The pedophile upper bound

Lance Fortnow now has a post up about how wonderful Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno were, and how sorry he is to see them go.

For what it’s worth, I take an extremely different view.  I’d be thrilled to see the insane football culture at many American universities—the culture that Spanier and Paterno epitomized—brought down entirely, and some good might yet come of the Penn State tragedy if it helps that happen.  Football should be, as it is at MIT, one of many fine extracurricular activities that are available to interested students (alongside table tennis, glassblowing, robot-building…), rather than a primary reason for a university’s existence.

What’s interesting about the current scandal is precisely that it establishes some finite upper bound on what people will tolerate, and thereby illustrates just what it takes for the public to turn on its football heroes.  Certainly the destruction of academic standards doesn’t suffice (are you kidding?).  More interestingly, sexism, sexual harassment, and “ordinary” rape—offenses that have brought down countless male leaders in other fields—barely even make a dent in public consciousness where football stars are concerned.  With child rape, by contrast, one can actually find a non-negligible fraction of Americans who consider it comparable in gravity to football.  (Though, as the thousands of rioting Penn State students reminded us, that’s far from a universal opinion.)  Many commentators have already made the obvious comparisons to the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal, and the lesson for powerful institutions the world over is indeed a similar one: sure, imprison Galileo; by all means stay silent during the Holocaust; but don’t protect pedophiles—cross that line, and your otherwise all-forgiving constituents might finally turn on you.

I should say that both of my parents are Penn State grads, and they’re both disgusted right now with the culture of hooliganism there—a culture that was present even in the late 60s and early 70s, but that’s become much more dominant since.  To the many of you at Penn State who want a university that’s more than an adjunct to a literally-rapacious football program, you have this blog’s admiration and support as you struggle to reclaim your great institution.  Go for the touchdown—WOOOOO!

47 Responses to “The pedophile upper bound”

  1. antianticamper Says:

    I sympathize with the frustration directed at the overemphasis on football (and spectator sports and entertainment celebrities in the wider culture). But as usual it is easy to overlook unintended consequences. If Penn State football disappeared overnight (and also all the football money) is it obvious that the net impact on scientific education would be positive?

  2. Scott Says:

    antianticamper: As many others have pointed out, after the lawyers get done with the civil settlement, the net impact of the football program on Penn State’s finances might become negative… 😉

  3. Moshe Says:

    Amen to that.

    I’d add to the list of many sins of college sports the exploitation of the players themselves. If you want to have a career in football your only option is to spend a few years as an unpaid apprentice, in an organization which makes many millions of dollars off your labor, and where your chance of significant injury far exceed the small probability you will become a professional in your chosen field. How is that consistent with any kind of labor law (even in the US) mystifies me.

  4. Stas Says:

    Great post, Scott! When I was in grad school in University of Florida, I was totally pissed by the obsession with Gators. For someone who came from a different country, the whole idea that a school kid gets admitted to college to play sports for the school team looks like an American perversion 😉 . Once I was so annoyed by an American classmate who wanted my opinion about a recent loss of Gators to Alabama that I told him I had been rooting for Alabama 🙂 .

    And this doesn’t start in college. As far as I know, the sports obsession in American high schools is even crazier.

  5. Raoul Ohio Says:


    It is not just the US. Most or all places in the world it is common to take an interest in local sports teams. While it is not uncommon for fans to go overboard, most people get some reasonable satisfaction from following one or more teams. It is certainly a primitive instinct to follow the fortunes of your tribe. You see the same behavior with dogs. It is unclear if this goes back to a common ancestor perhaps 1E8 years ago, or is parallel evolution, perhaps promoted by a history of hunting in packs.

    In sports, you get to pick your tribe. For example, anywhere in the world, if you identify with having an unfair advantage, you can be a Yankees or Red Sox fan in baseball. Everyone else enjoys hating them, so it works out for everyone. TV networks love New York vs. Boston baseball playoffs, which get widespread interest because of the certainty that a team you hate will lose!

    Furthermore, there are plenty of smart people, including in the STEM world, who are sports fans. Mathematicians are frequently baseball fans and enjoy researching the archives, where the outcome of every pitch in the 100+ years of pro baseball is recorded. Baseball is very different than other sports, and if usually takes many years to grasp the nuances, so fans tend to be older.


    There are several hundred colleges with football teams in the US. A few dozen make big money. A couple dozen make some money or break even. Hundreds lose some or a lot of money. In total, colleges spend a lot more on football and all sports than they bring in.

  6. Stas Says:

    I’m not against sports in general. In fact, my main hobby in playing competitive chess (I’m an expert with 2041 USCF rating as of now). I was talking about mixing education/academic studies with sports. As Scott said, let it be a hobby for those who like it, but when it overshadows the main purpose of academic institutions (studies), it’s a perversion, and I don’t know if it exists in any other country.

  7. lylebot Says:

    Baseball is very different than other sports, and if usually takes many years to grasp the nuances, so fans tend to be older.

    Right, just like Italians tend to be older because it takes many years to grasp the nuances of living in Italy.

    😉 Really baseball fans tend to be older just because baseball used to be a lot more popular than it is now. New baseball fans are not being made today at the same rate they were 30 years ago, just like new Italians are not being made today at the same rate they were 30 years ago.

    On-topic: how much power does someone like Paterno have to influence the upper bound? Would “ordinary” rape be the upper bound if Paterno didn’t basically dismiss allegations against his players?

  8. PhilM Says:

    As an import to the US of A and a alum of a premier institution in my native country, I found the sports obsession in universities here unfathomable. Wisdom has arrived with the passage of time and I have now understood that sports is just another phenomenon that we absorb with childhood exposure and the need to fit in with the pop culture. FWIW, blind devotion to something we like is universal and passive entertainment is huge.

    I really like that comment about MIT sports culture. But then, MIT also has its own problems with its geek culture – doesn’t it?

  9. Moshe Says:

    Raoul, I agree with you, but the question of profitability is not relevant. Normally one major expense for any organization is payroll, if they are paying their employees a reasonable salary for their services. College sports team are exempt from this basic requirement since the players are classified as “amateurs”, but somehow this doesn’t apply to the coaching staff, the administrators, the TV stations selling commercials, etc. etc.

  10. Bill Says:

    Actually, I’m not sure we’ve found that upper bound—there were riots at Penn State after the announcement of his removal.

  11. ano Says:

    Glad someone said it. The way Americans feel about football — and college football for heaven’s sake! — is insane and impossible for outsiders to understand. Everywhere in the world people like their sports teams, but only in America does college sport overshadow college.

    I’ll just leave two links:
    Stephen Fry visiting college football:
    jehsmith on Superbowl:

  12. Julien Sorel Says:

    Until last week I was a junior at Penn State; today I withdrew from the university. I would rather go through life without a college degree than graduate from such a morally repugnant, utterly disgusting, and intellectually bankrupt institution. Right now I’m so disillusioned with higher education I’m not sure if there’s any school in the country I can attend without losing my mind. Probably I’ll need to go abroad. But in the end, is it any better over there?

  13. Scott Says:

    Julien: As someone who’s every bit as disgusted with the situation as you are, I think you may be overreacting (assuming your story is for real). I have wonderful friends in the CS dept. at Penn State, and my parents had English professors there who they’ve remained friends with 40 years later. I don’t imagine for a nanosecond that everyone at Penn State is a football hooligan—just maybe 40% or so! 🙂

    But if you really don’t like Penn State, try transferring to a different university. The US is a pretty big country, and there certainly exist schools with different priorities (I’m at one of them, but there are plenty of others as well).

  14. John Quilp Says:

    “I’d add to the list of many sins of college sports the exploitation of the players themselves. If you want to have a career in football your only option is to spend a few years as an unpaid apprentice, in an organization which makes many millions of dollars off your labor, and where your chance of significant injury far exceed the small probability you will become a professional in your chosen field. How is that consistent with any kind of labor law (even in the US) mystifies me.”

    Compare football to other careers. Nowhere else is there as short a career progression as pro football. If you want to be an academic, you’ll go through college (all four years, and without being pampered), then five or six years of grad school, then three or four years of postdocs, and then be kicked out. Compare football to medical school. Football is hardly exploitative.

