Sports are supposed to be an escape, a momentary reprieve from the harsh realities of the world. No matter what's going on around us, sports are there as a break. We've used the thrill of competition to move past tragic world events, rationalizing that sports are a return to normalcy, allowing us to escape into another world again.
Growing up, some of my fondest memories came from college football. There was nothing like settling in on a Saturday to watch my favorite team, living and dying with every play. Bowl games were special, and the passion of college football fans was infectious.
The memories stayed with me through adolescence and early adulthood, shaping my view of college football along the way. I didn't know recruiting was a dirty game, nor did I realize what was hidden away behind the curtain, away from public view. College football existed on Saturdays, and only on Saturdays. The athletes would show up and compete for three months in the fall, then go into hibernation before doing it all again the next year. I didn't know how they made their way to the university or what went on behind-the-scenes, and I didn't care.
It was an ignorant viewpoint, I know, but one I was blissful in. The alternative was confronting the realities of a sport plagued by the same issues as society, as flawed as the characters in charge. And as we've seen in the past year, the flaws of those supposed to be leading the sport and molding men are many.
Former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky was charged with a litany of felonies for multiple incidents of child rape. That alone is bad enough to leave even the most jaded fan absolutely speechless. As details of the investigation continued to trickle out over the course of the weekend and early this week, the reaction was the same: curse words and disgust gave way to anger and calls for heads to roll.
It takes a lot to utterly shock college football fans these days. But as the curtain continues to be pulled back, exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport, it becomes harder to defend the game. This isn't recruiting violations and improper benefits; this is a complete failure of the system and acts that will forever alter the lives of Sandusky's victims.
There's a difference between the law and the law of the NCAA. We can shrug off the latter, reasoning it's silly rules put in place to protect a system that's a sham in the first place. The rules of the NCAA serve to protect what I now know is the mirage of amateurism. The innocence I had as a child, believing college football was pure and populated by amateur athletes playing for the name on the front of their jersey, is gone.
But when a coach, who takes on the role of surrogate father to men entering the years of their life that will shape who they are, betrays the trust of children, it strikes at the core of all our morals. As Sandusky molded men into incredible football players, he was allegedly abusing children and leaving behind scars that will never go away.
How could this happen? How could a man known as the Dean of Linebacker U betray the trust of so many? How could those in charge, faced with ample opportunities to put a stop to Sandusky's crimes, turn a blind eye?
Time and again, the leaders of the sport choose loyalty over morality. It's easy to brush aside Jim Tressel covering his players' tracks and hiding multiple cases of improper benefits. We can joke about Tressel's transgressions because NCAA violations, while morally questionable, exist in a make-believe world.
It's entirely different when one of the most respected men in college football presides over a program that allegedly enabled a child rapist. Nothing, perhaps short of murder, will draw the same reaction as the sexual abuse of a child does. And when those in charge had every opportunity to put an end to Sandusky's crimes, they chose loyalty over morality. It's simply inexcusable to not call the police.
We can call for everyone to be fired for their role in this entire debacle -- the cover-up, the bungled public relations strategy, everything -- but it won't erase the stench of the crime. This happened under the watch of one of the most legendary coaches in the history of the sport, within one of college football's most storied programs. How do we reconcile the fact that in the same locker room Penn State players retreated from the field to, a coach was sexually abusing children?
There's nothing sacred in college football, and the thrill of the competition only masks what lies beneath the surface. We can love the game, but we also have to confront the realities of it. The escape from reality is, in actuality, a microcosm of society as a whole, with the same problems and significant flaws that plague all walks of life. Right now, that's a difficult pill to swallow.