After the initial tremors of the Penn State sexual scandal had rippled away I realized that a little retrospection revealed a somber analysis that is unfortunately not surprising at all. The actions of a perverted coach, while egregious in the extreme, were not the main scandal here; the cover-up that enabled him to destroy so many lives is unfortunately wrapped up in the “culture” of football, which has a history of circling the wagons and seeking to protect its own. While this is true of most team sports with their familial philosophy, football’s sacred position receives protections denied elsewhere.
In grade and high schools across the country football players gain a revered status and often a free pass for such reprehensible attitudes as misogyny and gay-bashing, which are not only condoned but even celebrated in some quarters. The pre-eminence of football exhorts the entire school community to participate in the pageantry of weekly games, yet how many coaches and players attend the annual school play or chorus and orchestral concerts? The sports culture that dominates our society begins early and then spreads its tentacles across our modern American ethos.
All the chatter about steroids in baseball obscures the fact that high school football players are popping pills with alacrity in a mad rush to ascend the high altar of American idolatry—football stardom! High school coaches turn a blind eye to such abuse as long as the team competes, and this deliberate ignorance envelopes everything else—poor grades, chauvinism, racist attitudes, etc. That’s where the slippery slope begins, for if we celebrate those successes we are accessories in the cover-up!
Anything that threatens the finely woven threads of the web holding us together is viewed with suspicion and distaste. In this testosterone-filled climate the perversions of a gay child-molester is viewed as such an aberration and affront to the very essence of our sporting life as to be ignored in the hope that it will just disappear. To think that the events at Penn State are an anomaly is to be disturbingly clueless about the state of the union and criminally naïve and negligent in the way we care for our children! The measure of a society may be taken in the way it treats two of its most ignored populations—prisoners and children. If we disregard the latter with such disdain what chance do we have of rehabilitating the former? In the case of Penn State the two populations seemed to have merged—they were at-risk children!
Perhaps the national shock and outrage at these events underscored a profound sense of personal loss; that somehow we all shared not just in the grief but also in the guilt of that cover-up. And if we didn’t feel that, maybe it’s time we did. For as long as we permit the violent culture of football (and other sports) to permeate our lives, and seek to enshrine and protect its central players; as long as we relish their success vicariously and find collective glory in their exploits, we must also face this uncomfortable truth—We are Penn State!
Damn straight. Did you see the Times article on Paterno’s contract renegotiation during the scandal? It’s a crime. Great stuff on high school culture.
And now we have Penn State students holding a vigil over a Joe Paterno statue–to protect said statue.