It has become dogma in the United States that sports is more than entertainment. It is “character-building.” It exemplifies the values we want to promote — discipline, teamwork, fairness and hard work. All this is true, up to a point.
We have seen in both the Penn State University scandal and the controversy over the minute of silence at the Olympic Games for the 11 murdered Israeli athletes how the institutions that are atop the highest levels in sports — Penn State, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — have become amoral protectors of their sport.
At Penn State, officials and former head coach Joe Paterno acted to defend “the program,” rather than the little boys molested by Jerry Sandusky. The survival of the football program became an end unto itself, justifying the means — in this case endangering Sandusky’s future victims and ignoring the already-victimized.
The NCAA grandiosely announces a $60 million fine. But that turns out to be less than meets the eye, as the Associated Press reports: “The $60 million fine levied on Penn State by the NCAA doesn’t look so big next to the scale of the athletic department’s finances. Penn State plans to pay the fine, part of sanctions announced Monday over the child sexual abuse scandal, in five annual installments of $12 million.” With more than $110 million in annual revenue, that’s hardly commensurate with the crimes. Moreover, the NCAA would allow Penn State to fundraise (!) to pay off this debt. (Think up a marketing slogan for that effort.) The NCAA didn’t see fit to enact the “death penalty,” that is, barring Penn State from competition. The NCAA, you see, has ensured that the “program” lives on.
That brings us to the IOC. As Israeli columnist Ruthie Blum notes, the 1972 Games barely paused after the murder of the 11 athletes. “International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage conducted a short memorial service at the stadium, during which he made an appalling speech, paying minor tribute to the Israeli athletes who had just been killed, and making a more general comment about the nature of the Olympics.” The Olympic “ideal,” which, wouldn’t you know, entails not letting anything interrupt the Olympics, becomes an end unto itself (not to mention a hostage to Arab countries’ anti-Israel beliefs.) And, Blum reminds us, “Since that time, there have been repeated requests to the International Olympic Committee, mainly on the part of families of the victims, to have a regular memorial service at the games. This request has been denied again and again, on the grounds that such a commemoration might ‘alienate other members of the Olympic Committee.’ ” In other words, there will be no moral judgments or even recognition of a heinous event under the Olympics’ auspices, only the amoral celebration of the Games themselves.
We’ve fettishized sports to such a degree that they now subvert their original purpose and subsume simple decency. As I’ve said before, the only way for Penn State to rectify its moral confusion is to shut down the football program.
But more than that is required to get our priorities straight. How about the president stop showing his mug at every sporting event on TV and stop inviting the winners of major events to the White House? Of all the events and groups to celebrate at the White House, why single out these? Send the first lady to the National Spelling Bee. Have the president invite representatives of colleges that did the most charitable work. It is time to downgrade sports and elevate other endeavors that actually do reflect and encourage our values. And for goodness’ sakes, no more White House NCAA basketball brackets. Enough.