American Culture

Secrecy is part of the DNA of college sports programs

by Jane Briggs-Bunting

Penn State, like many of the big schools, is focused on sports and football as the big ticket event. Sports is so big at Penn State that it is home to the John Curley Center for Sport Journalism and the Knight chair in Sports Journalism and Society. Sports is endemic. It’s part of Penn State’s  DNA as Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer reports.

Though, as awful as the situation is, Penn State is not alone in revering athletics. At a lot of schools, in the Big Ten, the Big 12, the PAC 12 and so on, athletics is number one to its students, its alums and its board. The likelihood of blind eyes being turned for other matters (hopefully never sexual abuse) would not surprise me. It’s what happens when the questionable decision of elevating athletics over academics occurs.

The NCAA has slapped fines and pulled titles in its lackluster policing of schools and their behaviors. But at the same time athletics has grown more profitable and more secretive, more insular and more protective. A Code of Silence exists. It’s like the Musketeers motto of One for All and All for One has run amok.

And it’s not just about grades or cheating or selling sports gear or players involved in fights and sexual assaults. Big Ten teams, and Penn State is one of 12 teams in the league (yes, that’s 12 teams in the Big  Ten, go figure), created the Big Ten Network. The BTN is a lucrative partnership between the league and Fox Sports that controls television coverage and access to the 12 teams in the league. Want to see a Big Ten game on TV, cable or satellite? It’ll cost you. The monopolistic arrangement bans other media from doing play by play, controls press conference access and pays hefty dividends to the member schools. And with the exception of Northwestern University, the other 11 teams are all public universities funded in part by taxpayer money and the games are played on public university campuses in public football and basketball venues.

If a local sports reporter wants to cover the game in the press box for the next day’s paper or that night’s sports news, that’s okay. But tweeting play by plays, not allowed. Shoot footage for the evening news…not allowed (footage will be provided only by the Big Ten Network). Heck, even the campus newspaper’s sports reporters have to follow Big Ten Network rules.

To Tweet the game, reporters sit in the stands to avoid the Big Ten censor cops.

Want to interview players? Only with permission. Want easy access to players? Forget it. The players are even coached not to talk to media and if an interview is granted, many times coached on what to say. At Michigan State when the award winning State News wanted to do a story on a track athlete’s comeback after an injury, the interview was canceled. Injury shows vulnerability, after all.

This has become the culture of Division I high profile athletics in the big ticket sports like football and basketball.

At Penn State, football was gold. At places like the University of Kentucky and University of North Carolina (neither are Big Ten teams), it’s  basketball. Elite teams are the farm system for the NFL and the NBA.

Most coaches, their staffs and players are hard working, driven and honorable individuals. But it only takes one to stain a program. And for increasingly cash-strapped universities, greed may also be a motivator. Handle peccadilloes quietly, privately, secretly, if at all.

It takes a decades-long sex abuse scandal like Penn State’s to wake a somnolent board and hold people accountable. Every board of trustees or regents or governors across the country should learn a lesson and not be so trusting or complacent with the information being presented by their presidents. Dig deeper, look harder, ask questions, require answers. The local Patriot News originally broke the news of the grand jury investigation and then the results. The paper’s done a solid job of covering the erupting scandal.

The alleged sexual assaults of eight boys is a horrific crime. CNN did a useful timeline and so did the Penn State college newspaper, the Daily Collegian.

There are inevitably more victims. Pedophiles rarely quit. I covered a number of trials involving pedophiles in my reporting days. Jerry Sandusky fits the profile. He set himself up in the ideal situation to troll for victims with his Second Mile program. In control, an admired figure, big name university football defensive coach, and all those young boys to choose from. It turns my stomach.

But what also turns my stomach is the knowledge that others had who did nothing to protect the victims. Granted, these are allegations, at this point, and Sandusky has the right to be considered innocent until and unless proven guilty.  The heroes in this story are the boys, some now men, who came forward and had the courage to tell the truth. But the damage is life altering and permanent.

That’s not what college athletics is about.

Categories: American Culture, Sex, Sports

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