Everyone is rightfully shocked and saddened by what’s going on in State College with the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.
It looks like Joe Paterno is on his way out the door after 46 years as head coach of the Nittany Lions and 62 years on staff.
I’m going to add my two cents to what’s going on, but the scandal itself is only incidental to my overall point, which has to do with how the media tends to deify coaches and athletes.
Here is a link to an article about Sandusky from Sports Illustrated in 1999. It includes such wonderful nuggets as:
If Sandusky did not have such a human side, there would be a temptation around Happy Valley to canonize him: Saint Sandusky, leader of linebackers, molder of men.
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Because Sandusky is so respected, as a man and as the dean of Linebacker U, there’s the impression that it’s just fine with him that he has never been a head coach. It’s not. “I wouldn’t call it devastating,” says Sandusky, choosing his words carefully, “but I would call it a little disappointing. That was definitely a goal of mine when I started. If I hadn’t had the other part of my life—my family and the Second Mile—I would’ve been a head coach.”
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Here’s the best thing you can say about Jerry Sandusky: He’s the main reason that Penn State is Linebacker U…and linebackers aren’t even his enduring legacy.
Well, that’s for sure.
Now, I know it’s easy to rip an article like this. Obviously, the author, Jack McCallum, had no reason to think Sandusky was a child molester when he wrote it.
But it’s an article that never should’ve been written. Why? Because McCallum obviously didn’t know Sandusky. He didn’t know Paterno. It’s clear that no one really did, not even those who are quoted in the story who were supposedly close to both of them.
And this gets to my point: The media should resist the urge to do stories that glorify athletes and coaches in their lives away from the sport.
Why? Because we don’t really know them away from their chosen profession and there’s really no way to know them by just hanging around them for a few hours.
Instead, the media should stick to what it can know: How the coach or athlete performs on the field of competition.
Once the media steps away from that arena, it enters a nebulous realm where it can be manipulated by those who are trying to cultivate a certain image.
Society has a demand for such images, which is why it’s so easy to write that story about the smiling athlete who everyone loves, or the wise coach who serves as the father figure to so many players.
As a result, there are countless examples of sports figures who’ve been presented as ‘great guys’ by the media who have ended up being not so great after all.
I don’t buy that this is always due to the media being duped. Most of the time, I believe the media is aware of how these sports figures really are, but it’s far more important to the media to ride the gravy train that surrounds sports celebrity, to keep the illusion going for as long as possible. It benefits the players and coaches as well as the media. Tickets are sold, newspapers are bought. Money is made. Everyone is happy.
Until we wake up one morning and find out that coach everyone has been calling a ‘saint’ all these years likes to molest children. Then what? Who is held accountable? Certainly not the people who were compliant in creating a false image to present to the masses.
I’m not saying that we should never know anything about what a player or coach does away from their sport. But we shouldn’t be going around calling a coach a ‘saint’ or talking about how being in a player’s presence will make you a better person.
It could well be that Tim Tebow is a wonderful, wonderful human being. He could also be a serial killer.
1. Neither has any bearing on how he performs on the football field.
2. I have no way of knowing which is actually true.
3. The second point is none of my business anyway.
Our opinion of athletes and coaches should be formed solely by what they do on the field, court, track, gym, arena, course, or pool.
I hope the media learns its lesson from the Sandusky story. We’ve been told for years what a great man Joe Paterno is, but it turns out he didn’t do nearly enough to root out this evil that had taken root in his program.
If he was just Joe Paterno: Football Coach instead of Joe Paterno: Living Legend and Healer of the Sick, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so shocked about it.