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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jay Jennings.

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