11/17/2011 02:04 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

Where Is the Courage in College Football?

The scandal at Penn State that grabbed headlines this past week certainly begs the question of this article. Courage was lacking for more than a decade among key figures in positions of power and authority at Penn State and its football program. As allegations about Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children came to the attention of Coach Joe Paterno and his superiors, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, their responses ranged from following the letter of the law but not its spirit (Paterno) to doing nothing at all (Curley and Schultz). None of them had the courage to do what was right for Sandusky's victims -- past, present and future.

The 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich comes to mind when I reflect upon what happened at Penn State. Tillich defines faith as "the state of being ultimately concerned." The object of our ultimate concern becomes our religion. But he also warns that we humans are prone to idolatry, taking preliminary concerns that do not ground and determine our being and elevating them to a place of ultimacy in our lives. When this happens, all other concerns are subordinated if not sacrificed to the god that has become the object of ultimate concern (a god that turns out to be a demon as Tillich reminds us).

In much of college and professional sports in the United States, this tendency toward idolatry is ever-present. Many sacrifices are made to the sports gods, including sometimes the courage to do the right thing. In the case of Penn State, clearly there were coaches and administrative officials who had so elevated the football program to an ultimate concern, including its winning reputation and its financial successes, that they lost sight of what really mattered when questions emerged about child sex abuse in their midst. The rioting that ensued in State College last Wednesday night after Paterno's firing reflects just how widespread this tendency toward idolatry reaches. It almost goes without saying that reverence for Penn State football and for Coach Paterno bordered on the idolatrous among some fans even without a scandal. What happened Nov. 9 was a clear sign of a line being crossed, as ordinary college students, among others, lost sight of what -- or better yet who -- really should have been the object(s) of their ultimate concern. Whatever else our ultimate concern is on a religious level, it should involve taking care of the most vulnerable among us. And it should involve the courage to stand against those who exploit the most vulnerable among us.

Yet, I have hope for college football. Examples of courage abound, though they do not always get the type of attention that the failures of courage at Penn State received last week. An exemplary profile in courage is Chris Norton. On Saturday, CBS announced that Norton was the winner of this year's Courage in Sports Award. This news was especially meaningful to me both because of its timing -- a welcome respite to the week-long coverage of the Penn State scandal -- and because Norton is a student at Luther College, a Division III school in northeastern Iowa where I also happen to teach.

Norton's story is well-known on our campus. During a football game last fall, Norton was injured on what was otherwise a routine special teams play. He broke his neck and suffered severe spinal cord damage. Norton has had to face some very uncomfortable truths about his injuries and his prospects for recovery. But he has risen to the occasion, accepted the challenges that his injuries pose for his future, and courageously worked to overcome them while not giving into despair. In just one year, and with intense physical therapy, he has managed to regain feeling in much of his body. With help from some teammates, he walked out for the coin toss two months ago at a Luther football game and stood during the National Anthem. His courage has paid off for him and he has been a source of inspiration for many others.

It may seem as if I'm comparing apples and oranges by pointing to the courage displayed by Norton and the lack of it displayed at Penn State. After all, the circumstances faced by Paterno, Curley and Schultz at Penn State don't really resemble those faced by a young man at a Division III institution coming to terms with a spinal cord injury. But I stand by the comparison, or rather, the contrast. Courage means facing uncomfortable truths and hardships and responding with integrity to them on behalf of the common good, even at the risk of great personal pain and sacrifice. By this definition, several Penn State officials, including the school's legendary coach, failed the courage test. Chris Norton passed with flying colors.

I am not a believer in the Calvinist doctrine of providence, but if I were, I would be tempted to conclude that Norton's receiving the Courage in Sports Award this past weekend was providential. At a time in which the idolatry that exists in the world of Division I college football led to monumental failures of courage at one high-profile institution, I was given a timely reminder that courage still abounds in the sport, both here at Luther College and undoubtedly at countless other colleges and universities across the nation. Just as importantly, I was reminded that there are outstanding role models within the ranks of college football who can teach many of us a thing or two when it comes to what sort of "concern" football and sports in general should occupy in our lives -- and why that matters.