The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things—bread and circuses.
—Juvenal, Satires

Except that instead of circuses we call them football games—a term linked indissolubly with the mess at Penn State: NCAA fines and penalties, disappearing statues of head coaches and all the rest.

“We’ve had enough,” said Oregon State University President Ed Ray, affirming the virility of the NCAA penalty meted out to Penn State for ignoring ex-coach Jerry Sandusky’s record of child abuse, a record too well known by now to warrant rehashing.

The glory and majesty of Penn State’s football program had come, seemingly, to outrank common human decencies, such as justice to the victims of Sandusky’s perversions. So it came to what it came to—catastrophe for Joe Paterno and Penn State football.

Paterno, who was said to read and quote the classics, doubtless knew Juvenal’s famous swipe at the moral deterioration of first- and second-century Rome, evidenced by the Roman people’s unprepossessing fixations. They wanted free bread and high-quality entertainment.

College football anyone? The semi-professionalization of the stadium rituals once practiced on Saturday afternoons for students and loyal alumni is among the major features of modern life. The Irish, the Tide, the Longhorns, the Nittany Lions and such like no longer pertain just, or chiefly, to the campus environment. Thanks to fat television contracts and relentless promotion by the schools themselves, college football is big-time entertainment, just one step lower than the Giants and the Packers, the Cowboys and the Steelers. Winning teams bring renown to their schools. Renown means money. Money means more money, in the form of endowments, buildings, mega-stadiums, bigger salaries and bigger contracts than ever before. Wow.

No one with head screwed firmly in place will deny that college football has for decades fostered romance of an appealing character. “Do or die for Old Siwash!” “Win one for the Gipper!” “You gotta be a football hero to get along with the beautiful girls…!” Here’s one for the family album: Mr. and Mrs. W. P. Murchison, having committed holy matrimony on a bright October morning in 1940, drove 100 miles in their Ford coupe to attend the Rice-Texas game. First things first.

Yes, we’ve all had the college football bug bite us at one time or another. There was a kind of sweetness to it years ago; a becoming naivete, belonging to the age when “coeds” wore heels to the game, and their dates donned coat and tie.

No more. Once college football turned into big business, with product tie-ins and national broadcasts, not to mention million-dollar packages for successful coaches, we got really, truly serious about winning. Joe Paterno and other winning coaches found themselves on the road to divinization—no healthy estate for mortals. Gods can do no wrong. They need merely win games. Then more games and more, until, in classical fashion, the roof crashes and the statues disappear.

Said the president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, announcing the penalties against Penn State: “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people.” About which we’ll have to wait and see: cognizant, perhaps, that coaches and colleges are hardly alone in demanding and rewarding victories. Would those who cut moral corners do so without public encouragement or at the very least acquiescence? What about the people noted by Juvenal—the kind who “once bestowed commands” and so on—bored, apparently, by all that and looking, for the most part, now to stuff their stomachs, eyeballs and minds?

The Rome-America comparisons, familiar for decades, can be and have been overdone. They serve a certain purpose, even so—that of inviting reflection on the consequences of slobbish, not to mention downright immoral, behavior.

Suppress your ideals, if any; put “winning” above all other goals, including the formation of student character and the transmission of ancient wisdom: You, too, can run a big-time college football program.