Honor (in the sense of mere prestige/status/reputation) suffuses the Penn State scandal.

  • It was largely for the honor of Penn State, the football program, and his tenure there that Joe Paterno turned a blind eye to the accusations against Sandusky.
  • Honor probably played at least some role in why administrators sat on their hands as well, since Paterno’s status (not his actual contractually-stated powers) made it a non-trivial matter to reprimand him or diminish the program.
  • The most painful repercussions for Penn State are symbolic assaults on the prestige of the school, the football program, and Paterno. For instance, firing Paterno (rather than letting him retire), removing his statue, erasing over a decade of wins—all these are straightforward cases of various honor groups shaming one of their members. (Imagine how feeble the consequences for Penn State would have been if they were restricted merely to the fines!)

So in this post I want to touch on something being ignored in popular discussions of this scandal. Consider this bit of commentary:

“I think every major college and university needs to do a gut check” on the balance between athletics and academics, Oregon State president Ed Ray said.

This quote represents a popular take on the scandal, that the scandal exemplifies the dangers of allowing a football program to run its institution. But I would like to suggest that the football vs. academics angle is fundamentally irrelevant here.

Universities like Penn State operate in an honor culture, on both their athletic and academic sides. After all, professors are constantly struggling to raise or maintain their professional prestige as individuals. Academic departments compete against like departments at peer institutions, and even other departments on their own campus. University administrators are hired and fired on how well they maintain or increase these rankings, and are constantly rolling out new initiatives aimed at being among the top such-and-such number of universities by such-and-such date.

That is why anyone who has been in academics long enough has heard of similar things to the Penn State scandal, but on a smaller scale. Usually these involve superstar professors getting away with bad behavior (such as sexual harassment, inadequate teaching, etc.), not because of tenure but because of the status they bring their departments.

So as I see it, the problem at Penn State wasn’t one of athletics vs. academics. The problem is that it is very hard for a community necessarily built around a status competition to dishonor a member who brings it lots of glory. As a group, academics are being a little self-righteous in denouncing big college football when the same patterns are manifest enough in prominent academic programs as well.

I don’t know what can be done structurally to counteract this effect of shielding superstars—it really is an empirical question, probably best investigated by behavioral economists savvy to honor. But I don’t see efforts to eradicate the competition for prestige we see in college athletics (and academics) as being a promising way to go.