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.