The allegations surrounding Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky are a tragedy that is as heartbreaking as it is shocking. They have brought a dark cloud over the University, its athletic department, and most notably coach Joe Paterno, who has been the face of that institution for over 40 years. The tragedy though, is really twofold. There is the alleged direct harm done by Sandusky, and then there is the inappropriate measures taken by the University and the athletic department once that alleged harm had been reported by then graduate assistant Mike McQueary. The second is separate from the first, and the harm caused by those inappropriate measures is indicative of what can happen when a college does not keep athletics in its proper perspective.
The action taken by University officials in response to McQueary’s report was to take away Sandusky’s key to the locker room shower, effectively preventing him from using it. This suggests that the University was less concerned with what may or may not have occurred in the locker room between Sandusky and this 10-year-old child, but more concerned with having any such actions occurring within Penn State facilities. Considering this was a prominent figure within the athletic department, and a former coach of the football team which is responsible for the national popularity of the school, the recourse taken was a PR move on the part of the University to protect the reputation of its athletic department, and more specifically its football team.
Penn State football and its significance to the University cannot be ignored in a situation like this. Before Joe Paterno, there was no Penn State as we know it today. He had brought so much prestige and recognition to the school through the football program, and rather than risk all of that by being associated with a child abuse scandal, the University did not take the report of McQueary seriously enough. The discrepancy over what actually took place in that shower is irrelevant. Sandusky has said himself that he was in a shower with a 10-year-old boy who was not his own, and that they were “horsing around.” Those facts alone demand a greater response than was taken. Had this been a professor within the history department, it would have been treated differently, but because it involved the Penn State football team, all of a sudden the potential harm that was done to this child became somehow less severe. The message being displayed is that athletics takes precedence over everything else, which is a message we as a society should reject.
Yet, the response of students who took to the streets and rioted in response to Joe Paterno’s firing over this situation reveals just how systemic a problem the over-valuing of athletics has become. Students set fires and turned over a television truck as they expressed their anger at the Board of Trustees for firing their head football coach. I sympathize with the passion that these students have for Joe Paterno. He was a great coach, and in a college football world wrought with scandal, he was a beacon of light in, for instance, his emphasis on his student-athletes actually graduating. However, athletic success and tradition cannot trump allegations of harm as severe as child sexual abuse. It is sad to see these few students rally behind a man who lost his job, rather than support victims who have lost their innocence, and it says even more about the infallible culture surrounding sports that is being created.
Someone said to me, “But they’re just college students getting riled up for the sake of causing havoc. They don’t really mean what they say. They’re just out there because that’s the thing to do.” This statement does nothing to absolve these students of their misguided ethical reasoning. In situations like this, you are responsible for your own views and for the views of the people with whom you associate. Part of growing up is assuming that responsibility and recognizing that your actions carry meaning, and that they portray a message. College is a place where that maturation and higher thinking are meant to occur, which was not the case for the students who took to the streets of Pennsylvania.
As tragic as this situation is, it is really a dark manifestation of a growing epidemic in college sports. Beyond the specifics of the situation, what has been exposed at Penn State is the danger in allowing the desire for athletic success to get out of control. This is not to denounce college sports as inherently evil. Sports play a huge and important and potentially positive part in shaping the culture of a University. As any athlete will tell you, winning is contagious, and a school with a successful sports program helps to foster a culture of excellence and success among its students. It becomes dangerous, however, whenever this success is given too high a priority, and the mantra becomes “Win at all costs.” As conversations about television contracts, huge revenues, and paying college athletes continue, the culture of many institutions in this country is trending in that direction. In light of what has taken place, we must pause and consider the dangerous implications that can have, and do what we can to make sure we do not allow it to happen.