Penn State students watch during their 17-14 loss to Nebraska in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Cancel the season. Fire everybody involved in the child abuse scandal. That is the only way Penn State can make it clear that raping children and looking the other way or even covering it up matters more than having a winning football team. It is beyond understanding that Mike McQueary, who witnessed with his own eyes the anal rape of a 10-year-old by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, thought the matter was closed when he told his superiors (and, he now says, campus police) about it, and that head coach Joe Paterno—the sainted JoePa—took virtually no action, and life just went on for years while more kids were abused. What is this, the Catholic Church? Or maybe it isn’t beyond understanding. Maybe most people would do their best to rationalize evil behavior, to pass the buck and forget about it, if making a stink about it would harm their career. History isn’t too encouraging on that score. Still. Cancel the season. Fire everybody. Start again.
Or maybe don’t start again. Maybe cancel college football too. In no other country’s university system, after all, does sports play anything like the central role it does in American academic life. Men do not go to Oxford to play cricket; the Sorbonne does not field a nationally celebrated soccer team. Even in the most sports-mad countries, sports is sports and education is education. That’s a better system.
College sports distorts academic life in many ways, beginning with admissions. Recruited athletes’ scholarships soak up almost a fifth of places at most elite colleges, and athletic scholarships raise costs for everyone else. People defend these programs as offering hope to black and low-income students, especially boys, who otherwise couldn’t go to college at all. But what about their high school classmates who do better in school and can’t afford higher education either? Where are our priorities? Right now, we are telling the kids at the bottom that the way out is not to study and take college preparatory classes but to work on their jump shot and their blocking. If there was no scholarship incentive for those skills, the kids might not blow off their classes in favor of endless hours in the gym. Instead of the false hope of winning fame and wealth by turning pro after college—a brass ring grasped by only 1.5 percent of seniors who play NCAA football and basketball—they might focus their ambition on careers that could lift them out of poverty for life.
Moreover, sports scholarships don’t just go to poor kids. They also go to wealthy suburban kids who play golf, squash, lacrosse, tennis and other games favored by the elite. Those kids not only get a break on tuition; they get indulgence for mediocre grades and low SAT scores. Basically, colleges are saying to kids lucky enough to go to excellent resource-rich high schools, Don’t worry about that missed chemistry lab, those 200 pages still to go in One Hundred Years of Solitude, those French irregular verbs—bring us your backhand and your butterfly stroke.
Should college students play sports? Sure, for fun. Not to make money for their schools, massage the egos of donors and alumni, raise up false idols like Joe Paterno—and deprive themselves of a real education in the process. According to the NCAA, to be a top college football player takes at least forty-three hours a week. There is just no way that even a well-prepared, devoted student can handle a full load of courses around the edges of such a brutal and exhausting schedule. Instead, they’re hauled through dumbed-down courses in gut majors like “interdisciplinary studies” and “social science” by an army of tutors and professors who know the drill: we need this kid, so he’s got to pass. One of my heroines, Jan Kemp, lost her job teaching English at the University of Georgia when she went public with the pressures that were put on her to pass the athletes in her classes. Even with all that help, the graduation rate of Division I athletes, 65 percent, is nothing to cheer about.
Back to Penn State. Next to the molesting and the inaction, was anything more disturbing than the student riot in defense of it? If those thousands of kids had been Occupiers, don’t tell me they could have overturned a news van and knocked down lampposts with relative impunity. But sports is different. Impunity is its middle name—for players, coaches and apparently fans as well. Sports is embedded in the rich, loamy craziness of American popular morality, right down in there with God, the flag, the military and the family. Well, not all sports—not tennis or hockey or gymnastics or even basketball (too ghetto). Football.
And that brings us to the patriarchal aspect of the Penn State scandal. I know it’s predictable and boring, but come on, people! There really is a message here about masculine privilege: the deification of a powerful old man who can do no wrong, an all-male hierarchy protecting itself (hello, pedophile priests), a culture of entitlement and a truly astonishing lack of concern about sexual violence. This last is old news, unfortunately: sexual assaults by athletes are regularly covered up or lightly punished by administrations, even in high school, and society really doesn’t care all that much. A federal appeals court declared that a Texas cheerleader could be kicked off the squad (and made to contribute to the school’s legal costs) for refusing to cheer her rapist when he took the field—and he’d pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault too, so why was he even still playing? According to USA Today, an athlete accused of a sex crime has a very good chance of getting away with it. If Sandusky had abused little girls, let alone teenage or adult women, would he be in trouble today? Or would we say, like the neighbors of an 11-year-old gang-raped in Cleveland, Texas, that she was asking for it?
Cancel the season. Fire everybody. Get real about rape. Grow up.