Sunday, November 13, 2011

College football--a tarnished institution

I’m reviving The Fritz Blitz this week. I had planned on reviving my general news blog, Fritzburgh An’at, but the most important story of the past week is also a sports story.

So much has been said about the child sexual abuse scandal* at Penn State that it seems that there’s nothing new to add—at least until more victims come forward. Pedophiles aren’t known for stopping in the single digits.

The scandal is not just sports news—it’s world news. Everybody seems to have an opinion on it—even people who could care less about football.

The reactions will be predictable. Colleges will tighten their regulations about reporting sexual abuse, as they should. But the scandal has everybody asking—how did this happen? How was Jerry Sandusky able to rape children for years while losing nothing but the keys to a locker room?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember, with all the prestige that comes with their positions, that college football coaches are, or are supposed to be, teachers. They are considered professors in their respective physical education departments, and many of them teach classes.

Suppose a professor of English or biology—or even a coach of a less popular sport than football—had been caught raping a child in a classroom at Penn State. Would it have gone unreported to the police for nine years? I doubt it.

What makes the difference? The stakes are much higher in the world of college football than they are elsewhere on campus.

At the elite schools, college football is a multi-million dollar industry and the people involved in it have an enormous amount to lose if things go wrong. Many head coaches make seven-figure salaries and rank among the most powerful people on campus. When Penn State is mentioned, many people—before the scandal, and, no doubt, for many years to come—will think of Joe Paterno. And as such, the Penn State scandal has given a black eye to the university as a whole, even though only a small percentage of its students are directly connected to the football program. To many people, Penn State has become “that college where…” For comparison, when I was growing up in Ohio in the ‘70s, “that college where…” was Kent State.

So you have a powerful organization whose goal is to win on and off the field—where a few individuals are revered and even considered infallible as long as they keep winning—and where nobody wants to rock the boat, lest they lose their jobs or kill the cash cow. It adds up to the perfect place for someone to commit one of the most heinous crimes and fly under the radar for years.

I wonder what other scandals are going on at other big-name football programs. We know about the recruiting violations, unscrupulous boosters, and players who trade their jerseys for tattoos that come to light from time to time—but those are mere violations of NCAA rules, not disgusting crimes that shock the conscience.

How many other Jerry Sanduskys are out there hiding behind the power and prestige of an elite college football program because nobody wants to speak out and tarnish the program’s reputation?

Maybe it’s time that college football took a good look at itself. Has it become too big and too dependent on winning and making money for its own good?

*And please, let's stop calling this a "sex scandal." Bill Clinton was a sex scandal. Herman Cain is a sex scandal. What happened at Penn State was the rape of children--one of the most horrible crimes imaginable.

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