When the Baylor situation broke ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt profoundly wondered aloud, “What are you willing to give in exchange for your team being better than it’s ever been? It cannot be this. It cannot be the entirety of your soul—particularly at an institution founded on faith.”
But what if collectively we’ve already given away our soul?
What if certain underlying themes are already so much a part of our culture that we should have long ago ceased with the righteous shock response when Penn State or Baylor or Louisville or Stanford or—fill in the blank—finally make headlines?
What if in making a deal with the devil we are simply getting back what we bargained for?
Here are seven scattered themes that seem to be part of our bargain, cultural realities that virtually guarantee another scandalous athletic department cover-up is coming our way soon:
Power always protects power
History reflects a rather constant theme: people in power rarely use that power to protect marginalized, underprivileged, or neglected in society. Power tends to protect itself, leaving victims even more vulnerable to abuse.
As Mitchell Garabedian suggested in Spotlight regarding the Catholic church molestation cover-up in Boston, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” University athletic departments and administrations are tightly bound with the communities that support them, and the collective power and synergy created by their union makes it difficult for high level sport programs to be held accountable until its too late.
To use power on behalf of others is a moral choice—where do people with power even learn to make the higher ground choice today?
Lack of accountability as a 15-year-old
Our whole culture suffers from an unwillingness to hold our athletically gifted young men accountable.
I watch it up close every season as a youth coach: parents regularly allow their kids to break commitments to teams mid-season, to quit because playing time or their handling isn’t what they envisioned, to pout incessantly when things don’t go their way without being confronted with the need to grow up beyond such behavior.
I’m not talking about 8-year-olds with whom we should perhaps expect to be more patient—I’m thinking of situations with high school aged boys who are coddled to the point of infantilism.
These are the boys who wind up as scholarship athletes, boys who should be closing in on responsible manhood but instead continue expecting “mom” or “dad” will cover their tracks. And why shouldn’t they, since they’ve never been expected or allowed to struggle out of the cocoon themselves.
The labeling of youth as “elite”
Rather than restraining the development of entitlement within our athletic youth, we are steadily promoting it.
The existence of “select” and “elite” teams for 8-year-olds around the country reinforces a sense of entitlement long before athletes arrive at college, where they will be further pampered with affirmation far beyond their ability to process it with any sort of perspective.
It may sound strange to connect rapes and cover ups at universities with local travel teams, but without question this selection process plants seeds of exceptionalism early on, leading athletes labeled as such to see themselves outside the boundaries set for their non-athletically gifted peers.
I’m not implying that being on a travel team necessarily leads to rape or run-ins with the law. But being on a team labeled “select” at an early age begins a process that is challenging to reverse, and once a young man thinks of himself as separate from others who aren’t as “good,” it becomes one contributing factor toward thinking different rules apply across the board.
A void in male discipleship
Older men are no longer expected to teach younger men how to act. Adolescent boys do not become respectful toward women or their bodies by default—they have to be taught. Broader, adolescent boys live selfishly at their core—they will do what they want unless they are restrained and guided toward a different ethic for life.
With no collective social expectation for what it means to be a “man,” boys will act how boys want to act, and that produces social consequences for everyone.
Unfortunately, the expectation of male discipleship—men teaching the next generation of men how to live—disappeared from social consciousness a long time ago. Now we have to justify the very existence of men and are spending more time discussing transgender issues than we are a proper way for men to conduct themselves.
The idea that men should have a standard of behavior that gets passed to the next generation is scandalous today, so don’t act shocked when men at every level behave badly.
Winning matters more than character
Van Pelt also rightly suggested that “trouble often accompanies the highest level of success in college football,” and that “people get drunk on success and blinded by it as a result.” The blinding becomes almost inevitable when social values suggest winning itself is more far important than character, and that has been the case for decades now.
While a sentence like this might sound like a lament for a return to earlier times (it’s not), how can it be argued against as an idea? Who could argue with a straight face that in our current moment what you are becoming internally is more important than your won-loss record against the rival?
Until the vocabulary of character development gets reintroduced and becomes genuinely significant at every level of competition—perhaps most importantly in youth sports where foundations get set in place—the pursuit of victory will trump behavior accountability for as long as we can get away with it.
Adults whose vocational life depends on teen performance
At every level of collegiate athletics thousands of adults find their vocational life tied to the successful performances of 19-year-olds on the field and (though less significant until things go wrong) in the classroom.
Coaches and athletic departments have a vested interest in making sure nothing derails individual athletes from making it and staying on the field of play.
They’ve already invested hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars recruiting them. If they lose, the head coach gets fired and most if not all of the staff. Hundreds of families are uprooted every year when these firings happen, transitions which arguably affect extended family more than the coach himself.
Winning equals job longevity, security, and promotion. Losing equals new housing markets and “best school district” tensions at home. I need the players I recruited in the headlines for scoring, not for punching someone at a bar. That’s how I keep my job, and it’s why I’ll control the narrative around my players for as long as I am able.
The momentum of communal fandom
A powerful synergy exists between the extended community of fans, the school, its athletic department, even local law enforcement and media. The collective silence of a fanbase that extends to every corner of a university locale easily smothers a singular voice crying in the wilderness of a student population, no matter the severity of their accusation.
See no evil, hear no evil. Indeed, no one wants the football season thrown out of whack because of a little abuse here and there, classroom cheating, bad behavior with the locals, or any other perceived indiscretion.
Better to just hope accusations go away than to ruin our fall and winter months. We want to watch good football, not sort through legal accusations and questions of moral conduct, and the tidal wave of momentum that builds throughout the year crushes anyone who tries to stand against it.