In our opinion: The sports culture

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Every so often, it seems, people in the United States have to rediscover the dangers of putting sports ahead of things that ought to be far more important.

Jay LaPrete, AP

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Every so often, it seems, people in the United States have to rediscover the dangers of putting sports ahead of things that ought to be far more important. The report this week concerning Penn State University and circumstances surrounding sexual abuse by former football coach Jerry Sandusky is the latest. Sandusky was convicted of 45 charges of abusing young boys, and apparently a lot of people knew what he was up to but did nothing.

Former FBI director Louis Freeh conducted the review, and he was crystal clear about what it found. The problems went beyond the perpetrators and the coaches and administrators who covered things up and right to the culture of big-time college athletics, which seemed to have assumed a place of importance above the safety of children.

The report implicates former head football coach Joe Paterno and former university president Graham Spanier, as well as the former vice president and athletic director. Freeh and his team interviewed 430 witnesses, examined 3.5 million emails and studied other documents. Freeh said even janitors they spoke to knew Sandusky was abusing boys, but they did nothing because they feared the coaching staff and its prominence at the school.

Criminal charges may yet be filed against those implicated, given that the Clery Act requires people to report crimes they know have happened on a campus. The L.A. Times quoted a professor at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University as saying the report "is a wake-up call for every university with a major sports program."

What he should have said is it's the "latest" wake-up call. A little more than a year ago, Sports Illustrated published a cover story about football players, the crimes they commit and the powerful people who cover up for them. The magazine found that 7 percent of the players on the 2010 preseason Top 25 teams "had been charged with or cited for a crime."

That story also implicated one of Utah's most high-profile high school football programs, Bingham High in South Jordan. A player there pleaded guilty to stealing wallets from two young men at gunpoint, but a county prosecutor reduced the charges so the player could remain eligible to compete for the University of Utah.

A basketball betting scandal rocked the collegiate world in the early 1950s. Kentucky, winners of the NCAA championship in 1951, had its program suspended for the 1952-53 season. There have been too many recruiting scandals through the years to list here.

As early as 1895, some football programs were accused of enrolling talented high school players who hadn't yet graduated, just to help their teams win. Sports has been overly revered by many for a long time.

Each of those earlier examples was a symptom of a willingness to put winning above ethics and even public safety. None, however, rose to the level of aiding and enabling a pedophile. Maybe the shock of what happened in Pennsylvania will indeed spur a change in attitudes. Unfortunately, that may not be likely unless some harsh penalties are meted.

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