Saturday, July 28, 2012

Early Indications July 2012: The Media Beast

Those of you who have read this newsletter for a while know that it
has, nominally anyway, a technology focus. While the current number
may not feel like it delivers a tech message, that is in fact where
the argument is heading.

The recent events at Penn State raise a broad range of questions, from
"how can humans be so evil?" to "what were those men thinking?" to
"who was the client for Louis Freeh's report?" to "what was the NCAA's
agenda in the sanctions?"  Many of these questions remain extremely
loaded with emotional and legal baggage, and I will tread lightly
around them, speaking only as a private citizen and not in any
University capacity.

My purpose is somewhat more macroscopic. Think back to some sports
heroes of the 1990s. All of these individuals have, to some extent,
been disgraced and fallen from their pedestals.

In alphabetical order,

Barry Bonds
Michael Irvin
Allen Iverson
Marion Jones
Bob Knight
Mark McGwire
Joe Paterno
Rick Pitino
Tiger Woods

Lance Armstrong could well be next.

Each of these individuals boasts a Hall of Fame resume. Each at some
point transcended his or her sport, becoming an icon in some larger
arena. But each at some point, having been made larger than life, fell
hard from the extra-human heights to which he or she had ascended.
Without mass media, I will argue, these individuals could not have
soared to such cultural visibility, but many people's cognitive and
emotional apparatus may not be well suited for life at such a scale,
setting the stage for subsequent disappointment.

Accordingly, I'd like to explore the role of technology in this
process of creating and then questioning heroes, using the Penn State
experience as an example close at hand. My proximity to the story is
recent: I moved here in late 2005 from Boston. The Paterno statue had
already been erected four years earlier, but I immediately noticed
that State College felt different. My grad work was done at Michigan,
home of the winningest college football program in history, both by
wins and winning percentage. My undergrad years were spent at Duke,
though Coach K mania can hardly be said to have hit in that era: while
his first three years' record was 38 wins and 47 losses, home
basketball games at Cameron had already became one of the great
experiences in all of sports. So I came from academic institutions
where sports Mattered.

While geography is certainly a factor (State College, for those who
haven't visited, is said to be equally inaccessible from everywhere),
part of the State College difference is architectural. The football
stadium, which is enormous, has a presence beyond mere mass: Michigan
Stadium, the "Big House," seated more people when I was there in the
1980s, but it's a giant hole in the ground. Driving by it in Ann
Arbor, there was little in the pre-skybox days to announce its
vastness, so walking inside was a wonderful experience to grasp the
scale from the top row of seats. (At graduation, we got to walk out
onto the field level through the tunnel the players used, though there
was no M Go Blue banner to leap up and touch.) Beaver Stadium, by
contrast, is all above ground. Given that it was added to in sections
as Coach Paterno's success generated interest, it looks like an ad-hoc
spaceship, with spindly underpinnings and bolted-on exterior ramps and
walkways. (Here's a view that shows that tendency) Contrast the
Rose Bowl, or even the Horseshoe at the state university to the west,
and unlike Beaver Stadium, they were designed from their origins to be

The last of the renovations was completed in 2001, when seating
capacity, which had doubled in stages from 46,000 in 1960 to 95,000 in
1991, was increased to 107,000. The move seemed justified as the 1990s
were heady days for the program. Penn State joined the Big 10
conference in 1993, and immediately delivered strong results,
including three top-10 national rankings in seven years, top-20
rankings every year, and an undefeated season in 1994. The statistical
rankings become relevant in a moment.

