Scandals and sports

    Off with their heads! That’s our natural reaction to the repugnant reports about Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span. We want blood, and we want it now.

    And we’re getting it. Revered coach Joe Paterno and longtime university president Graham Spanier were fired Wednesday night. The university’s athletic director and a senior vice president, facing charges that they covered up Sandusky’s alleged crimes, have already stepped down. What did they know, we ask, and when did they know it?

    These are important questions, and we deserve answers to them. But they also divert us from two much bigger issues that we prefer not to address: the perverse role of athletics in American education, and the ingrained sexism of our society.

    If Sandusky hadn’t been part of a big-time college football program, would he have been allowed to continue consorting with young boys? Not a chance. And if Sandusky’s victims had been girls instead of boys, would the allegations have generated such nationwide attention and outrage? No way.

    Too big to fail?

    Let’s start with athletics, which have become huge profit centers for many universities. In 2009, Penn State took in more than $70 million in football-related revenue. That was more than any other school in the Big Ten, where the average football program generated about $40 million.Programs in the Southeastern Conference made even more, at an average of $50 million that year. Last year, the SEC became the first conference to generate more than $1 billion in sports receipts. The Big Ten came in second, at $905 million.

    Like some of our financial institutions, these programs have become too big to fail. So when a scandal arises, university officials try to sweep it under the rug.

    When they can’t do that, they dismiss it as an aberration. Illegal payments to athletes? They happen; we’re policing them. Padded student transcripts? Same thing.

    For the people running a big-time college program, the top priority is the program itself. And they’ll do whatever it takes to keep its reputation – and its income – intact.

    That seems to be what happened in the Sandusky case. Although we don’t yet know all the details, we do know that many different people – from a janitor to Paterno himself – knew something about Sandusky’s reported behavior. But they kept it quiet, lest the larger cause – i.e., Penn State football – take a hit.

    Meet Jonathan Zimmerman in person

    Join the historian for a conversation about current events and the connected parallels, roots, and lessons from history. The event will take place Thursday, December 8 at 6pm at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

    The event is free and open to the public.   Register now to reserve your place at this exciting event.

    That’s History is a biweekly radio segment co-produced by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and WHYY featuring HSP historian Jonathan Zimmerman.

    Versions of article originally appeared in Philly.com and The Christian Science Monitor.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.