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Penn State and the Danger of Sports-Induced Myopia

The idea that Sandusky’s crimes were a creation of college sports suggests that short-sightedness can plague sports haters as much as fanatics.

It has not been a banner week for America’s sports commentators.

Facing a crime of unspeakable proportions executed inside the locker room of a cathedral of college football, the media reacted in all the wrong ways. The first question at the press conference announcing Joe Paterno’s firing concerned who would coach Penn State’s football team in its game against Nebraska. One of ESPN’s early blog posts discussed the impact of the “scandal” on the team’s recruiting efforts. Grantland’s Michael Weinreb, a State College native and Penn State grad, published a mawkish essay about how children being raped on the campus of his alma mater stole his innocence.

Obviously—obviously—the game-day implications of this whole sordid mess pale in comparison to the first-order tragedy, the one in which a culture of secrecy and the worst kind of loyalty protected a monster for decades. Nobody should even have to say that, but we do, because the writers mentioned above have conveniently leapfrogged the central issue. The grand jury testimony unveiled last week, which details how Jerry Sandusky lured children into his orbit and violated them repeatedly, is a horrific read. Anyone who had even an inkling that Sandusky was committing such atrocities and didn’t call the police immediately is a moral coward of the highest magnitude. Erase a legendary football squad from the equation, and there would not be any disagreement on this point.

But take one step past that fundamental, and the sense of unified outrage disappears—particularly when the discussion turns toward the role sports did or did not play in Sandusky’s crime and its cover-up. On one side are the hard-core athletic apologists, who believe that the Jerry Sandusky case was a fluke that could have happened in any organization. On the other are the people who use the Penn State tragedy as evidence that the world would be better off without sports at all, as a handful of people have told me over the past week. Both sides are plagued by a single-mindedness that prevents them from seeing a reasonable path out of these dark days.

The logical parallel to the Penn State case is the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, both because of nature of the alleged crimes and the myopia that allowed them to proliferate. Anybody who has ever cared about something to the point of obsession can see how Paterno justified not reporting Sandusky to the police: It would hurt his players, his staff, his reputation, his town. Maintaining critical distance from the sports team that has become your religion—much less one you’ve coached for nearly five decades—is nearly as difficult as questioning your faith in God. And so, when children are assaulted in a vaulted locker room, witnesses kept the truth within the family. Journalists who have devoted their lives to sports asked first whether the football would go on uninterrupted. Students danced on police vans to protest a man losing his job, not a child being raped.

Still, the idea that Sandusky’s crimes were somehow a creation of college sports suggests that short-sightedness plagues sports haters as much as it does fanatics. Yes, the sports world has grappled with its share of sexual assault accusations—as have schools, hospitals, prisons, churches, nonprofits, and political circles. But there is no indication that we are dealing with a child sexual abuse epidemic that spans the athletic world, and there is no case for indicting the entire industry on that point. Furthermore, there’s no reason to believe that Penn State’s football program could have avoided hiring a child predator—they were duped by a man who made a life out of duping everyone around him.

Allowing Sandusky to remain in Penn State's good graces for so long is another story. But while there is no excuse for Paterno and the others to cover up what they knew—in fact, they allowed the pattern of assaults to continue—I’m not convinced that it’s fair to blame the wider "sports culture” for one coaching staff’s colossally poor judgment, either. Nobody would assume that there exists a monolithic culture governing every business or every political office across the world, so why do some conclude that people paid to play or coach sports are inherently more terrible than other powerful people? Like any subset of society, the sports world reflects the deficiencies—moral and otherwise—of society at large.

And yet it’s not only naïve, but dangerous, to assume we can fully separate Sandusky’s crimes from the atmosphere in which they occurred. Paterno’s desire to protect his guy no matter what crimes were committed were a gross perversion of an all-for-one-and-one-for-all team mentality, and that must be shaken loose anywhere it exists. Paterno was only half-jokingly called the most powerful man in Pennsylvania, and the students who rioted last week were not the only ones who had conflated his power with moral standing.

In the wake of a crime that's so difficult to come to terms with,it’s not surprising that both sports zealots and naysayers are using the Penn State case to support extreme actions. But there must be a third way, a path between eliminating sports entirely and allowing them to continue unchecked. The silver lining in this whole terrible mess is that it points to some very obvious remedies. Policies requiring coaches to report crimes to the police rather than their supervisors are one fix. Independent investigators regularly checking on employees are another.

The cultural problems are tougher to solve, whether in sports or religion. If Penn State was serious about addressing them, the school would have canceled the rest of the season last week. It would have been unfair to the current students, who never played under Sandusky, and to the retailers who depend on football games for their revenue. But it would have sent the message that football is not the most important thing at Penn State for a few months. And it would have allowed the Nittany Lions to take the moral high ground as the only ones for whom a Big 10 championship is not the most pressing issue. If only.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Lee Gillen

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