When Bill O’Brien was introduced as the new head football coach at Penn State University my first reaction was the same as many people – “Who?” However, while I was doing research for a journal article I read the transcript of the introductory press conference and was taken aback by something O’Brien said. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator said he would be the new leader of the “Penn State football family.” If you remember, O’Brien was taking over for a coach, Joe Paterno, who was fired because the Penn State Board of Trustees believed he knowingly covered up alleged child molestations that happened in the locker rooms in the football facilities. One central media narrative that emerged in the days after Paterno was fired was that Penn State, and State College, Pennsylvania, were too isolated from the rest of the world and the insularly community atmosphere facilitated the abuses being covered up and never being mentioned outside of the small college town. In essence, the Penn State family was portrayed as partially culpable for the molestation scandal. Why then, would O’Brien, on his first day on the job, further promote the insular atmosphere at Penn State by evoking the image of a family setting? It does not take long to become appalled if you apply the family analogy to the program when the alleged molestations were committed and covered up. In fact, I found it downright creepy and disgusting for the new Penn State football coach to label the Penn State football program as a insular family.
I observed similar types of language being used this weekend when the New Orleans Saints bounty program was discussed. ESPN commentator Chris Mortenson suggested that the culture around football teams made them oblivious to how the outside world would view a “pay-to-injure” program. Popular sports blog Deadspin pointed out that Kurt Warner’s career was ended by a hit that likely netted a Saints defender a sizable “bounty” from his teammates and coaches. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Potash stated “Neanderthal thinking” in the NFL has created a culture that encourages injuring opponents, some that eventually die, that will get much worse before it ever gets better. Again, I was struck by the insularly language that wasused by football players and sports commentators to explain or defend the bounty program. Buffalo Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman tweeted, “Why is this a big deal now? Bounties been going on forever,” and Mortenson stated the media was partially culpable for buying into and not reporting on the NFL culturethat routinely promoted intentional injury of players. Additionally, former NFL player Ross Tucker wrote a rather testy column imploring people to not call the bounty program cheating. Tucker stated, “Is it against the rules? Absolutely. Does that mean it is cheating? I suppose strictly speaking it does, but I personally don’t see the competitive advantage that is gained.” Tucker has been insulated so long within the NFL community that he fails to even make the simple connection that a competitive advantage is likely gained by the defense if the offensive player knows the defender will get cut a check if they end the offensive players’ career. You do not think that passes through a receivers mind when he is debating if he should run hard across the middle? One has to wonder how much a Saints defender receives in twenty years when an opponent commits suicide because of CTE that was caused from repeated concussions.
While the two examples above come from football programs, I do not believe the insularly attitude is only present on the gridiron. Sport coaches and administrators are among the biggest protectors of their own private space. They will make enormous sacrifices, like covering up child abuse allegations, to maintain a positive self-presentation of their team or program. It is particular evident when players commit transgressions and are allowed to continue competing for their team. Coaches are often quoted as saying the player had a lapse in judgment, showed a lack of maturity, or (my personal favorite) will learn and grow from this incident. Every explanation is supposed to make the spectator believe that the transgression is not as bad as it seems, they are not getting the whole story, and that it will actually help the player learn and grow to remain in the program. “We shouldn’t abandon them now” is a popular phrase used by coaches as justification to keep a troubled player on the team.
I am curious as to why fans and spectators allow this insularly sporting culture to exist. Is it because they do not want to knowwhat goes on behind closed doors? Are they not aware of the problems that often exist and are masked by sports programs? I believe it may be because fans and spectators are unconsciously participants in the “sporting family.” As a Nebraska Cornhuskers fan, I would have trouble convincing a non-sports spectator why I take great pride in the 1995 National Championship football team thatstarted a known woman abuser at running back because the legendary head coach believed the best situation for him was in a “structured football program.” However, I would bet the majority of people in our class would at least be aware of and possibly be able to follow the line of reasoning I was describing. Because of what sport is supposed to embody and promote (sportsmanship, responsibility, toughness, overcoming adversity, etc.) teams are able to get away with these phony explanations for transgressions that happen in or around their program. How must non-sport fans view those types of explanations?
The CEO of Ford Motor Company would be laughed off the stage if he explained to his shareholders he was keeping the Vice President of Finance employed even though he assaulted his wife because he could learn and grow from the incident in the corporate environment. Do the cultural perceptions of the benefits of sport exempt teams from behaving like the rest of the real world?