Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The Sandusky case and college football

When the Jerry Sandusky case exploded onto the national media scene, I was still working at the Gainesville Sun as a copy editor.

Being at a newspaper in a college town, where football is viewed more as an article of faith than a game, and University of Florida football is an obsession, I felt like I had a front-row seat to what college football is and what it can become when perspective goes by the boards.

It reminded me of the Harold Lloyd silent movie from the late 1920s, “The Freshman,” where a young man becomes a college student and tries to impress a girl by being on the football team. The joke was that the college was a football team that had a small college attached to it. Not much has changed in 80 years.

I didn’t work on the sports desk, but I could see both in the newsroom and in the city itself what a Gators’ football game did to the city. Hotels – even the very bad ones – had no rooms available. Fans would park outside the stadium and “tailgate.” On my walks on gameday, I’d see the giant pickup trucks, tents and satellite dishes, receivers and big-screen TVs set up blocks from the stadium. These people were crazy about their Gators.

Tickets inside the stadium were sold out long in advance, except near the end of the season when it became clear the Gators were not going to the national championship. A significant proportion of the law enforcement personnel of the region would be at the game to provide security, and the three most famous words in the sports lexicon, “Security is tight,” got a workout in the media.

I was stunned to learn that people could get arrested at “The Swamp,” aka Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, for such harmless actions as standing on their seats, being seated in the wrong seat and being in the wrong section of the stadium. When there was talk of not using so many law enforcement personnel as stadium security on game day, a howl erupted, claiming that al-Qaida might see this as an opportunity to strike. Who wanted a terrorist attack? Especially if the Gators were ahead late in the third quarter.

On Saturday night, after the game was over and the stories were written, we’d get the police report on the number of fan arrests and ejections at the game. It was noted during the most recent season that the number was going down, mainly because attendance was dropping. As the Gators were not setting the world on fire, fans were becoming apathetic, the police said, and not running wild and committing arrestable offenses like standing on their seats, drinking underage, etc.

(Forget that fan is short for fanatic, and the notion of an apathetic fanatic makes no sense. In college football, you can’t blame the players’ poor performance for a team losing, so you blame apathetic fans. Or the coach. But never god. Stay with me, it’s brilliant.)

Behold, the approach of Coach
At every college with a football program, there is a pecking order of people who are the most important people on campus. At the top of the pyramid is the coach of the football team.

The coach of the football team, often known just as Coach, is godlike in all his powers and functions. In him resides the power of victory and loss, pride and dismay, and his team’s performance determines if a university’s name is spoken with fear or derision by alums and current students, as well as competitors, especially the presidents of other universities.

In Division I football, Coach can tell his alleged bosses, the athletic director and the university president, where to go and what to do when they arrive there. He also makes vastly more money than they or nearly anyone else in the community makes, into eight figures for multi-year contracts, so he is assumed to be brilliant and knowledgeable on every subject under the sun besides football.

In contrast, the coaches of the other sports teams hardly matter and cannot command the epic salaries a head football coach can demand.

Coach is not only a secular leader, he is also a religious leader. He can be of any Christian denomination he wishes, so long as it is fundamentalist, and has to be “active” in the church, and sometimes will give the Sunday sermon about how god wants his team to win. In fact, Coach and his wife and kids at a church can turn a little “strip-mall and folding chairs storefront church” into a megachurch, especially if he a) keeps winning, b) resists the urge to go somewhere else to coach for much more money and c) doesn’t fool around with a woman not his wife.

Coach is portrayed as the savior of young men who otherwise would be bad people, and it often seems that the worse a young man was, the more credit Coach gets for turning him around. It warms the little hearts of the fans to hear about Joe Doaks, who used to point guns at and rob or beat up women at Subway, but now he’s sacking QBs and making “straight-As” in college. Forget that he’s “taking” classes like “Skills and Practices in Football” and “The College Experience” for credit. Forget that his most recent girlfriend keeps “walking into doors.” He’s in college, he’s helping the team win, Coach turned him around and that’s all that matters.

I read in a book about a college out west that the entire football team was making straight-As in the Swahili language, but when a professor of Swahili from another college tried to engage them in conversation, he found that they knew only a few simple phrases, and not much else. It turns out that the Swahili professor had been “turned” and was giving take-home tests and allowing players to miss class for football practice and games.

It’s not uncommon for pressure to be put on professors to give athletes, especially football players, a “break” on classes, and raise grades so eligibility is maintained.

The legend of JoPa
At Penn State, Joe Paterno was Coach. Look, at how many universities would students riot if a well-liked journalism professor was fired? Very few, and it would be put down with live ammunition.

After Paterno resigned by force amid the revelations of his inaction after being informed of Jerry Sandusky’s activity, students went on a destructive rampage. I understand about sports fandom being an effort to bask in reflected glory, but setbacks should not lead to violence.

I remember a friend saying that Paterno ran the cleanest program in college football. In a sport where dirty programs were winning programs, and a place like the University of Miami that had for years a football program that celebrated what one writer at the Gainesville Sun called “thug culture,” a clean program is like a breath of fresh air.

But this one had a dirty, dirty secret.

Coach attracts many hangers-on, and some get assistant coaching jobs. Jerry Sandusky was someone who had that status, and may have been considered to replace Paterno after his retirement. Assistant coaching jobs serve a couple of purposes, though everyone knows who gets the credit when the team wins: Coach, and no one else.

Assistant coaches take on the details of football coaching, like linebackers or quarterbacks or running backs, and today are greatly compensated, even by colleges in dire financial distress, out of fear that the assistants might move on and become the head coaches of other football teams, making life hell for Coach. So it is that some assistants are paid seven-figure salaries.

Go team go!
The college town is expected to be totally for the team when it plays at home, and there are very few businesses in Gainesville, for example, that are not “Gator” this or “Gator” that. On game day, in addition to “security” at the stadium, there is the officer who guards Coach, especially when he walks onto the field at the end of the game to accept the congratulations of the other coach. Officers fight hard for those jobs, and to be in the picture on TV and in the newspapers. Forever after, the officer can say that he protected Coach during the championship season, and that can be used for promotion, to get a new job or during disciplinary hearings as a point in favor of the officer.

In fact, the relationship between law enforcement and the football program at many universities is seldom explored, mainly because journalism students don’t want to find their cars towed. At the University of Florida, it was known that a prominent UF alum and attorney was on call any hour of the day or night if a football player had a “misunderstanding” with law enforcement ranging from being drunk in public to smacking his girlfriend around to shoplifting.

Law enforcement officers can make hefty overtime working football games, and the concern about loss of lucrative off-duty assignments may lead to offenses by both coaches and players being overlooked.

To be fair, however, it is important to note that before the Sandusky affair exploded, there was an very serious incident involving a radio personality who broadcast UF’s football games, and he was investigated, caught and punished severely. He now is doing time in state prison. So the system can work.

In the local community, Coach and his holy acolytes, the assistants, also are expected to be active in local charities and sit on the boards of the nonprofits. They are expected to help raise money and get their pictures taken with the unfortunate. This is to highlight their “softer” side, and some may even have personal charities – as Sandusky did – to take all the credit for any help given.

Their involvement may be limited to lending their name and posing for a few photographs, with professional nonprofit executives leading and volunteers doing the real work, or they may be more hands-on. Maybe it’s best for the nonprofit to just have the name on the letterhead, as we’ve seen in the Sandusky case.

Limiting the damage
When I was a boy, there were plenty of activities where there were adult male leaders trying to guide a bunch of rambunctious young boys. Maybe it was a more innocent time, but I think my peers and I had a good idea that there were boundaries, and that if an adult superior made a move on you that you thought was not allowed, it was best to retreat before anything happened.

Nothing untoward ever happened to me, but I also did not attend sleep-away camp, go on camping trips or have long-term contact with strange adults. The parents of my friends were always friendly and in charge, and it would have been terrible if one of them had violated the rules of behavior. None ever did.

