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 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT