Sporting Family – by Jordan Bass

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?

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7 thoughts on “Sporting Family – by Jordan Bass

  1. The two examples of Bill O’Brien and Penn State and the New Orleans Saints bounty program are excellent examples of sporting families and what coaches, administrators, trainers, and players will do and keep secrets for one another. However, those aren’t the only examples of teams sticking together and trying to keep secrets for the betterment of the team and organization. When I first read this blog the one prominent story that came to my mind was the Oakland Athletics teams of the late 1980’s starring the “Bash Brothers” of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Are those Athletics teams trying to say they had no idea Canseco and McGwire were doing steroids early on in the clubhouse and locker room? Those teams kept quiet, maybe even a majority of the whole “baseball family” kept quiet early on, because they knew Canseco and McGwire were helping their team. I am sure that is not the last of sporting families keeping a solid face on the surface while there are issues of turmoil going on behind closed doors but to remain strong and prominent, those stories and issues may be kept hidden for quite some time until they eventually seep out. As for why fans allow it to happen I believe is because they like the product that is on the field, and only when it is a complete travesty such as Penn State will there be issues brought up about those teams.

    1. Yes, I agree. The reason why sport coaches and administrators “like” covering up the negative incidents and protecting involved athletes from allegations is that they need them on the team. It’s understandable that when the key players commit misbehaviors, the coaches have to hide them from the accusations for that without them the team is not complete and competent to carry out the planned tactics and strategies at a good level, which would cause loss of the game. Same to the administrators of the team, they have to cover things up, because the exposure of players’ misdemeanors could cause the failure to maintain the trust of sponsors and the worry of influencing their sales of products. If coaches and administrators did that out of these reasons, they, actually, did not “like” doing it, but are forced to do it. By covering up these athletes, even though it is unethical and despicable, they could make it “peaceful” in a general sense, which allows the team to maintain its standings in the conference, the fans still enthusiastic about it, and the funding sources stable to provide money. As for the fans, they do want to know what goes on behind closed doors, but when they make it getting known about the issues, they would, on the second thought, choose to bedead themselves believing in that players were good, it must be out of some reasons, and they need to be forgiven, after all, they are fighting for us on the sporting field and we need them. If you are a fan of a team, you would want the team to be good both in a “righteous” way and in a “selfish” way.

  2. I tend to agree with Jordan for a number of different reasons. First, having worked at different jobs leading up to this point of my life I cannot imagine being in a organization that covers up something as serious as bounties let alone a child sex scandal. I think that as a culture we do not want to know what is going on behind the scenes because we are scared of what we might fine. These two instances clearly support this way of thinking. I relate the examples in this article to the Tiger Woods scandal. He was one of, if not the most, popular athlete in the world yet no one really knew anything about his personal life other than the names of his wife and children. As a Tiger Woods fan I did not really care about his personal life but never thought he would have been apart of a scandal where he committed adultery numerous times. While I still root for Tiger on the golf course, I am hesitant to know more about other favorite/popular sporting figures. While I will not shy away from reading about these figures I definitely have grown to expect the worse. It’s sad in a sense that the programs/people who do things the right way never get recognized. Instead, it is the ones who make these colossal (sometimes unfathomable) that are in the direct eye of society. Unfortunately I do not see this changing anytime in the near future but I will continue to enjoy and consume sports, whether I cringe or not every time I see a headline involving an athlete/organization in USA Today, Newsweek or the NY Times is another story.

  3. The concept of “Sporting Family” can be interpreted in different ways. As Jordan points out, there are a lot of examples of this negative insular family. The main problem being in the college and professional teams and leagues. It is no question that elite teams will often form a bond and a certain code of silence within their team family. Another example of this would be when Lance Armstrong’s teammate came out with drug use information saying that everyone was using. He broke the code of “Omerta” or code of silence that the whole team had vowed to take to insure their team’s success.

    However, I do not want to give the impression I think all Sporting families are negative! In the example of The new head coach of Penn State football, I would like to play the devils advocate and argue that yes, the insulated family dynamic the team held previously was isolated and negative producing a very negative result. However, not all family values and dynamics are bad! O’Brien announced himself as “The new leader” of the family. New is often a chance for change and a different direction. Family should never be put out of the equation, just in these examples, be re-directed. The family should look out for each others well being. Not their success on the field. A true sporting family is one that is concerned with the other members of their team and their health. They know about their families, siblings, hardships, etc. They know them on a deeper level. When a team claims to be a family, yet knows nothing of their team mates personal lives, that is no family at all. That is a negative, fake if you will, sporting family. I do believe that even in a case such as Penn State, with the right leadership, they could recover from the insular family that produced these horrible circumstances and harbor a healthy family dynamic that looks out for each other and the family members best interests.

    In the second example, again the example is horrifying, but the problem lies within the ethics of the sporting family and not the actual concept of creating sporting families. In a nut shell, coaches, captains and leaders need to step in and do whats right for their fellow man, their “team family” and not what will produce fleeting victories. It is a flawed mentality, but it can be turned into a positive.

