Vocation, Virtue, and Jerry Sandusky

Jerry Sandusky, convicted serial abuser of vulnerable children, got away with molesting boys for decades because of a deeply-ingrained belief in American culture that football coaches are inherently virtuous.

Football coaches at all levels, from peewee to the NFL, are ascribed the entire catalog of Eagle Scout virtues: they are honorable, clean, tough, patriotic, and humble. They are role models and surrogate fathers to their players, pillars of their community. People may like or dislike a coach’s decisions on the field, but his integrity, as well as the authority which arises from it, is never open to question.

Two adults who witnessed Sandusky engaging in sexual assault on children became the object of editorial and water-cooler outrage around the country: How could they doubt the evidence of their own eyes? How could they have failed to knock Sandusky out, raise the alarm, call 911? But that’s an easy question: you cannot see what you do not believe is possible. Our minds will concoct almost any explanation, no matter how implausible, to avoid observing a truth that contradicts our prior beliefs.  Innocent people have gone to prison because eyewitnesses ascribe criminality to one race more than another, but that same mechanism, this time, in defense of the heroic myth of the football coach, kept Sandusky out of prison, preying on children. The witnesses literally could not believe their eyes.

I have never been able to understand this veneration of the football coach, and working in high schools for my entire career, I’ve seen the phenomenon at close range. Young or old, winning or losing, football coaches are accorded privileges no one else gets, not even coaches of other sports. This assumption of goodness and resultant authority does not accrue to the basketball, wrestling, baseball, field hockey, golf or fencing coaches, not to mention teachers, guidance counselors, department chairs, and administrators. Other coaches and teachers are judged on their own merits and must earn respect, but football coaches are considered respectable unless proven otherwise. In some states, they’re paid more than teachers. And they are often promoted more rapidly to the ranks of school administration than coaches in other sports or non-coaches.

How does this work? Why is a particular vocational skill set associated with such overwhelmingly positive character traits? When I think about the stupid stereotypes about librarians (prissy, repressed control freaks), or artists (crazy, narcissistic, overgrown children), or engineers (socially isolated, soulless machines), or attorneys (avaricious, immoral sharks), I wonder how football coaches got so lucky. Perhaps boys who play football experience the coach’s power and authority as that of God, and carry that fear and reverence into adulthood. Perhaps a culture that worships testosterone-fuelled violence needs to transform its dangerous power into a controllable rite, elevating the coach to High Priest, trusting in him to confine its energy within a gridiron, a hierarchy, the discipline of rules and penalties. Maybe we just love jocks.

Catholic priests who abused children were protected by similar assumptions, but Catholics had valid cultural and theological reasons to believe that men called by God to the priesthood, to a life of prayer, service and self-denial, were at their core, good, holy people. An accusation of abuse against a priest could almost be construed as an attack against the Church, against God, even, who had called this man to the priesthood, and many victims were revictimized again and again by the belief that the accuser was dirty and the perpetrator was pure. We know now, we should always have known, that no profession confers virtue on a human being, that there is not a vocation in the world that has not at one time or another been practiced by someone with a twisted soul or a criminal mind. Even the yoga community is now learning this lesson, and the shock is every bit as fresh to them as it was to Catholics twenty years ago.

I am not, of course, saying that football coaches should be treated with suspicion, either. These men are my colleagues, and I admire their work with some very difficult students. Some football coaches are mentors who help parents raise boys right. They love their players, read them the riot act when they misbehave, praise them when they earn good grades, help them through hard times, feed them pizza and force them to do their homework. They push kids to do their best, and console them when their best wasn’t good enough. But all mentors do that, and not all football coaches are good mentors, just as not all teachers are. Some are harming boys by encouraging them to play when injured, ignoring signs of concussion, condoning bullying or sexual aggression, or teaching kids to think that the only thing that matters in this world is the final score of the next game. The belief that Coach is always right, that Coach is a man of honor and integrity, and that you don’t dare complain if he harms or abuses you, protects bad coaches and does nothing at all to help good ones.

And if it weren’t for the veneration of the American football coach, Jerry Sandusky would have been in prison a long time ago.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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6 Responses to Vocation, Virtue, and Jerry Sandusky

  1. fransiweinstein says:

    I’m doing some pro bono work for a former colleague in New York who has started a not-for-profit called Stop Abuse. The numbers are absolutely staggering: In the United States, 1 of 6 women will be sexually molested during her lifetime. 8 out of 24 students will be physically or sexually
    abused before they graduate from high school. In a block of 80 homes, 20 women are physically abused on a regular basis. The problem is not just that football coaches are believed to Gods, above reproach and incapable of doing terrible things. WE, and I mean all of us, need to become intolerant of abuse. Once suspected, abuse needs to be reported immediately. Investigations must be swift and thorough. We have to create an environment where victims — both young and old — are not afraid to come forward, are not ashamed to come forward. We need to thank them for their bravery instead of making them think it was their fault. And sentences need to be tough. The only positive outcome that the Sandusky case could be responsible for is that, because he was a football God, this case has been seen all over the world. 8 victims had the courage to come forward and now the world has listened and, more importantly, a jury has listened to them. Abuse is really out in the open now. We can and should stop whispering about it. We have to stop turning our backs on it. Because until we do, millions of innocent children, women, men and seniors will continue to be abused.

    • As a teacher, I’m a mandatory reporter. If I suspect physical or sexual abuse, but don’t report it, I can go to prison, lose my teaching license, etc.

      The smartest thing about the law is that the mandatory reporter’s chain of command has nothing to do with the obligation. I’m not supposed to check with an administrator (though I am supposed to inform one, during or after the fact), so a young or timid mandatory reporter can’t be talked out of anything by someone who wants to protect the organization from scandal.

      I think the more professionals who are considered mandatory reporters, and therefore receive the training in what to look for and what to do, the better. If coaches were mandatory reporters in Pennsylvania, maybe Sandusky would have been stopped earlier.

  2. Ceil Kessler says:

    I have wondered before, and I wonder now: Where is the War on Abuse? We had a war on drugs with a handy catch phrase (“Just Say No”), we have a war on terrorism where everyone is mobilized to be a neighborhood watch person. Hardly a gym bag on the side of the road or a broken-down car is left unreported anymore.

    Abuse needs a catch phrase. We need to be taught what to do in all instances of abuse. Dangerous situations and manipulations need to be identified and warned against. Police forces should have a set of steps that they routinely and efficiently follow. Abuse victims should be treated as gently as possible. There should be high-abuse areas identified with hotlines to call and there should be PSA’s on all the television stations. And we should be hearing about the War On Abuse every day.

    Is it because powerful men do the abusing, that we have no decades-long War on Abuse? Or is it because children and marginalized women have no appreciable disposable income?

    Perhaps we have finally found something that two parties can agree on: it’s time for the War on Abuse to start.

    • I think you’ve put your finger on it: the problem, as ever, is power. Everyone likes to think of the child molester as some creepy guy lurking in the park, but that’s generally not who it is. In so many of these cases, the perpetrators were Pillars of the Community™, and kids, who are not stupid, understood that an accusation against someone considered older, wiser, and highly respectable could easily backfire on the victim. And the molesters were quite up front about it, too. How many times have you read that a priest, a coach, a teacher, a Scout leader told the kid that no one would ever believe him if he dared to tell? How many kids who dared to whisper what someone was doing to them were smacked across the face and asked how dare they say something so filthy about Mr. Jones or Father Jim?

  3. Joyce Romanski says:

    Julie – I have to disagree with your opening statement, and unfortnately the premise upon which your blog is based. I do not disagree that Sandusky is a horrible, evil person, and that those who knew what he was doing did nothing to stop him in any way shape or form, also bear a stain of evil as well (and their’s is “evil by choice” – which in some ways is even more reprehensible).

    However, I disagree that Jerry Sandusky got away with what he got away with because of “a deeply-ingrained belief in American culture that football coaches are inherently virtuous.” I’ve played many sports as a child and as an adult (yes kids, I was in an over-30 woman’s adult soccer league for a while). I follow some professional sports and some college as well. Some of the best coaches (and by “best” I mean “successful records of winning”) are the biggest SOBs that ever existed – case in point – Boby Knight. When I attentded Seton Hall, the highly successful men’s basketball coach was also such a jerk that one of his players attacked him via chocking.

    Pro sports teams and successful college programs = money. Penn State had a winning formular that brought the school OODLES of dough from so many, many, many avenues. Sure, Joe Pa was a sweet old grandfatherly figure — but that’s not why they didn’t blow the whistle on Sandusky — it was because of the scandal it would have caused and the ensuing tremendous loss of revenue that would follow. WINNING = MONEY.

  4. Joyce, I don’t disagree with you at all that the Penn State football program’s money and power were what prevented those higher up the food chain (Paterno, university administration) from acknowledging what was going on and stopping it. I’m talking about the average people who saw Sandusky’s relationships with the boys in Second Mile, players who observed his creepiness, and maybe even his own wife. They just couldn’t make sense of what they were seeing. If they had seen some creep in the park behaving like that with boys, they would have called the cops. But it was a football coach, so they doubted themselves rather than him. It takes a powerful cultural belief to make people literally not believe what they see.

    Bobby Knight is the perfect example of what I’m talking about (and I was thinking specifically about him when trying to put my finger on the football coach mythos): Knight is a jerk. Everyone knows he’s a jerk. No one ever pretended that he wasn’t a jerk. But football coaches, who are probably every bit as likely as basketball coaches (not to mention the rest of the human race) to be jerks, are surrounded by this misty-eyed, all-American, mom-and-apple-pie nonsense that sets them up as heroes, role models, idols. I don’t know why this is, but maybe Sandusky has just singlehandedly brought it to an end.

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