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
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT