Editorial: Bigger Than Football

Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of developmentally disabled minors has implications across the college football landscape, and certainly for Stanford. Reader discretion is strongly advised as this is one tough, disturbing subject.

The following editorial piece features sensitive, perhaps even controversial content. Reader discretion is strongly advised

In general, people grow increasingly mature and gain life perspective with time. So I write piece humbly. I am all of 25, I don't have children and can't imagine how I'd feel about the allegations if I did, and I don't work in a sexual abuse field. However, I have a family history of and experience working with developmentally-disabled children, I have over 10 years' experience in print journalism, and my day job is in public health, specifically international HIV/AIDS. As such, I am familiar with the stigma surrounding and media coverage of sex and its consequences, and after seeing wall-to-wall coverage of the Sandusky scandal these past few weeks, I do have a few thoughts:

1. In an attempt to implicitly defend Joe Paterno, media have raised the question of what exactly Paterno and other Penn State administrators knew was happening. That question is a blatantly offensive attempt at moral equivocation. Who cares? Paterno et al. knew something untoward was going on. They knew Jerry Sandusky had continued access to Penn State facilities, and through his charity, developmentally-disabled children – access that could, and did, enable further sexual abuse. There are fundamental rights and wrongs in the world, certainly sexual abuse falls into that dichotomy, and so it's nauseating to equivocate here. What, it's 90 percent okay if Paterno and the higher-ups knew Sandusky was showering with boys, 60 percent okay if they knew he was groping boys, but only 20 percent okay if they knew he was anally raping boys? The concept is absolutely disgusting.

2. In an attempt to be polite, too few have explicitly reported the facts. Sandusky is accused of sexually abusing minors, most egregiously, anally raping developmentally-disabled children. There, I said it, and I'm making a point to not sanitize the facts because that is the exact same behavior that got us here. Because topics surrounding sexuality, and certainly sexual abuse, are uncomfortable to discuss, we smooth them over or don't discuss them at all. Thus, embarrassment helps a man slip through the cracks for over a dozen years, leaving him free to abuse children unimpeded. We see the same trend elsewhere: shame over colon cancer or HIV or other "embarrassing" conditions prevents people from getting tested regularly, and unnecessary deaths result. The reality is that people have sex, consensual and not, and there are real consequences in both cases. The sooner we can acknowledge that fact, the better off we'll all be.

3. Growing up Jewish, I read often these lines from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." At Penn State and Sandusky's charity, plenty of people had to know or should have known abuse was occurring. They are guilty too, for had they acted sooner, it is likely that several instances of child abuse would have been prevented. In a way, the element of willful negligence and silence is the most painfully compelling part of the story. I think most of us would have trouble understanding what goes through the mind of a sexual predator, but we all have looked the other way when we really shouldn't have at some point in our lives. If it were our job or reputation or friendship on the line, what would we do if we walked into the shower in Happy Valley? I'm pretty sure I'd do the right thing, but then again, I'm sure Paterno and McQueary and the rest would have said the same as well.

4. My main point is that this scandal is a horrific reminder of the folly of deifying our favorite athletes and coaches. For the true insiders who know the stars on a personal level, great, but for the remaining 99 percent of us who only "know" our quarterback through how well he plays, press conferences and media clippings, it is dangerous to judge his character accordingly. Extrapolating personality traits – courage, selflessness, grace under pressure – from a basketball court is a dangerous past time. We've all made game-winning shots and missed game-winning shots, won the race by a nose or come up just short. Whatever the result, we weren't more or less courageous, or a better or worse person.

Football, basketball, these are games, and we need to keep perspective and enjoy them accordingly. Today, sadly, such perspective is increasingly elusive. We've grown slowly immune to the whole phenomenon, if someone came from Mars, they'd realize quickly just how preposterous the current relationship is between society, sports and higher education. Applications to a school shoot up 30 percent when a team makes the Final Four, majors are created for the express purpose of shuttling athletes through them to keep them eligible, schools spend millions on facilities and coaches as tuition increases 10 percent annually and budgets continue to shrink.

It is in that environment that fans and talking heads, local and national, rag on Stanford for its lack of rabid fan support. First of all, that's not entirely true factually. We're all here on The Bootleg after all. But second of all, I lived in the South for three years, where 90,000 fans show up for a spring game, the five most-read articles in that morning's paper are all about college football, and a guy poisons trees because he's upset about a football game. We're the ones who need to get our priorities in order?

Luckily, we tell ourselves, we're Stanford fans, and thus our school is somewhat of an oasis in the desert. Our players are different, they're real student-athletes. Our academic standards are higher. Though athletes are concentrated in certain majors and receive tutoring and academic support, they're real students who have to pass real classes. It's oxymoronic, because I do believe Stanford does things better than most, but at the same time, let's not deify ourselves either.


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