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What Does the Scandal at Penn State Mean for College Sports?

You couldn't turn on the news lately without hearing about the Penn State football program's sexual abuse scandal, one that's unprecedented in the history of college sports. What kind of lasting effects might the acts of Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno have on college campuses nationwide?

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by Eric Garneau

college sports penn state joe paterno jerry sandusky

The Penn State scandal that broke in early November both is and isn't about football. Though the events that transpired certainly shed an uncomfortable light on the reverence our culture bestows upon college sports, there are larger matters on the table here regarding how much faith we put in authority, especially into systems that are considered untouchable.

There's no doubt that college sports hold an esteemed position in our society. Many schools, like those in the Big Ten (of which Penn State is a part), are known and valued just as much, if not more, for their athletic programs as their academics. NCAA athletes are marketed as professionals but treated like students. In 2010, broadcasting network CBS thought college basketball alone was valuable enough to ink an $11 billion, 14-year deal with the NCAA.

Of course, college sports is something many people enjoy, and no doubt the system's structured the way it is at least in part to meet the demands of the consuming public. But the culture clash so inherent to the NCAA - professional business foisted on student athletes - produces conflict, confusion and perhaps an unsustainable system.

Consider the NFL or the NBA. We expect those organizations to manage themselves - after all, they're privately funded businesses. Although the past few years have certainly shown management hiccups in both (the NBA lockout having just ended), sometimes that's the price of business. We also don't (or probably shouldn't) expect as much transparency or accountability from these organizations, at least when it comes to personal misconduct. They're made up of adults who can handle themselves.

But colleges are different. For one, many of them are publicly funded. And again, athletes there are meant to be students first, which means that coaches are primarily educators. And educators don't or shouldn't function the same way as businesspeople, even if the NCAA voraciously devours billions of dollars a year.

Unfortunately, this conflict creates a culture where the NCAA's revered like pro sports organizations, but it shouldn't be. People invest themselves wholeheartedly in a system conflicted at its core, and it leads to problems. College sports have been racked with scandals lately, but none are as major as the one that just broke at Penn State. And a reasonable interpretation of that situation shows us that it's all about power - both its abuse and misplaced trust in authorities who wield it.

Obviously Jerry Sandusky abused his position of authority. Questions remain as to how guilty head coach Joe Paterno is of doing the same, although most reasonable people would suggest he possesses at least some degree of culpability. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this case to outsiders is how ravenously some of the student body at Penn State protested Paterno's firing (it seems the university believes JoePa shares enough culpability to lose his job as head coach). Why would students at the school take to the streets - some of them drunk and angry - to show solidarity with a man who allegedly let sexual assault happen under his nose for almost a decade?

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One might think it's fair to say that the reverence that many have towards the NCAA had something to do with it. NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca commented about the situation: 'it's quite common in big college campuses with successful football teams - that the coach is either beloved or very powerful, and sometimes an icon...So people at Penn State would chant: We are Penn State. And it was so important to them that Joe Paterno was the coach of the football team...(I)t went so much at the heart of their identity.' Paterno became a larger-than-life figure for these students, an icon in whom the school's pride and self-image rested, so much so that a mob of students that would make most Occupy groups seem tame stood up for his job. To many observers, that's practically insanity.

Why? Because, of course, Joe Paterno isn't an icon, he's a man. And he's a man who at the very least made mistakes and at most perpetrated awful criminal actions. And this culture of pride that lionizes Paterno clearly has their priorities in the wrong place.

You might say it's just a Penn State thing and that such abuses couldn't and wouldn't happen elsewhere. Hopefully you're right. But one wonders, if the situation were shifted onto another college, especially one that prized athletics just as much, would things be any different? Would that school's students let their pride in this untouchable NCAA organization obscure basic human rights?

That's why the beginning of this article asserts that the Penn State scandal both is and isn't about football. The culture around NCAA football certainly contributed to its perpetration, but this is the kind of thing that happens any time we take authority figures and elevate them to an iconic status above suspicion. It's exactly what happened in the Catholic Church that allowed for essentially institutionalized sexual abuse and pedophilia, and if you look closely (frankly not even all that closely) you can see it happening in world governments all the time. If our institutions and their leaders become icons, they then exist beyond reproach. So even though the Penn State scandal will likely eventually scab over for most of the NCAA, hopefully there's one lesson that at least a couple people will have taken from it: no one, no matter how much respect they get or deserve, sits beyond censure. Your leaders are subject to the same rules you are - because if they're not, that's when true injustice runs rampant.

College sports have done some real good in their time, too. Read about how they helped break down color barriers.

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