Skip to main content

Was Sandusky protected by football culture?

By Jay Jennings, Special to CNN
updated 3:13 PM EDT, Tue June 19, 2012
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
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT