Outside the Arena: College sports bubble can warp values

Posted: November 10, 2011

Kate Fagan played basketball at the University of Colorado from 1999 to 2004. During that time, Colorado's football program was under legal and NCAA investigation for its recruiting practices.

While NBC Nightly News dimmed the lights inside the arena, set up two chairs facing one another, and adjusted the cameras, I paced the baseline and wondered if my answers would make the University of Colorado proud.

My school was mired in a recruiting scandal. NBC wanted to know how a female student-athlete felt about the charge that our football program used sex as a recruiting tool. The national media were pouring into Boulder as if the coasts had been lifted, everyone tumbling to the middle.

We were closing ranks inside the athletic department. Buffaloes above all else. The University of Colorado was being attacked from all sides; we were in self-protection mode.

Those months in 2004 were a light sprinkle compared to the thunderstorm that has descended upon Penn State. Former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with sexually assaulting young boys. Important members of the hierarchy, such as head coach Joe Paterno and athletic director Tim Curley, are charged - some formally, some in the court of public opinion - with failing to report Sandusky's actions to police, for failing to protect our children in favor of their program.

As a 21-year-old in Boulder, I couldn't see the humanity - the women whose lives had been damaged - standing just outside our black-and-gold athletic gates. I pulled on my CU letter jacket and refused to understand why a few women wanted to destroy our athletic family.

I explained to NBC that our sports teams were shiny and clean. Anyone claiming otherwise didn't understand "what we stood for." May those in Happy Valley not repeat my mistake.

Everyone - coach, athletic director, and president - went down in the CU scandal. Paterno was removed from his job by the university's board of trustees on Wednesday. The only thing standing between other Penn State officials and that same fate is time.

But what will these "resignations" change? Heads rolling is absolutely necessary and unusually justified. But what's more important is addressing the culture inside these programs.

Penn State will remove these people, insert others, and eventually the gears will begin churning again. That's what happened at Colorado, and we've seen no shortage of college scandals since.

Big-time athletic programs are not entirely unlike nation-states. Everyone wears the colors, says the pledge, and sings the school anthem. Everyone worships the logo, recites the fight song, and reports up the chain of command.

Everyone's committed to defeating a common enemy: Ohio State or Nebraska or Michigan.

This is what makes college athletics galvanizing and wonderful. And also, for anyone who has been inside it, it's what can make college athletics frightening. When you're inside, you're often a rah-rah believer. Blind acceptance exists that coaches and administrators, those who have established the institution's culture, possess absolute authority. They're accountable only to one another or not at all. The bad stuff can be handled internally, must be handled internally, unless it's so bad it seeps out the office door.

Is it a coincidence that Penn State is responsible for two of the most inflammatory college scandals of the last quarter-century? Women's basketball coach Rene Portland "resigned" amid charges of anti-gay discrimination. She had coached successfully at Penn State for 27 years. The Penn State administration - Curley was Penn State's athletic director then, too - allowed Portland to run her program in whatever way suited her personal beliefs. She scared lesbians into the closet and revoked scholarships based on sexuality.

Just look the other way. Nothing to see here.

Sound familiar?

But Penn State is no more guilty than other powerhouse athletic departments and universities. Believe this: These things could have happened anywhere. It's the protective cocoon of big-time athletics.

The longer you reside within that cocoon, the more entrenched you become in the culture. Administrators and coaches often morph from humans who react with humanity into vassals charged with protecting the institutional image. Preserving legacy and mystique are placed ahead of a child's - or a woman's - pain.

When we are finally allowed to ask questions of Paterno and Curley and Penn State president Graham Spanier, we should be less concerned with precisely what they knew and when they knew it. We should be concerned with understanding the answer to only one answer: why?

Why not go to the police immediately? Why endanger additional innocent children?

I think when you wade through the rhetoric, you'll find a very frightening answer, one that mirrors my flawed thinking while pacing, waiting, for that NBC interview.

They couldn't see the humanity standing outside their blue-and-white athletic gates.


Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DeepSixer3, and read her blog, Deep Sixer, on Philly.com.

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