1993   10-2

1994   12-0  (#70 in total defense; #1 in scoring offense (48
points/game); #1 total offense)

1995   9-3  (#50 in total defense)

1996   11-2 (#41 in total defense)

1997   9-3   (#86 in total defense)

1998   9-3   (#12 in total defense)

1999   10-3  (#27 in total defense)

2001, when the current stadium was completed, was also the year when
the statue of Paterno was installed, and a year when success was hard
to come by. Before the wins were vacated by the NCAA, here was the

2000   5-7   (#55 in total defense)

2001   5-6   (#98 in total defense)

2002   9-4   (#27 in total defense)

2003   3-9   (#49 in total defense)

2004   4-7   (#10 in total defense)

So consider the context for the 2001 decision to cover up the Sandusky
abuse, which is what is alleged to have happened:

-The football team was in the midst of a run that would get most major
college coaches fired: only one bowl game (a loss) in five years.

-The Paterno years had been remarkably consistent until that time. The
program was the 6th most winning program of the 1970s, the 1980s, and
the 1990s. Only Nebraska could join Penn State in the top 6 all three
decades: Oklahoma did it twice, while Alabama, Florida, Florida State,
Miami, and Michigan did it once apiece. LSU, Ohio State, Texas, and
USC did not make the top 6 in any of the three decades.

-The losing streak coincided with the retirement of Sandusky, a
respected defensive coordinator, though the statistically best
defenses did not always translate to winning seasons. Penn State's
reputation as "Linebacker U" derives from Sandusky (and continues
under Ron Vanderlinden, who has roughly a half-dozen linebackers/pass
rushers currently in the NFL).

-Penn State basketball has rarely made Big 10 hoops royalty very
nervous. Since 1983, the program's conference record is .317. Thus
football must generate sufficient revenue to support many non-revenue
sports, several of which -- wrestling, and men's and women's
volleyball -- win national championships.

Looking back, the turn of the millennium seems to have seen a changing
of the guard. Paterno turned 75 at the end of the 2001 season. The
game, and his university, had changed dramatically over his career.
To take the latter first, Penn State's average SAT scores went up a
relatively modest 67 points between 1966 and 2006 (LSU's dropped 110;
Virginia's increased 141). I cannot find a list of federal research
expenditures by university from 1970, but Penn State has risen to rank
in the top 15 in total research dollars received. Like the University
of Washington, the Penn State undergrad ranking is not selective (tied
with UW at 184), but both schools are top-tier research universities,
standing in the top 20 institutions in PhDs granted and other key
measures. Like Duke, Arizona State, and other institutions, Penn
State's academic reputation has risen considerably over the years
during which Paterno was coaching. He claimed, plausibly, that he had
raised $1 billion for the university, money that had helped academics
gain in stature.

How did football change in the Paterno era? In 1966, his first year,
ABC was the only network to broadcast regular-season college football
games. With a Supreme Court decision in 1984 ruling that the NCAA
television plan violated anti-trust law (the University of Oklahoma
and the University of Georgia were the lead plaintiffs), the number of
televised games spiked from 89 to roughly 200 in just one year. Rights
to college football became truly big business: the Longhorn Network
joint venture at the University of Texas is potentially a $1 billion
enterprise over 20 years, and the deal contributed to the near-demise
of the Big XII conference of which Texas is a member.

ESPN, which began broadcasting in 1979 when only about 20% of US
households had cable, seized on college football after the Supreme
Court decision with a 48-game package in 1984. As the 1958 NFL
championship game proved, television and football are a potent
combination, and ESPN's rise is intertwined with that of college
football. College GameDay began broadcasting in 1987, but became a
major part of campus life in 1993 when it went to its current live
remote packaging. (ESPN was originally an investment of Getty Oil and
. . . Nabisco, which later sold its stake to Hearst, which still holds
it: Disney only acquired 80% of ESPN in the Cap Cities/ABC acquisition
in 1996.)

Other aspects of the game changed over Paterno's career. Modern
athletic departments can be $100 million operations, with commensurate
losses when times are bad. The athletic directors prepared for
business at that scale are rare; in Paterno's era, many football
coaches (including Joe himself) were ADs either during or after their
coaching career. University of Florida president Bernie Machen has
said the ESPN money means that athletic departments become
semi-autonomous entities outside university control. Thursday night
football games, for example, often result in class cancellations and
other academic accommodations to the networks. Television exposure, in
turn, generates student applications for admission: Duke's increase in
selectivity coincides closely with the Coach K era.

Coaches can become millionaires. While it is said that John Wooden,
probably the greatest college coach in American history, never made
more than $35,000 in salary, today the head football coach at Wyoming
earns $1,000,000 in a complex package, not counting a car and cell
phone. The head man at University of South Florida pulls in $2 million
a year. Life at the top of the ranks is a $5 million/year proposition.
That's a lot of money for a coach to lose if the program goes south.

So cable sports television was one major change in sports life. What
does that have to do with the list of disgraced figures with which we
began? The pressure of 24-hour media takes a toll. For all the sports
figures in the limelight who stumbled, there are entertainers who
responded even more tragically: Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston, Elvis
Presley, Michael Jackson. In sports, the pressure to win, and then win
AGAIN, can become enormous. The urge to cheat is one temptation (as at
the University of Connecticut under Jim Calhoun, currently banned from
the NCAA basketball tournament), as is steroid and related drug use.
But the human cost of life in the mass media spotlight is complex:
even Duke's Coach K, he of the military discipline, solid family, and
ideal circumstances, had to reset his life in 1995 when his wife
staged a full-scale intervention amidst his physical and emotional

The pressures are both subtle and obvious. Coach Charlie Weis at New
England and later Notre Dame and Kansas has a serious weight issue for
which he had gastric bypass surgery; Rex Ryan of the New York Jets had
similar surgery to help lose more than 100 pounds off a high of about
350. Urban Meyer at Florida found himself reacting to the stress
differently, 35 years Paterno's junior and even more recently
successful and therefore powerful (two national championships in his
first four years in Gainesville). Meyer reported feeling physical
symptoms of stress and exhaustion, and quit then unquit coaching. The
age of the Internet, however, created an alternate news channel where
rumors spread that Meyer had followed the Bobby Petrino/Rick
Pitino/Tiger Woods road of temptation, with a UF student. That's
another way the game has changed: 24-hour/52-week news coverage, talk
radio where spleneticism equals ratings, and message boards where
fandom has no fact check.

Technology will always shape sport. As I write, NBC is refusing to air
live coverage of the Olympic games so Twitter is providing a rough
facsimile of the pomp and pageantry that I will later refuse to watch
in prime time. Fan interest in statistics is growing annually, to the
point where the NBA just signed a deal to use SAP's powerful HANA
analytics tool to power a basketball stats website. Cellphone cameras
can document any moment, as Michael Phelps discovered the hard way
after the 2008 games as he relaxed with some weed. The interplay
between athletic drama, success, power, and personal identity has
grown more complex with television and later the web, mobility, and
social media.

When Joe Paterno rebuffed his president's "suggestion" to retire after
the losses mounted in 2004, he proved he effectively reported to no
one but himself.  Paterno helped build Penn State to what it is today,
and televised football both helped create the Paterno mystique and the
events that dismantled it: Paterno's weak replies in 2008 to an ESPN reporter asking about his players' formidable arrest record, vividly contrasting with the "Grand Experiment" rhetoric he helped propagate, are some of the defining moments of the last decade of his long
career.  Paterno famously eschewed cell phones, e-mail, and text messages. At the same time, he championed video replay of officiating calls, and vigorously supported
the Penn State libraries, home to a multitude of electronic databases
and other learning tools. Once again, technology was a two-sided coin.

The power of broadcast media to aggregate enormous audiences, and the
simultaneous need of the technology for drama sufficient to the stage,
creates the possibility of truly super-human figures. When mere humans
feel small compared to their projected selves, bad things can often
happen. Other times, when people feel their media image has changed
their off-the-field life so rules don't apply, we can get the sexual
assault ugliness of Kobe Bryant, Ben Rothlisberger, and others.
Either way, aligning human existence with life in the athletic
spotlight (and cellphone lens, and Twitter stream, and Facebook
profile) has never been more challenging.