The problem with a lot of private nonprofits is that they are dealing with underprivileged boys from backgrounds where their male parent is unstable or absent, very much unlike my own life. It’s easy for a man like Jerry Sandusky to move in and become a “substitute father” to those boys, and then take the next step and violate their trust.

I have no sympathy for Sandusky or his family, but I pity the boys. They learned that no one could be trusted, not even their benefactors. I’m sure that the stories began to go around that Sandusky was “creepy” and – the way boys talk – that you had to be careful not to be alone in the shower or any other compromising position with him.

But these boys were hungry for guidance and love from a father figure, and when they couldn’t get it at home they had to turn to a non-relative. Now, we know that fathers or uncles may molest their sons or nephews, and the law provides the same penalties as for strangers, but it takes a very sick and demented man to take advantage of a fatherless boy who is seeking guidance.

And while the boy may have the will to resist, the fear of the man – who is powerful and known in the community, both socially and economically – may break down that will.

The Penn State cover-up
Not many people in the community want to take on Coach or his assistants, and the accusations against Sandusky were very serious matters. It’s obvious that the accusations went to the very top – to football coach Joe Paterno – and to lesser lights, like the president of the university and two officials, but the action taken was geared toward protecting the university and Sandusky.

Had Sandusky been an assistant baseball or tennis coach, there is little doubt that he would have been exposed and fired. But football, that’s a different matter. When your university is so closely defined with the football team, any infraction is a very serious reflection on the team and its culture. Having an assistant coach just accused of something like molesting young boys can throw the whole football program into disarray, and bring the wrong kind of publicity down onto everyone.

A cover-up seemed the logical approach, with Sandusky having limited access to the university after the accusations. But the thing is that the moral thing to do would have been to report the infractions to the police, and let them deal with Sandusky, the victims and the witness(es), and decide if more investigation was needed.

But in universities, the first priority is to protect the football program, not the victims. That was the downfall of JoPa and those “under” him in the hierarchy. For in these tight times, the football program is always under attack. There often are claims that the program returns significant sums of money to the university in the form of TV deals worth billions, but the money that doesn’t cover the sports department’s expenses just gets dumped into a general hopper or goes to a university foundation that then doles it out.

It’s odd to me that a “football” college doesn’t simply use the leftover cash – if it has any – from lucrative contracts to simply give scholarships to deserving non-athletes, bypassing the foundation bureaucracy and helping those in need, but hardly surprising. Those who run the foundations are economic elites, and they “know” better what the money should be used for.

(For an example of the wonderful things university foundations can buy for the right people, check this out. It’s about my alma mater. Here’s another story about it. And another.)

Ultimately, protecting the football program became the priority here, and fears about what might happen to donations and the university’s reputation spurred the effort to cover up what Sandusky did to those boys.

Time for the last kickoff?
It is considered the ultimate blasphemy to suggest that perhaps the solution is to eliminate college football, especially at certain universities. It has happened, mainly for cost reasons.

Even the NCAA will not invoke the “death penalty” on a college football program, no matter how bad the behavior of a couple of players or the corruption in the program. Sports has always been a big deal in American life, and to be fair football is not the only sport where there has been controversy over sexual misconduct or cheating – academic or otherwise.

The problem is that Penn State’s program was held up as a model for other colleges to follow. Joe Paterno was more than just Coach in many people’s eyes. He was the ideal coach who saw to it that his players succeeded as more than just jocks. Other coaches might claim to aspire to those goals; Paterno lived them.

It’s tragic that one mistake – and it was a whopper – destroyed his career. I mourned his death, too. Can one mistake undo all the good a man has done?

Paterno had a chance to show real character, and failed that test. That doesn’t make him a bad person. But if Sandusky had been caught early and punished the reputation of Penn State’s football program would have been sullied, but then when it was seen that the program and the people who ran it were willing to obey a higher law, it would have been vindicated, JoPa would have been a hero and Jerry Sandusky would be a footnote in the history of college sports.


June 27, 2012 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , ,

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