20111107 pennstate
Penn State Nittany Lion fans hoist a flag up in the air during a game against the Southern Mississippi State Golden Eagles at the Beaver Stadium in State College, Penn. - 

Bob Moon: Even if you don't know college football, you've probably heard about Penn State. Today, anyway.

A former assistant football coach is facing charges of sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years. Two officials at the university are charged with failing to report the abuse and lying to a grand jury. And investigators are looking into how the school handled the accusations.

Which could tell us a lot about just how big a business college football has become. From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR, Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: In State College, Penn., football is a very big deal.

Murray Sperber: It's the thing that the town is known for. There is a good university there, but when you say Penn State to the average American, they're going to immediately say football, Joe Paterno, Nittany Lions.

That's Murray Sperber. He teaches classes on sports in education at U.C. Berkeley. Joe Paterno is the legendary coach of the Penn State football team, the Nittany Lions. Sperber says he's known for running a clean program in a scandal-ridden sport. Paterno hasn't been accused of wrongdoing.

Jerry Sandusky, the accused former assistant coach, was once considered Paterno's heir apparent.

Sperber: Something like this really contradicts a lot of the mystique around the program.

Some believe football has become too important to universities, eclipsing other sports. Scott Rosner is with the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn State, football brings in millions of dollars from ticket sales, alumni donations and the Big Ten television contract. But all told, Rosner says athletics makes up maybe 5 percent of the university's revenue.

Scott Rosner: It's a very small slice of the pie. The better way to think about an athletic program is as the front porch of a university. It's the first thing that many people see, hear and associate with a university.

The allegations that emerged over the weekend make that front porch a little less inviting. Berkeley's Murray Sperber says what determines a football program's success is winning or losing. And he says Penn State's having a pretty good year.

I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports