Of boys and big-time sports

Posted: November 10, 2011

By Jonathan Zimmerman

Off with their heads!

That's our natural reaction to the repugnant reports about Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span. We want blood, and we want it now.

And we're getting it. Revered coach Joe Paterno and longtime university president Graham Spanier were fired Wednesday night. The university's athletic director and a senior vice president, facing charges that they covered up Sandusky's alleged crimes, have already stepped down. What did they know, we ask, and when did they know it?

These are important questions, and we deserve answers to them. But they also divert us from two much bigger issues that we prefer not to address: the perverse role of athletics in American education, and the ingrained sexism of our society.

If Sandusky hadn't been part of a big-time college football program, would he have been allowed to continue consorting with young boys? Not a chance. And if Sandusky's victims had been girls instead of boys, would the allegations have generated such nationwide attention and outrage? No way.

Too big to fail

Let's start with athletics, which have become huge profit centers for many universities. In 2009, Penn State took in more than $70 million in football-related revenue. That was more than any other school in the Big Ten, where the average football program generated about $40 million.

Programs in the Southeastern Conference made even more, at an average of $50 million that year. Last year, the SEC became the first conference to generate more than $1 billion in sports receipts. The Big Ten came in second, at $905 million.

Like some of our financial institutions, these programs have become too big to fail. So when a scandal arises, university officials try to sweep it under the rug.

When they can't do that, they dismiss it as an aberration. Illegal payments to athletes? They happen; we're policing them. Padded student transcripts? Same thing.

For the people running a big-time college program, the top priority is the program itself. And they'll do whatever it takes to keep its reputation - and its income - intact.

That seems to be what happened in the Sandusky case. Although we don't yet know all the details, we do know that many different people - from a janitor to Paterno himself - knew something about Sandusky's reported behavior. But they kept it quiet, lest the larger cause - i.e., Penn State football - take a hit.

There's no nice way to put this: Penn State put the health of its football program ahead of the health of innocent children. Somehow, our educational institutions have decided that athletics trump all. And we all have played along.

Barely a blip

We have also indulged in a double standard on sexual abuse, which we condemn more harshly when the victim is a boy.

Consider the recent news about former Olympic gymnastics coach Don Peters. Never heard of him? I didn't think so. Just last month, Peters, who coached the celebrated U.S. team in the 1984 games, resigned from his training club after allegations that he sexually abused more than a dozen young female gymnasts. Yet the story was barely a blip in blogosphere.

When a coach uses his power and prestige to abuse young boys, it's a national scandal. When one does the same to girls, it's business as usual.

And remember, the vast majority of sexual-abuse victims are girls. In an exhaustive 2003 investigation, the Seattle Times found that 159 coaches in Washington state had been dismissed or reprimanded for sexual misconduct during the previous decade. Almost all were male coaches who had abused girls.

Worse, at least 98 of them had continued to coach or teach. Does anyone believe a coach who had abused boys would have been given such a long leash? A noose is more like it.

There's no nice way to say this, either: We regard the sexual abuse of a young boy as worse than that of a young girl. And we should be ashamed of that.

None of this is an apology for the alleged evils of Sandusky, who should face the maximum penalty if the charges check out. Ditto for any Penn State official who covered up his crimes.

But when the bloodletting is complete and all the heads have rolled, we'll still have a culture that overvalues athletics and undervalues girls. And you can't blame that on anyone at Penn State. The fault, dear Americans, is not in our football stars - or their coaches - but in ourselves.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author, most recently, of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at jlzimm@aol.com.

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