  15. Raoul Ohio Says:

    For those not up to speed about (American style) college football, check out

    This monologue, from 1953 (there does not appear to be any live video), launched the carrier of Andy Griffith. If anyone knows a link to video of AG explaining “MacBeth” to Johnny Carson, please post it. I saw it once on a “best in the history of television” show.


    I disagree about “only in America, …”. Here I assume you mean the USA. For example, in South and Central America, there have been actual wars started over disputed football (soccer) games, within the last few decades. I think this happens in other parts of the world, as well.

    A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was on a taxi near a huge stadium in Columbia, when a mob charged out and started beating pedestrians, turning over cars on the road, etc. He didn’t catch what the issue was. His driver earned a large tip by doing a U-turn on the sidewalk and making good an escape.

  16. Galil Eo Says:

    Very nice provocative post!
    Although I have no idea what you’re talking about (I’m not an American), I was still convinced!!

  17. anonymous Says:

    Careful what you wish for. If people cannot relax their fascist energies with football they might show up in politics…

  18. MattF Says:

    Note, David Brooks, here:

    starts out strong, but then ends up blaming the dirty hippies. Talk about cognitive dissonance and the perils of looking at facts through a haze of preconceptions. I hereby apologize for my previous mild admiration for Brooks.

  19. Zadok Allen Says:

    I don’t get it, Scott. How are you an MIT professor if your parents graduated from Penn State? I thought nobody got to attend (let alone teach at) an Ivy league school unless his or her parents (or some other close relative or sponsor) also attended (and made large donations to the school). So, do you have an explanation for your professorship?

  20. Scott Says:

    Zadok: Well, one possible explanation is that your view of the Ivy League schools is badly wrong! Another possible explanation is that MIT is not an Ivy League school.

  21. Vadim Says:

    Even being a huge football fan, I have to agree with a lot of what Scott wrote, and also with what Moshe wrote regarding the exploitation of players. But I’d like to ask what would happen if youth sports were uncoupled from universities. By uncoupled, I mean what if the big-money sports – football and basketball – were given much smaller roles on campus and weren’t used as farm systems by professional leagues, as they currently are.

    A semi-pro system would have to be created to take their place, because the pro leagues would need a way of developing future players. These semi-pro leagues wouldn’t pay too well; kids would join, probably right out of high school, just for a chance to make the pros later. It would be much like having a full time job, so kids with athletic talent would have to make the choice between sports and a university education. Of the kids that chose sports, most would ultimately not make the pros (just like most college players today never make it to the NBA or NFL). At least with the current system, most athletes do earn college degrees (69% of NCAA football players, on average, graduate. It’s worse at top football schools, but even at the worst – Arizona – it’s still around 50%. Source: Granted, a lot of these kids aren’t Rhodes Scholars and I have no doubt they’re sometimes “helped” through college. But not every athlete hates studying, and even among those that do, I’d still say that their half-assed education is better than no education.

    Sports will remain huge as long as there’s demand for them. It might be that mixing sports and education is just another example of America’s love of brawn over brains. Or it might be that it’s a stroke of genius which recognizes that most kids who dream of going pro will never get there, and they should be given *some* kind of education as a fallback.

  22. Moshe Says:

    Vadim, being a college football player IS a full time job, which is the reason even the brighter ones (the ones more realistic about their career prospects) have hard time getting real education. I had a job in grad school providing help to student athletes, and I spent many hours with many of them, including some that fit that description. Let me just say that in my experience the system does not precisely encourage intellectual stimulation and self improvement (for one thing, the teams have a GPA requirement, those “communication” degrees are there for a reason). Some athletes will get meaningful education, but that is despite the system.

  23. Adam Wolbach Says:

    Moshe/Vadim, re: the institutional exploitation of players, you may appreciate this recent article by civil rights historian Taylor Branch in The Atlantic:

    I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in CS from Carnegie Mellon, and played high school football in Pennsylvania and a season at CMU, so maybe that qualifies me to comment on the above comments. I learned that it’s entirely possible to both study CS and play at an institution like CMU or MIT, and I only stopped because the time commitment interfered with my social life. I’ve always been curious as to whether doing both was also possible at a “BCS” school with a similar CS program like Stanford or Berkeley, due to the increase in time commitment. I googled a little this afternoon and found one guy who pulled it off, a Gustav Rydstedt: But that kind of person certainly seems to be the exception.

    Sidenote for Scott: wonder no longer if a high school student exists who would turn down MIT’s EECS program because the football team was lousy; I did it in 2002 🙂 Among other reasons, of course.

  24. John Sidles Says:

    As a historical aside, the mathematician Harald Bohr and his brother the physicist Niels Bohr both were avid football players (international rules) and indeed Harald Bohr was a silver Olympic medalist in the sport.

  25. Scott Says:

    John Sidles #24: In my opinion, Niels should’ve spent less time playing soccer (excuse me … football) and more time learning how to write clearly! 😀

  26. Moshe Says:

    Thanks Adam, that is really interesting. The situation is quite a bit more depressing than I appreciated (e.g. injured players cannot receive worker’s compensation because, well, their job is not recognized as work). There is a glimmer of hope in the title though: “spate of lawsuits working their way through the courts could destroy the NCAA“. This might be something to cheer for…

    BTW, my comments are most relevant for division I sports. I have no doubt there are schools where it is possible to be a successful student-athlete. Those would more likely be schools where the amount of money changing hands is less astronomical, and which therefore are less dependent on good performance on the field for sustaining this structure.

  27. Raoul Ohio Says:

    More history: Astrophysicist David Schramm was perhaps the leading cosmologist; expert on the big bang, dark matter, inflation, etc. I once asked him if he actually believed inflation happened. He replied he thought it was “at least 50-50”.

    David was an excellent football player and wrestler. I believe he coached the MIT wrestling team while a grad student. He was an expert on beer, a mountain climber, an avid pilot, and about the most interesting person I have ever met. He died in a flying accident.

  28. Mike Says:


    I’m a big sports fan generally. Loved to play, love to watch. Otherwise, I agree with everything you say.

  29. ano Says:

    Raoul: The exact thing I said was “only in America does college sport overshadow college”. And yes I meant the USA, and I still think it happens only in the USA. Football hooliganism, by “passionate” fans of their national team or local club, is world-wide. But the travesty of tolerating (and even expecting) such behaviour in an institute of learning is less widespread.

  30. A Says:

    @#29: I think the current social role of universities in the US is very far from being “institutes of learning”, and has more to do with being a place where part of the transition to adulthood happens. If universities were truly “institutes of learning”, many of the people that read this would be happier, but the universities would be much poorer.

  31. Ron Pavellas Says:

    Sport can be seen as one of “the moral equivalent(s) of war” as William James has argued:

    Question is, should the university be the locus of this “equivalent”?

  32. NAB Says:

    What “culture of hooliganism” in the 60s and 70s are you talking about? Presumably you’re not comparing the anti-war and civil rights protests of that time with students flipping news vans because they’re mad that the football coach was fired for not reporting child rape to the police. So what do you mean by that?

  33. Scott Says:

    NAB: No, I certainly didn’t mean to call hippies hooligans!

    At least according to my parents, in the late 60s and early 70s, the football hooligan culture already existed at Penn State, but it was counterbalanced by the hippie, anti-war protest culture (which my parents were part of). But today, the hippie culture is essentially gone, while the binge-drinking and football hooligan cultures have grown tremendously in importance. And that’s why, when you see student protests today at Penn State, they’re over a very different set of issues than they would’ve been 40 years ago…

  34. Roger Says:

    “What’s interesting about the current scandal is precisely that it establishes some finite upper bound on what people will tolerate, and thereby illustrates just what it takes for the public to turn on its football heroes.”

    I don’t really know anything about football or Penn State, but I’m not sure this is fair. The accused coach Sandusky ran a charity called the Second Mile to help troubled kids, and as much of a malevolent farce as it turned out to be, I’m sure it seemed to be doing just that. Hypothetically speaking, how long would it take for people to accept that the founder of a well-respected charity for kids with cancer is a pedophile?

  35. Douglas Knight Says:

    Raoul, are you sure it was MacBeth and not Romeo & Juliet?

  36. Douglas Knight Says:

    Or how about Thurber’s Macbeth? (though Thurber didn’t appear on Carson, having died the year before)

  37. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Douglas Knight,

    Finding “on stage” versions of both MacB and R&G, I noted that Griffith had a template for rendering Shakespeare into Mayberry-ese.

  38. Vladimir Says:

    “MIT is not an Ivy League school”

    and let’s hope it stays that way. The MIT community is by far the most interesting I’ve met. The atmosphere at MIT is unique and I’ve never been to any other U.S. institution that even vaguely resembles what MIT has. (Including: Harvard, Princeton and all those other fancy shmancy ones).

    So yeah…Go Engineers!

    “But then, MIT also has its own problems with its geek culture – doesn’t it?”

    What problems are these? F.Y.I. MIT students/faculty/staff are the coolest on the block unlike you geeks. 🙂

  39. someone Says:

    A piece of trivia relating to the intersection of football and academic pursuits: at least one person has been (simultaneously!) a mathematician and NFL quarterback:

  40. Raoul Ohio Says:


    I actually met Frank Ryan when I was in junior high school in the early 1960’s. I got my father to take me to an event where he was promoting Mensa. In those days Mensa claimed their entrance exam only passed 1E-5 or maybe 1E-6 of the applicants. I took it at about 15 years old. The hardest problem involved making change in English currency.

    I went to a couple meetings, the only kid there. I was expecting profound stuff, but everyone was just getting drunk. They managed to scrounge up a youth wing about the time I went to college, and I went to the first meeting, and smuggled in a few beers.

  41. Peter Gerdes Says:

    You seem to make an awful big deal about academic standards and the existance of the big football program at colleges but really how are they bad.

    Is anyone really hurt by the fact that a tiny number of students who don’t do well in their studies get to continue to live in dorms with them and attend classes? Hardly, and you could even argue that having some exposure to people below the institutions usual academic standards is helpful.

    You might still suspect that footballers take slots from other more qualified students (though whether this is bad or not depends on why you think education matters) but this isn’t true. Football brings in substantial revenue for big football schools (not only TV contracts but alumni donations). EACH FOOTBALLER IS SUBSIDIZING SEVERAL OTHER STUDENTS WORTH OF RESOURCES.

    I mean surely you wouldn’t object to the existence of a separate pre-pro football league so isn’t it strictly better that said league is attached to schools who have a greater ability to profit from the league (in increased alumni donations)? Isn’t it also better for all but the best of the players that they receive a degree they can fall back on if football fails? Does it hurt students who like to watch their school play football?

    Note I say this as someone who went to caltech which doesn’t even have a football team and who never watches football.

    As far as the child molestation goes no one has railed behind the molestor themselves only people who failed to report it. Yet murder is surely worse than sex with a child and all the time people defend those who choose not to turn in murders. No one even is voicing agreement with the coverup, the question is whether one poorly thought out decision should overwhelm a career.

    Ultimately our social standards seem to have slid far too far toward the vengeful in instances of child-sex rather than the protection of children. Despite repeated compelling evidence that registries increase the risk of recidivism and concern that the huge harms even an accusation much less a conviction cause the perpetrator discourages reporting (99% of the time the perp is known to the victim’s family who are often reluctant to bring down that kind of wrath on someone close so pretend nothing has happened) we don’t hesitate in our demands for more punishment.

    Even the kind of reporting demands that are being used against the Penn state employees aren’t so clear when clearly thought through. Given what an accusation of pedophilia might do to someone’s career and life can you honestly say you wouldn’t sit on a report from a student who said they saw a colleague of yours having sex with a young boy? Even if you thought it was probably just a disgruntled student trying to get back at that colleague? Are we sure the Penn state employees didn’t think this way at first?

    Once you grant that sometimes, say when an accusation seems clearly grounded in animus and desire to get even, you wouldn’t pass on a student’s accusation to police authorities the reporting rules risk harming more than they help. After all even if you later start to suspect the accusation wasn’t mere animus you’ve already committed a crime in not reporting it and could be prosecuted/fired if you do later report the incident. So for all I know the reporting laws may do more to protect pedophiles than to expose them.

