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Christopher Atamian

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Sandusky, Paterno and College Football: the Bigger Picture

Posted: 11/23/11 04:00 PM ET

An opinion piece that appeared at the onset of the Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno scandal in the New York Times repeatedly referred to the Penn State students who had rallied in support of Paterno the day after he was let go of his post as Head Coach as "scholars." It was unclear to me if the word "scholar" was being used in earnestness or mockery. Much of the coverage of the scandal has justifiably concentrated on Sandusky's actions themselves -- he now stands accused of molesting and/or raping some eight boys -- and on the lack of accountability displayed by Paterno, who did not call the police when he first learned of these crimes -- as he was legally bound to. To me, the greater issue is the oversize influence of college sports -- especially football -- on institutions that are meant to be -- first and foremost -- academic. I wonder if any of students who rallied behind a coach who didn't report the rape of young children to the authorities or who would participate in the type of hooliganism caught on tape (drunken destruction of cars and university property) deserves the moniker "scholar."

While the rest of the world speeds ahead of us academically on the secondary level and countries like China concentrate on creating their own MIT's and Stanfords, our best state universities have created a fratty, patriarchal sports culture that is often antithetical to good citizenship and to the very basis of the academy -- finding the moral good in the world and training the leaders of tomorrow in different fields. Given a culture that spends so much time and money on its football program, what type of an education are Penn State kids really receiving? Instead of drinking beer and watching young football players beat each other's brains out, maybe shouldn't these "scholars" be in their dorms learning a foreign language or studying organic chemistry equations?

Certainly, the college experience is meant to include more than academics. Meeting people from different backgrounds and parts of the world; participating in extracurricular activities such as theater and sports are all valuable aspects of one's undergraduate experience. But at large state campuses especially, sports have become outsize and professionalized. Football programs such as Penn State's make a mockery of the educational process that the football players themselves should be receiving and twists out of shape the education -- moral, ethical or otherwise -- that the remaining "scholars" on campus receive. How else can one explain over a thousand Penn State students supporting a football coach who, whether we like it of not, aided and abetted an alleged pedophile who was raping underage children on campus, by not reporting his abuses directly to the police?

Current big name college football programs, as others have noted, recruit players with lofty promises of the NFL and untold riches: for a few the dream comes true. For the majority, for those who are injured and never make it to the NFL, post-graduate life is often one full of depression and failure: dashed hopes made worse by the fact that these players were routinely excused from taking the same courses and studying to the same degree as their colleagues who did not participate in sports. Worse yet, many of these players, as we now know, experience concussions and other brain injuries which lead to their premature deaths. Steroid use, also deleterious to their livers and overall health, is rampant. Does anyone care about this abusive aspect of college football?

As with the children (allegedly) raped by Sandusky, it would seem that the welfare of the players should be everyone's first concern. But as with the patriarchy established over centuries in the Catholic church, the well-being of our children has taken a back seat: programs such as Penn State football make so much money for the University that no one is willing to speak out against them. It is time to bring this mockery to an end: professional sports -- for this is what programs like Penn State are in essence -- do not belong on at the college level. Intramural sports, friendly competition between colleges, is more than enough to keep any scholar-athlete happy -- fencers, tennis players, and athletes competing in many other sports manage to balance academics and sports without the worry of turning pro and the entire debasing process that robs young men of an education and exposes them to the abuses that we have seen. It seems that certain all-male environments which give unlimited power to those in charge inevitably lead to the type of physical and sexual abuse that Sandusky inflicted on these young children, whether it is in the church or in high-level sports. It is high time we put an end to or radically reform environments that aid and abet such behavior.

As for Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky themselves, I would suggest the same thing that I would for the Catholic priests caught in recent sex abuse scandals: send them to jail for the rest of their lives. There, they can meditate on the true gravity of their actions. There, they may also learn what it feels like to be molested and sodomized against their will.