Skip to main content

Was Sandusky protected by football culture?

By Jay Jennings, Special to CNN
June 19, 2012 -- Updated 1913 GMT (0313 HKT)
We tend to grant moral authority to college coaches like Jerry Sandusky, says Jay Jennings.
We tend to grant moral authority to college coaches like Jerry Sandusky, says Jay Jennings.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Jennings: Jerry Sandusky was coddled by the culture of college football
  • Jennings: Big-time college sports feed us fantasy that coaches are moral leaders
  • He says winning games gives coaches a cloak of invincibility
  • Jennings: Sandusky escaped scrutiny because we put him on a pedestal

Editor's note: Jay Jennings is the author of "Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City" (Rodale).

(CNN) -- A few days ago, a sportswriter friend of mine posted on his Facebook page a picture of a child-sized athletic T-shirt with the words "Destined to Be Drafted" printed on front. He commented, "Just in case anybody thought youth sports culture ISN'T getting outta hand."

Sandusky's child sex abuse allegations: In his own words

On the same day, my home state Arkansas Razorbacks, recently scandalized by the professional and personal improprieties of former football coach Bobby Petrino, introduced their new uniforms with a 1,300-word press release complete with a quote from a freshman player saying, "I like to look good, so when I was being recruited the uniforms definitely had something to do with my interest in a school."

What does any of this have to do with the abhorrent actions of which Jerry Sandusky is accused?

Jay Jennings
Jay Jennings

Sandusky is one individual being tried for very specific crimes, sexually abusing young boys. But in the midst of this scandal, it's hard to not also indict the culture that coddled him.

College football is one of our national obsessions. We get so wrapped up with the thrills of the games. What we overlook is that like any big-time college sport, it perpetuates the fantasy, which the fans and media readily buy into, that its players are still kids and its coaches are moral leaders.

In other organizations or institutions that have dealt with horrible scandals of sexual abuse -- like the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church -- their leaders actually have some claims to moral and civic authority.

But why have we granted moral authority to college coaches?

It's partly because we all idolize winners. Winning games gives coaches a cloak of invincibility. They are considered "first citizens," as ancient Rome called its emperors, rather than citizens first. They seem immune to the rules that apply to the rest of us. It's easy to think they can do no harm. For that reason, we excuse them when they throw tantrums, which we interpret as being "passionate." In any other profession, those tantrums would result in being fired.

Sandusky trial: Week 1 complete
Mesereau: Sandusky will likely testify
Mother of Sandusky accuser testifies
Sandusky's personality disorder defense

Where the head football coach is the highest paid state employee, it's no wonder that a sense of proportion has gone out the window. In Arkansas, for example, six of the top 10 salaried state employees are in the state university's athletic department.

Under this culture of adulation, someone like Sandusky is more likely to get a pass for questionable behavior. No one could have conceived of him as being anything other than an upright molder of men, even if there were signs to the contrary. Those who come into contact with him are more likely to look the other way than to scrutinize anything unusual.

Opinion: In Sandusky trial, a second act for McQueary?

At the same time that we elevate the coaches to a pedestal, we infantilize the college athletes. Whenever I hear announcers refer to "these kids" on a team -- while in the context of a police report or a voting booth or a battlefield death, an 18-year-old would be a "man" -- I have to shake my head. To the athletic programs, they are essentially low-wage workers with high school degrees in a big business. The sooner we abandon the pretension that all players are student athletes and that coaches are role models for men, the sooner we can regain a sense of reality.

That said, there's plenty of room for athletes to be students and vice versa. There also are many good coaches out there who would make strong mentors to kids of all ages.

But let's not pretend that coaches are on a higher moral ground just because they are heading a winning team. If we see coaches as real people rather than heroes, then we can regain a healthy dose of skepticism.

Maybe then toddler T-shirt messages will go back to being appropriate for the age and a college sports team's uniform won't matter as much.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

'Sandusky 8' describe seduction, betrayal

Jerry Sandusky trial: All you need to know

Sandusky case drawing to a rapid close

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jay Jennings.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT