America is trying to wrap its head around the Freeh Report that shows the perversion at every level of Jerry Sandusky’s rampage of child rape that lasted more than a decade. A jury has already convicted Sandusky of the crimes themselves. It took former FBI director Louis Freeh to uncover, through an analysis of 3.5 million emails dating back fourteen years, that the senior athletic and adminstrative staff enabled the entire sick affair. A posthumous letter from coach Joe Paterno himself attempts to cast attention away from his beloved football program claiming that “this is not a football scandal.” And he is right – the Sandusky-Paterno affair is far bigger than any one sport. It exposes a deep dysfunction in a nation that has tragically confused its frivolous entertainments for things that are practically and morally important to our real lives. Our collective future depends on our ability to grow up and focus on the many challenges before this society.
The supreme power of entertainment in American culture
One thing you hear around Penn State football is that it was a religion and Joe Paterno one of its high priests. People speak about the incredible power that the man wielded in the state of Pennsylvania. A number of observers have claimed that Paterno was the most important person at the university. Certainly, many witnesses in the Sandusky prosecution claimed to be afraid to come forward to confront a cadre of men who led the single most important activity at their place of employment for fear of losing their jobs – or worse. The janitors were no better than the senior administrators, who to this day fear retribution from the same mob of supporters who rioted upon the coach’s termination. Any way you slice it, Joe Paterno was the individual with the most raw power in the university, if not the area, if not the state.
And for what activity did he achieve this power? For coaching men who play a game with a ball. Paterno was not the head of the army or a financier or the state’s largest employer or an elected official – his organization ran around some grass with a ball versus other men who did likewise. He achieved supreme power in an activity that is virtually without importance.
For every sports superfan currently hyperventilating and letting out streams of profanity along with numb explanations of the “commitment to excellence, community involvement, important-to-millions” argument – you are proving my point. Sports are fun. Sports are popular. Sports make a lot of money. You like them. I like them. But that does not make them important activities, and the fact that our culture has lost sight of this is precisely why Jerry Sandusky was allowed to use Penn State football facilities as his personal torture chamber. People all around the program believed in their hearts that protecting a college football team from embarrassment was so important that it even superceded going to the police over rapes that were witnessed on campus. The Freeh Report shows without question that the people involved believed that this activity actually took precedence over child welfare.
Our most important value is making money
The real problem is that the executives at Penn State are not the only people who would have made this decision. Many cities, regions and states have their own cults of personality that form around sports, cults that downplay illegal, unethical and immoral acts. Look at the rehabilitation of Michael Vick, a man in the sports entertainment industry convicted of torturing animals. One would think that an industry that markets to children would be loathe to place a man convicted of such grotesque brutality back in the spotlight – but the argument was that he was talented and a moneymaker. His prowess and profitability, at the end of the day, came before any of the highminded values of character and excellence we see trotted out so often in regards to sports. And if you want further examples of illegality glossed over by performance, read the documents pertaining to Kobe Bryant’s rape case – settled out of court for an undisclosed sum – and then look at the improvement to his reputation after athletic feats such as his subsequent 81-point game versus the Toronto Raptors. At the end of the day, that which is supposed to be a fun diversion, an elevation of positive characteristics, is in actuality a calculated business arrangement with its own logic that trumps morality. Whether we intend it or not, these are the lessons we are passing on to our children as they build the next generation of our civilization – that anything is forgiveable as long as you make money. Unfortunately, that lesson, intended or not, goes on to inform behaviors in every other institution of society.
It is time to put childish things back in their place
This is what Paterno and Sandusky should remind us – it’s only a game. The fact that men put a game ahead of child safety is the warning of all warnings about the culture’s insatiable need to be entertained. It reminds me of the fervor on Wall Street over companies that produce no other product other than distraction. We hear about Zynga, makers of Farmville, or Angry Birds or even Facebook, all of which are distractions that can guarantee “eyeballs” in the parlance of marketers. We’re more interested in Farmville than farming, more interested in Instagram than manufacturing, more involved with Facebook’s IPO than we are the unprecedented unemployment for college graduates in America.
And none of these things are important – not sports, not games, not movies. It is a testament to the phenomenal economic success of the United States that we could forget what is truly important, where prior generations had to claw the dirt with their own fingernails just to make a living. We have been so successful as to ignore healthcare, city planning, taking care of elders, and energy efficiency in favor of distractions. The Penn State affair shows us just how far afield our mentality has strayed.
In the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:11 states that “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, reasoned like a child – but when the time came I put away childish things.” America is entering a phase of its existence where the tolerance for childish things shall be reduced by the new challenges we will face from demographic shift, economic transformation and resource scarcity. Our culture must put distractions and entertainments in their proper place, for the welfare of all.