  4. I see Jordan’s point about the insularity of the “family” dynamic that is present in sports community, however, the insularity and “cover-up” mentality did not begin in professional sports organizations. As children we are taught that to tattle-tell on a sibling, friend, schoolmate, or teammate was not to be tolerated. If one were coined as a “snitch” he/she was treated as a piriah and excommunicated from the fold he/she betrayed. Even in places where children are supposed to feel safe (the church) a hushed attitude is expected. Popular culture and media further that attitudinal perspective by featuring shows about police officers that are shunned for crossing the “blue line” by outing their fellow officers.

    From a cultural aspect my viewpoint on why a fan does not want to know about all the dirty little secrets within a teams “family”, is because we, as fans, live vicariously through the teams we love, the coaches we support, and players we admire. We don’t want to know that our favorite golfer has committed multiple acts of adultery because the person we idolized has now proven that he/she is normal person just like us. For a fan, that is the ultimate betrayal. We are left with the idea we created about a person and it no longer fits into the mold we created for him/her. The question then becomes how one (the fan) could have been so blind to have not seen the fall coming. It forces the fan to question his/her existance and place within the fabric he/she created. If a fans wants to be “like” someone they admire and suddenly that person is abhorant to the public at large, the fan may subsequently feel that he/she in association is just as abhorant and guilty of the indescretion as the perpetrator.

    From a financial point of view, the sports teams are hindered by the financial burden of a public attrocity. Hence, the reasoning behind “we should stand behind the player in their hour of need” mentality. Owners, coaches and investors are looking at the bottom line and trying to spin the best possible outcome from a bad situation.

    In the end it all comes down to the morality of each individual. The morality of the coaches that allow abuses against children to continue when their only defense is “I did what I was supposed to do”. The real question is not whether or not the bad behavior and insularity occurs but where has the morality of the individual gone?

  5. The examples of the Saints and Penn State situation are valid for the argument that is being made, but there is also a bit of over investigating being done here. For instance, the phrase, “Penn State family” is a simple phrase that is used to describe any sports/corporate/organization that deems itself to have a closeknit group of people that love what they represent. Many large corporations use the word “family” to describe people that work for them, or people that support them. Therefore, for Bill O’brian to say he is the new leader of the Penn State football family is not disgusting or abusive in any way. The entire Penn State fanbase were not accussed of child molestation or involvement in covering it up, the “fathers” or heads of Penn State were. They were dealt with properly and the innovent members now have a broken family that needs a new leader, and Bill O’brian communicated that he was willing to take on the role or repairing a broken family.

    Moving to the end of the blog post, the thought that sports teams are often held to a higher standard than other organization is faulty as well. There are numerous examples of corporate immorality being overlooked, and brushed under the rug in order to keep the image of the company clean. Look into corporate America and how many companies members are performing some sort of immoral action and have been caught. Then look at how long this immoral action is going on and how many people were aware of the allegations. I completely agree that everyone should be held accountable for their actions, but if we immediately fired everyone who did something immoral then it would probably be a pretty small amount of employed people in this country. In some of the cases, football is probably one of the better places for an athlete that needs discipline to stay, but only if they have the right people around them.

  6. Anyone whom has ever called Pennsylvania there home, no matter how short their residency will at one time or another come into contact with the noxious amount of fans, and in-your-face-pride from the Penn State community. A native of the state of PA and having a family member and many of peers from my high school class attend PSU, I have personally been bored with the “We Are” antics of the institution. These personal relations were devastated with the news surrounding the scandal, but were further angered by the quick dismissal of a man, who was the very embodiment of the “wholesome” and “familial” Penn State nittany pack. What happened in the following weeks was one of curiosity and distaste. To many, Paterno was the true victim in the Sandusky case-a once glorified figure in the institution, his career coming to unjustified and abrupt end.

    A good number of Penn State fans reacted and were angered for the wrong reasons. Instead of being angered by the fact that these actions occurred on their own campus, or even were empathetic for the victims, they were busy rioting in front of the legendary coaches house. Conversely there were people outside the admissions building with signs that read “Tonight I am Ashamed of PSU” and “Protecting Molestors?” Many people outside of the community were outraged with the behavior. Quoted from the newspaper The Collegian in Happy Valley,“If they (the students) have been thinking of the victims and protecting children, then they would have been guided all along to do the right thing..and could have saved other victims from befalling the same fate. If this has been going on since 1999, more people knew about this…it is disgusting and shameful, neglectful and criminal.”

    Penn State is just one example of presumably many cases where sports organizations operate under the “Good Ole Boy” system. These morally ambiguous programs are not just in the isolated bubble up in State College, but they exist even in our very own backyard here at Florida State. You see it all the time where marquee players have “run-ins” with the law, and somehow seem eligible to participate in play the next weekend despite poor behavior and “lack of maturity and judgment”. Not long after the Penn State storyline broke, did other institutions of higher learning start coming forward like Syracuse’s basketball program.

    True fans, are fans no matter what pans out, right? Sport institutions are more so under a magnifying glass then other facets of higher education systems because of their visibility in competition. The Psychology Department, faculty and students here at Florida State may be excelling in their industry at a national level, but to the average fan of the University we may never hear one thing about them. Sports on the other hand have the capability to draw the attention of thousands just over the course of one game.

    Bottom line- stories like this, however disgusting, shameful, neglectful and criminal, will happen. Good PR puts schools on the map for positive athletic accomplishments. Programs are looking to accentuate the positive and overlook the negative. “Overlooking” subtleties, no matter how small or large will continue to happen when schools operate under this blind-eye regimen.

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