didn't work at Penn State. The cover-up went all the way to the top like Watergate. More rules? The NCAA is so busy rationalizing trivial legalities it scarcely has time to notice that the game they are supposed to govern is effectively lawless. Drop the sport altogether? College presidents are not keen to lose the reported one billion dollars in profits the football programs provide during these hard times. Besides, football funds almost all other collegiate sports -- both men and women. Boycott the game? There's a thought. Who knows what America would be doing instead with their Saturdays -- chariot racing could make a big comeback.

The oblong ball makes this game unpredictable -- the odd bounce and the lame duck spiral often bring unforeseen challenges and opportunities. Victory is not just about what a team does but rather what it doesn't do -- turnovers and self inflicted penalties at inopportune times. Similarly, we are all responsible, even culpable, not only for the things we do but also the things we fail to do. In the age of the instant replay, we can go back and correct everything except for the penalties. Those must be flagged on the field and off as they occur. Now college football is being held accountable for its missed calls. Sadly, that's what most people will now remember about Joe Pa -- especially the abused children.

Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at or follow his blog on innovation at