Nov 102011

You’ve heard about the Sandusky affair, I presume.

A man, Jerry Sandusky, who used to be a high-ranking coach of the Pennsylvania State University football team, used a charity organization he founded to gain access to young boys whom he molested. One of these acts was witnessed in 2002 by a coaching assistant named Mike McQueary, who did not stop the act but reported it to head coach Joe Paterno, who did also did not stop Sandusky, but referred the assistant to administrators, who did not report Sandusky to the police but did forbid him from bringing young boys onto campus. Nine years later somebody actually arrested Sandusky, all this came out, and Joe Paterno was fired from the job he’d held for more than 40 years within a few days. Penn State students rioted in protest of the decision.

Think about that. In a world endangered by anthropogenic climate change, where the gulf between the rich and poor is widening even as the human population expands beyond the point where the world can support it, a bunch of entitled teens rioted because a football coach got fired for enabling a child molester.

College sports is out of control in this country. The coaches of the big revenue sports basketball and football are often paid more than the university Presidents who are nominally their bosses. Enormous sums of cash exchange hands on the backs of students who earn none of it. This, at least, is true of the programs that make money. Smaller schools, with weaker programs, bleed money trying to keep up with the big boys. Donors, who in a better world might give their money for more labs, more libraries, more community outreach programs, funnel their dollars into prime facilities that only benefit the scholarship athletes, and vast arenas that serve no pedagogical function whatsoever.

Nobody is happier to tell you how out of hand it is than the people of ESPN, where this evening you could hear Jim Plaschke, Tim Cowlishaw, Bomani Jones, and Kevin Blackistone railing about the loss of perspective on the shout-show Around the Horn. Nor should we ignore the sea of voices from the website of Sports Illustrated, or from the constellation of lesser cable channels, websites, and magazines. Like the Miami corruption case earlier in the year, the Sandusky affair has provided plenty of grist to churn between the millstones of the sports entertainment industry, driving countless page views and filling the many minutes between beer advertisements.

I have yet to see one of them ask whether he is at fault for all of this.

For have no doubt about it, while Joe Paterno’s mistake helped Sandusky escape once, what really enabled the man was football. Football gave him the opportunity to start the charity he would eventually use as a seraglio. Football, and the myth of the hero coach, convinced young mothers to let him “mentor” their sons, with disastrous results. Football opened those doors, and Jerry Sandusky walked in. And who gave college football that power?

The defense of the sports commentariat will be that they are only filling a demand. People want to hear about sports. They want analysis. They want total access. I would say in reply that the system feeds itself. ESPN creates the demand for sports news by hyping the contests, manipulating the storylines, and creating the perception that there’s always more to know. ESPN normalizes the excessive attention lavished on sports, as it must, because unless people pay more attention to sports than they ought, ESPN couldn’t exist.

Jerry Sandusky is an evil man. Joe Paterno did not do enough to stop him and deserved to be fired. So too does McQueary. College sports is out of control. I disagree with none of this. It would be nice, though, to hear men who are well-compensated to shout at each other about sports take a moment to ask whether they and their employer are part of the reason things got to be this way.

  One Response to “J’accuse”

  1. Spot on. The kind of hero worship and high stakes that college sports has institutionalized makes the system highly refractory to criticism, honest debate and punitive action. Wait, that’s the Catholic Church. Oh well.

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