“Football is God”

One of the minor benefits to waiting tables is being able to eavesdrop, which is usually just boring.  However, in the last two days, at two different restaurants, I have overheard discussions about child abuse and the recent Penn State scandal.  As dreadful as the allegations are, I consider this one good outcome, that is, to remove the shroud of sanctity that has surrounded the Penn State Football Machine and raise very serious questions in Pennsylvania and around the country.

I read the Grand Jury’s disturbing report about the alleged sexual predator and former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.  If the report is as accurate as it is believable, then a very destructive individual has been arrested and will no longer enjoy the protection of the Penn State Football Machine.  If you want an excellent summary of that report and recent events, go to the New York Daily News article published 11/13/2011, link following.  It is my interpretation that this time line demonstrates that the University was aware of Sandusky’s behavior and moved to protect the organization and the football program years ago, but did not take steps to help victims or to prevent ongoing abuse.


If you think being devoted to God means unquestioning loyalty, worship and obsessive enthusiasm, then football is god.  For many, the Penn State Football Machine is the Vatican and Joe Paterno (JoePa) was the pope.  I’m not the first to make this comparison.  CNN contributor Roy Peter Clark, link follows, makes the point well.  When his story was originally posted to CNN’s Web site homepage, the headline was “Football is God.”


Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, wrote this in the New York Times 11/11/2011: “If the allegations are true, head coach Joe Paterno and top-ranking university officials allowed former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to roam loose as a sexual predator even though there were clear indications of his abuse of children.  That has nothing to do with the Nebraska game coming up Saturday. It has to do with a culture at Penn State in which the football program, with Paterno as its god, was allowed to do whatever it wanted, including the protection of one of its own regardless of his alleged depravity.”

The football game was not cancelled Saturday and Penn State lost.  Instead of the display like  earlier in the week when students rioted over the firing of JoePa, there were students holding vigil for the victims.  Nonetheless, what continues to disturb me is the image of football players kneeling in prayer on the field at Saturday’s game.  This strengthens the religion of football, but not real religion.  It is a pathetic attempt of self-aggrandizement to elevate a tainted program.

Most likely the majority of those players would claim to embrace Christianity, being the majority religion of the country and all.  How about a quote from Jesus about this kind of behavior?  “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others,” (Matthew 6:6, New International Version)  If you need others to see you pray, then it is about you.  Just you.  Here’s a prayer: “Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; in your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone…”  (Book of Common Prayer, The Episcopal Church).

I admit to not being a sports fan and have blogged about sports in two prior columns: “Smackdown: Man v. Nature” (10/11/2011) and “Sex and Sports and Religion” (6/24/2010).  Neither am I a Penn State graduate, even though many people confuse it with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), from which I did graduate.  I am close to more than one Penn Stater and they are very upset by any criticism of their alma matter.  The moral failure of the University’s leaders, including JoePa, merits criticism.  That does not diminish things at Penn State like “Thon,” when each year thousands of Penn State students work feverishly for months to raise millions of dollars to help kids with cancer.  I have been to Thon and contributed to Thon.  It remains a valuable and important philanthropic activity at Penn State.  But that does not excuse the lack of morality in the football program.

Football is not god.  In fact, unquestioning loyalty is more appropriately attributed to a cult than a religion.  As we have seen in the past week, it is dangerous.  In both the small decisions and the large ones, each individual has personal responsibility.  Some students were weeping for JoePa while others were lighting candles for victims of abuse.  These are small decisions that I believe affect what will happen next.

I wonder if the Vatican is breathing a sigh of relief that the media winds are blowing a different direction right now.  I hope not.  Because one of the underlying cultural problems is patriarchy.  When you mix men, money and power, bad things will happen.  And when they happen, they will be covered-up because they will protect each other – not the vulnerable and powerless.

Forgive us – for what we have done and what we have left undone.


Photos from CNN online

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  • Troy  On November 15, 2011 at 9:31 am

    This is a very nice blog post Jacqui. This entire episode exposes how major football programs engulf and control entire universities and whether athletes are consorting with known drug dealers or coaches are sexually abusing children, these universities go to great lengths to cover up the misdeeds and keep the money rolling in. You have poignantly stated what disturbed me about Saturday, but could not express in words. In the morning two men knelt down outside Joe Paterno’s house and prayed. It literally was like they were praying TO Joe Pa. As Jacqui stated, if they really wanted to pray for Jo Pa and for Penn State you can do so at home or in your church- not outside the disgraced coaches house where you know hundreds of cameras have been for the past week. What has been lost in this entire incident is the victims and the true criminal. I hear reporters and talking heads state “concern” for these victims but then revert to the sensationalism of this story- focusing more on Joe Paterno than the actual culprit Sandusky. Lastly, over and over again I hear reporters and Mr. Paterno’s son reiterate that Joe Paterno has been saying all week “We have to pray for these children”. Men like this use religion, or the superficial application of religion, to seem moral and above reproach. If they really cared about those children they would be called the police in 2002 and then prayed for the children, not cover up the crime for almost a decade and now begin to pray. Speaking of the willy-nilly application of religion and prayer by those less than holy, has anyone involved in this horrible incident asked for forgiveness?

  • allthingsreligious  On November 15, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Troy. I tried to not dwell on the JoePa issue in the blog, but it does bother me that people are crying for him and not the real victims – many of whom might not have been abused if the right things had been done. Elementary school children know how to call 9-1-1. And no, no one is asking for forgiveness because what they are all really preparing for is to protect themselves from lawsuits. This story will not end for a very long time. -J.B.

  • Mkay  On November 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    A really well written post. I cannot imagine knowing that someone in your circle, whether it be a friend, colleague, etc. has been accused of such despicable acts and be able to stand the presence of that person. It would make me sick to look at that person, and yet, it went on for years. It is parallel to the Catholic church’s scandalous cover up of child abuse for years and years. Everyone is so busy covering themselves that the victims are again being shunted off to the side. This scandal will have ramifications long into the future.

  • allthingsreligious  On November 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    You’re right Mkay. The news stories are tame compared to reading the entire Grand Jury report, which I did, and don’t recommend. I hope Penn State’s Board of Trustees are serious about getting to the bottom of all of this. thanks for reading. -J.B.

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