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Victory at Any Cost: The Case of Penn State

The dark side of sports worship.

We are a culture that likes our sports. Baseball is commonly referred to as "America's pastime," while the Super Bowl has received near national holiday status; we pay reverence to the speculation of which teams will get to that coveted Sunday of the year. In fact, the last Super Bowl was the highest rated show ever watched by the American public, with an estimated 111 million people tuning in to see Aaron Rodgers lead his Packs to victory (Bauder, 2011). Of course college sports are the official springboard into the pros, and oftentimes met with equal if not more fanfare. Indeed, becoming a fan oftentimes serves as a requisite rite of passage for many college students enrolled at particular schools.

And of course, big sports mean big business. Penn State's football program alone rakes in a reported $70 million dollars a year (Dowd, 2011). Penn State knows the reverence that comes with building a winning football institution, and will likely pay a high price for the decisions made by the men within its walls, those who chose victory over justice. The reported victims of former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky, of course, have already paid the highest price of all. Making matters worse was the gross institutionalized silence and inaction by Penn State when allegations first came to light over a decade ago. This silence on the part of such a previously revered institution serves as a second assault for the victims and their families, who are now seeking justice.

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Let's make no mistake: It was men within this institution who chose to stay silent. Young boys were victimized while elder males, presumably the ones we would expect to protect our youth, either observed or heard of the victimization but chose to work up the channels within the institution rather than to directly contact the authorities. Ironic in a culture of heightened masculinity that the men in charge would choose to pass the buck up the male hierarchy rather than to take a stand and speak out.

Men in positions of power chose to remain passive rather than active, a line of inaction that is in direct violation to the norms of masculinity (strength, power, activity). This puts on display the powerful value within sports cultures placed on winning, a value that can serve to trump one's health, family life, and basic decency and morality. For instance, one anonymous editorial on Penn State's culpability writes: "It is a mistake to think of this as malfeasance by a few people. The scandal grows out of a culture that seems to protect football at all costs" (The New York Times, 2011, A26).

Similarly, an additional opinion piece from The New York Times sums up the arrogance that can accompany athletic success within such institutions when the writer remarks that the sports world would rather "protect its own" than do the right thing (Dowd, 2011, A27). Indeed, many of us are outsiders to the culture of sports, so it's hard not to ask the question: Why woud any witness to such a sexual assault stay silent? For the decision makers at Penn State, they saw about 70 million reasons to stay quiet.

But now that the silence is broken, here is hoping that every single man in the chain of command at this institution is held accountable for their inaction and that in doing so, the victims will be able to start the healing process and gain a restored sense of their own power and agency.


Bauder, D. (2011). Super Bowl 2011 is Most Watched Program EVER. The Huffington Post Media, retrieved on November 9, 2011 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/07/super-bowl-2011-ratings-... .

Dowd, M. (November 9, 2011). Personal Foul at Penn State. The New York Times, Op-Ed, A27.

Penn State's Culpability (November 9, 2011). The New York Times, Editorials/Letters, A26.

Copyright 2011 Azadeh Aalai

Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland and an adjunct at George Washington University. She is the author of Understanding Aggression. more...

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