Football First: The Discourse of Culture and Athletics in the Jerry Sandusky Scandal at Penn State


Simon J. Bronner


Paper delivered at the American Studies Association annual meeting, Washington, D.C., November 2013, Panel: “Penalties, Sanctions, and Fines: Discourses of American Sports Gone Afoul”


I know what you’re thinking. After millions of words spewed in print, radio, television, and the Internet about the Jerry Sandusky sports scandal that the Associated Press picked as the top sports story two years running (2011, 2012), what more is there possibly to say? Or do we need to say it, even if there was? The story has many facets and no matter how you cut it, the details are disturbing. It centers on the actions of former university football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault of at least eight underage boys on or near university property and the alleged response, or lack of response, by university officials to prevent the story from getting out and even enabling Sandusky to continue his abuse over a fifteen-year period (1994-2009; in 2002 the university banned Sandusky from bringing children onto the Penn State campus but failed to make a report to police or to any child protection agency). University president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and legendary football coach Joe Paterno lost their jobs in the wake of the revelations. Students massed in support of Paterno, but amid allegations of succumbing to the will of the coach, the university removed a venerated statue of him in front of Beaver Stadium.  Of relevance to American Studies, literary scholar Michael B�rub� resigned the Paterno Family Professorship, but wrote an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education to declare, public opinion notwithstanding, that Penn State’s football program did not corrupt the university’s academic mission. Even before the trial that resulted in a conviction of Sandusky occurred, the NCAA, based upon a report commissioned by the Penn State board of trustees and led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, imposed severe sanctions including sixty million dollars in fines, a four-year post-season ban, and vacating of wins going back to 1998. While no one questioned the horror of the abuse, there were objections that the NCAA overstepped its bounds in a criminal case, or at least that its president Mark Emmert exerted strongarm tactics in deliberations that sidestepped the organization’s usual procedures. The organization allowed Emmert to determine the punishments, did not enter into investigations of its own, and  refused to hear any appeals.

Acknowledging the enormity of the discourse from the sports section to the front news page is not to say that key themes cannot be discerned. Much of that discourse has concerned the general problem of child sexual abuse in America, the role of big time sports in driving the mission of higher education, and the privileging, even worship, of football on college campuses. Related to this last point is the challenge to the NCAA’s monopolistic management of big-time sports, because at the time the NCAA was being rocked by criticism of various policies including its commercial exploitation of players, handling of recruiting violations, and botched investigation of the University of Miami program.  Secondarily, there is the question of the taint on Penn State’s good name, once known for being a squeaky clean program, even at times acting holier than thou, or holier than corruptible programs further south that sacrifice academics for sports success. The Sandusky scandal remained headline news for the better part of the last three years. Consider that AP’s designation of the Sandusky scandal as the number one issue was the first time a story was selected twice in a row since the AP began conducting its annual vote in 1990 and it looks as if the story will linger for years to come with trials of Penn State administrators yet to be heard, massive monetary settlements by Penn State with Sandusky’s victims, more appeals for a new trial by Sandusky’s lawyers, an investigation of the Attorney General’s handling of the case, a libel case against former FBI director Louis Freeh by former university president Graham Spanier, and active lawsuits against the NCAA by the Paterno family, trustees, and former players for its sanctions against the University. Arguably, the story has shifted with time from the issue of child abuse to the role of big-time college sports in American education and political economy.

Even these issues, I contend, are undergirded by the contested question of “culture,” and an examination of its use in the discourse can help explain the impact of the story in American consciousness.  Although not as conspicuous as other issues, I claim that the rhetoric of culture is fundamental to the way that sports are conceptualized in American worldview. As American Studies scholars lean toward rhetorical and symbolic analysis to discern the “big picture” and the hidden “crux of the matter,” I analyze the use, or misuse, of “culture” as a keyword in the Sandusky scandal to assess what the scandal reveals about attitudes toward sports, universities, and the importance of winning in American society.

To be sure, the immediate and “most significant” cause of administrators’ failure to halt Sandusky’s assaults, the Freeh Report concluded, was “The avoidance of the consequences of bad publicity” for the university (16). It found, however, contextual reasons that created a problem at Penn State. Most of these were structural such as problems with the oversight of the Board of Trustees, ignorance of Clery Act regulations, and the governance style of the President. The last bulleted point, however, was the most general and arguably the most explosive: “A culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community” (17). Indeed, in making recommendations for remediation, the report place “The Penn State Culture” first. It noted that transformation of the culture is one of the most challenging tasks, although it did not give its criteria for culture beyond suggesting that it constituted a “weakness” and calling upon the university to conduct a “thorough and honest review” of itself (17).  In fact, most of the corrective recommendations for changing the culture were administrative, but the report cited a “community culture” that places an “over-emphasis on ‘The Penn State Way’ as an approach to decision-making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives,” and probably its most important point, “an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University’s reputation as a progressive institution” (129). The statement suggested that participation in or support for sports was either reactionary or countered the academic mission of the university. The report also implied that athletics corrupted the values of community members because it called on the University administration to “create a values- and ethics-centered community” (129). Editorials reacted negatively to this accusation because of the implication that every student, staff, and faculty member was culpable in the continuation of child sex abuse. Most community members preferred to view it as bad decision making by a few individuals and the crimes the actions of a sick, predatory person. In criticism of this part of the report, Berube and others pointed out that the only evidence for the cultural statement was an interview with a janitor who expressed fear of repercussions for reporting what he saw to administrators.

Although the few lines on culture in the Freeh Report was probably the vaguest part of the investigation, NCAA President Mark Emmert brought what he called a “football first culture” to the forefront. In his public statement explaining sanctions against the university he highlighted the need to “ensure Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry. Our goal is not to just be punitive, but to make sure the University establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people” (NCAA 2012). In a separate statement Emmert stated “Recent incidents have made it clear that Penn State refuses to fix its football-first culture. We need to send a clear message that academics must become more of a priority. Therefore, we have forced to intervene to make sure Penn State will begin to focus on the welfare of not only its student-athletes, but its entire student body and surrounding community.”  Although the priority of academics had never been at issue in the criminal case, and certainly no ethnographies had been undertaken or cited of campus culture, Emmert’s spin was that the problems of Penn State’s ethics were a function of football’s role in regional culture. The accusation sent reporters reeling because this was the same program that Emmert’s predecessor Myles Brand called “the poster child for doing it right in college sports” (Fish and O’Neil 2013). Critics speculated whether Emmert was in fact projecting his own problems at the University of Washington and LSU, two schools he previously led, rather than Penn State, about which he had little personal experience.

When Emmert announced in September 2013 a change in sanctions against Penn State for the number of scholarships allowed, he was asked directly if he still thought that Penn State had a culture problem. He acknowledged Penn State’s efforts to improve the “culture of sports on campus” and  looked to former Senator George Mitchell who serves as the Independent Athletics Integrity Monitor for Penn State who answered, “Penn State has undertaken a major effort on the issue of culture,” although he hedged a bit by stating “The word culture means different things to different people and it can be a subjective part of the response remaining is to see what they do in following up on this” (Snyder 2013). Indeed, Mitchell claimed that the culture had yet to be defined, although he praised the university’s provision of a “broad base of data and a wide-spread approach to the issue of culture” (Snyder 2013). Undoubtedly what he was referring to was a survey of culture supervised by the university’s Ethics Resource Center and sent to all Penn State employees and students in October 2013 (the results were supposed to be made public in spring 2014). The 26-page survey included a single question about the role of football at the university. More typical were ratings of statements as important or not important such as “We accept the consequences of our actions,” “We act out of concern for the well being of others,” “We come together to achieve a common purpose.” It did not ask questions about expressive communicative practices that most folklorists and anthropologists associate with culture. Culture in the survey and the Freeh Report appeared to be about morality.

The Freeh Report’s leap from a janitor’s statement to campus culture came under attack in a rebuttal titled “Rush to Injustice” written by the law firm of King & Spalding. It asserted that crimes were missed not because “of the culture of football, or fear of bad press, or indifference to the safety of children, but because of ignorance regarding ‘acquaintance offenders'” (King & Spalding 2013, 30). King & Spalding’s report agreed that there was a “culture of reverence” for the football program, but claimed that this was actually a positive trait: “The fact that . . . Penn State football [is] one of the most successful, academically oriented college football programs in the country should and rightly did command a culture of reverence within the university and within college football in general” (King & Spalding 2013, 54). Rather than blame the “culture of college football,” the report called for accountability of “all who refuse to speak openly about child sexual victimization and on our ignorance of the ways offenders actually disguise their offending behavior.” The “Rush to Injustice” report tried to move the discourse back to the societal problem of child abuse and implied that the NCAA victimized Penn State for a problem it could not solve.

Michael B�rub� in his Chronicle op-ed even suggested that the result of the Freeh Report and NCAA statements was to increase the visibility of football culture. In his words, “They have made the Sandusky scandal all about football again. Not about the failures of local law enforcement and the closed shop of university administration. About the football team. Walk or drive around town and you’ll see signs everywhere: Proud to Support Penn State Football” (B�rub� 2012). There is some truth to his claim that the perception in central Pennsylvania is that the NCAA victimized Penn State football rather than deal with the problem of child sex abuse. Indeed, one can hear the comment that unable to curb child abuse, or its own mismanagement, the NCAA lowered the boom on the football team that had nothing to do with the crimes. There is no denying, however, that football is important to the campus and the region. For decades, football with its connection to the ownership of the land and autumn harvest in an isolated, mostly rural environ has represented the grit and viability of residents whose political economy no longer seemed to matter (see Bronner 2011; Paolantonio 2008). Emasculated as an industrial power, Penn State could claim to be the manly “Beast of the East” and take the moral high ground of an academically oriented campus and a tight-knit community where uniforms do not carry individual names and its coach spurned lucrative offers from the big leagues to stay in Happy Valley. Another feature is the school’s representation of a region between North and South, because it is in Centre County, situated smack in the middle of the state.

Two questions remain in the debate over the role of football culture on Penn State’s campus and others throughout the country. A primary one is the identification of “football first” culture that the NCAA found broadly, if vaguely objectionable, and the second is why it and the Freeh Report attributed causative influence to it.  To hear Emmert and Freeh talk, “football first” means that sports dominate campus life that should be about academics, and football, the largest of the team sports, and one associated with a kind of aggression and hierarchy that seems out of step with a egalitarian, feminizing society, epitomizes resistance to social and moral progress and the advancement of a civil, safe society. The NCAA’s frustration with curbing child abuse and the stigma of male homosexuality within its football midst, one that for long has been suspected of harboring homoerotic and predatory behaviors (Dundes 1978), resulted in exorbitant fines for four years. The dollar figure (four x 15, or the structure of a football game) and number of years (four) are in themselves reflections of an American cultural symbolism of four as a quantity of abundance (see Brandes 1985).  Freeh and Emmert attributed the cultural environment external to football as a cause, I maintain, because it deflected attention away from internal behavioral issues within the sport in the context of a contrary domesticating value system. In the absence of evidence that academics suffered because of football, they created a zero-sum game harking back to the aesthetic-athletic divide of the nineteenth century in which social critics believed that physical activity took away from intellectual pursuits and encouraged juvenile delinquency (Bronner 2012, 215-29).

The other sanctions and mostly negative responses to them suggest an overarching cultural expression of belief in the value of winning. Simply stated, the sanctions were designed to have Penn State lose. If Penn State fell from its pinnacle, the thinking went, then football and its values would no longer be popular, and predominant, on campus. Penn State has been losing more than it is used to, but it still retains the loyalty of fans, and surprisingly to the pundits, the interest of top athletes. The last two seasons, Penn State community members have pointed to its winning record despite the sanctions as proof of the school’s righteousness. “Football first” is not so much the issue of putting academics first or protecting children on campus, and certainly not a cause of abuse, as is the need to have a “victory culture” which extends to a number of major sports (Bronner 2011, 380-82). In the vague political economy of universities that eschews capitalistic corporate exploitation in favor of a medieval pastoral ideal, but nonetheless values luxuries gained by profits, the coinage is victories on the field and rankings in the media. Universities enter into a form of reputation management whereby insuring sports success is critical to the sustainability of community and a distinctive corporate identity. Outside of Penn State as mega-universities become more the norm in higher education, and institutional life they represent replace community bonds across their regions, maintaining the victory culture has put strains on resources, and indeed could affect the ethical decisions that administrators and coaches make. In conclusion, football is not the root of evils on campus, although the belief that it is points to cultural conflicts about social hierarchy and dominance within American mass society.






B�rub�, Michael. 2012. “Why I Resigned the Paterno Chair.” Chronicle of Higher Education  October 15.


Brandes, Stanley. 1985. Forty: The Age and the Symbol. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.


Bronner, Simon J. 2011. “Sporting Tradition: On the Praxis of American Football.” In Explaining Traditions: Folk Behavior in Modern Culture by Simon J. Bronner, 350-97. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.


Bronner, Simon J. 2012. Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.


Dundes, Alan. 1978. “Into the Endzone for a Touchdown: A Psychoanalytic Consideration of American Football.” Western Folklore 37: 75-88.


Fish, Mike, and Dana O’Neil. 2013. “NCAA’s Emmert at Crossroads.” ESPN Outside the Lines August 1.


Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan. 2012. Report of the Special Investigative Counsel Regarding the Actions of the Pennsylvania State University Related to the Child Sexual Abuse Committed by Gerald A. Sandusky.


King & Spalding. 2013. “Critique of the Freeh Report: The Rush to Injustice Regarding Joe Paterno.”


National Collegiate Athletic Association. 2012. “Press Conference Remarks.”


Paolantonio, Sal. 2008. How Football Explains America. Chicago: Triumph Books.


Snyder, Audrey. 2013. “NCAA President Mark Emmert Dances Around Latest Question about Penn State’s Culture.” PennLive September 24.

Leave a Reply