    Ultimately it comes down to the fact that we can’t have it both ways. Accusations of child molestation will almost always be pure he-said she-said situations, certainly they usually will be before an intensive investigation. Either the mere accusation is enough to justify serious professional and personal repercussions for the accused or we believe that someone should be treated as innocent until proved guilty. Yet for public figures where even a leak by the police could be a huge blow it’s hard to see how we can believe people are innocent until proved guilty yet demand that people don’t sit on accusations about colleagues until they are convinced.

    It’s a tough issue but we need to abandon our seething emotions and look to empirical studies and analytical arguments for answers.

  42. Peter Gerdes Says:

    antianticamper: As many others have pointed out, after the lawyers get done with the civil settlement, the net impact of the football program on Penn State’s finances might become negative… 😉

    Wait who is suing under what law? The only person who seems to have standing to sue Penn state would be someone Sandusky abused. Even then I’m not at all clear that the law even gives them the right to collect punitive damages against the school as a result of the action of it’s employees (and without punitive damages it’s unlikely to be more than a couple million). While possible it’s highly unlikely they would get a hundred million dollar reward from the school and if not I highly doubt this incident could turn the overall fiscal impact of the football program negative (remember it’s effect on alumni giving!!).

    Besides, there is no reason to believe that football is particularly susceptible to these kinds of problems as opposed to any other highly placed employee. Generalizing from a single incident doesn’t make for a good policy.

    As far as harming the athletes who play college football you can’t have it both ways. If the school is taking advantage of them it must be profiting substantially from their presence. After all we don’t think anyone is harming the kid who chooses to play pee-wee football because he doesn’t get millions of dollars, the only way the athletes could be getting an unfair shake is if the programs were huge net profit centers they weren’t being cut in on. If they only break even then the athlete is hardly being cut out of any profit, only given the chance to do something they want to do for free.

    There is no right to be paid lots of money for playing football. Money we don’t give to football players goes to fund science classrooms. So decide which is more important but college football can’t be bad both for sapping academics and for taking money from football players and shoving it into academics.

  43. coffeemug Says:

    It’s not hard to imagine a more conservative or traditionalist-leaning writer somewhere pining that he or she would be glad to see the cultural elitism, intellectualism, and “godlessness” of an institution like MIT be brought down by the recent story on Yaron Segal, I suppose. I think child abuse is a bit like Godwin’s law in this respect: it’s easy to use it to justify criticisms of institutions you don’t like. Maybe it’s important to admit that if people like over the top football culture, then that’s fine, and it doesn’t intrinsically lead to or foster rapacious behavior, any more than studying photovoltaics apparently does.

    I don’t mean to detract from the ultimate point here. Only to suggest that it’s easy to pick on a football program which, culturally, many see as somehow inferior to nobler intellectual pursuits. Much right now regarding Segal is just speculation, but it will be interesting to see whether any MIT hardware was involved in his illicit actions. And if so, why aren’t those various labs and IT departments just a liable to know what goes on within their network as a football infrastructure is to know what goes on, with certainty, within its community?

    I think, obviously pending what will be learned about the extent of Segal’s actions, that any attempts to say that a football institution is somehow more at fault than the relevant MIT labs in this case is just an exercise in rationalizing one’s dislike for football institutions.

  44. Commenter Says:

    Isn’t there a big difference here? At Penn State people knew, or at least suspected, that he was a pedophile yet did nothing. On the other hand, there is no evidence that MIT participated in a cover-up.

  45. coffeemug Says:

    I tried to be clear that things with Segal are only speculative. It could very easily be the case that no entity at MIT had any connection whatsoever to what he did. I’m not sure I agree that much with the idea that it was a “cover up” at Penn State, more than a situation where people lower on the food chain felt like “I have a high pressure job where they will crucify me if I act on bad data and I am wrong, and they have told me that my job is to handle this in a specific manner, so all things considered I feel like that’s what I have to do.”

    My larger point was that people will always rush to blame an institution if they don’t like it. Football doesn’t cause cover ups. Bad people cause cover ups and there might be a correlation between bad people and people who want to get wealthy through college sports management. Why rail against the institution when there’s not a causal link.

    Let me be really really clear that I do not think anyone should rail against MIT over this Segal thing. I’m just saying that some people inevitably will, and that in perspective, I think the same thing continues to be true about Penn St.

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