Lessons from Penn State: Journalists should stop idolizing athletes and coaches

I took my 9-year-old daughter to her first Mets game last week. They lost. The Mets lose a lot these days. She asked me at the end of the game if I was mad that the Mets had lost. I explained to her that it would have been nice if the Mets had won, but I really wasn’t mad that they had lost.

Loss is one of those subjects that can be tough to wrestle to the ground with kids. I don’t care about the Mets losing. I care about the loss of innocence. All parents face this as their kids grow older. As parents we try to shield children from the realities of life for as long as we can. It can be difficult.

Parents split up.

People die – often senseless deaths.

But sport has always provided a combination of beauty and innocence. Most of us are attracted to sports and athletics at a young age and find joy in the sheer excitement of competition. I’ve watched a lot of sports over the years and have always marveled at what athletes – both men and women – can do in times of tremendous stress.

For my daughter, the innocence extended to the simple things – she counted the number of planes that crossed over Citi Field during the game. She barked back at the hot dog guy patrolling the stands while he woofed it up. She took countless pictures of the ball field on a beautiful New York summer night.

I’ve always loved sports…and I’ve tried hard to pass that love onto my kids. I’ve been able to sit close and have access to athletes while working as a sports journalist, and I now teach a Sports Journalism course in the UMass Journalism Program. I’ve watched and covered everything from women’s softball to the NBA…and everything in between, even soccer.

But at some point the love of sports and what athletes do on the field crosses over into blind idolatry. It’s inevitable. We place athletes on pedestals, holding them up to standards impossible to maintain. Most sports fans go through a loss of innocence at some point – when the athletes we love begin tumbling off their pedestals. For me, it was when the news about drug use by Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden began to emerge in the late 1980s.

But I had fallen into the idolatry trap. And it’s tough to shake — I still haven’t seen a swing sweeter than Strawberry’s.

One of the first things I tell UMass Sports Journalism students is to stop idolizing athletes and coaches. I actually tell them that in order to be good sports reporters, they need to stop being fans. Some might consider such guidance overkill – sports journalists get into a business that fills their nights, weekends and holidays because of their love of sports, right?

Perhaps, but maybe if those covering Penn State had been a little less involved in preserving the legend of Joe Paterno, the vile crimes occurring there would have been exposed earlier.

One of the top reasons why sports journalists at UMass decline to challenge comments made by coaches is their fear of losing access. It’s the fear of every journalist, really. Why did the members of the White House press corps not challenge assumptions about the presence of WMD’s in Iraq? Was Joe Paterno idolized and protected by members of the media as well as the university and government?

Which brings me to the real question: Where is the journalistic outrage over the decision to allow football to continue at Penn State?

I asked friends on Facebook whether the so-called sanctions on Penn State were enough. I received some of the same weak-kneed responses that we’ve seen in many places: The players should not be held responsible for actions above them and the program should not pay for the actions of one person.

Well, the players can transfer. And what we saw at Penn State was a wholesale failure of leadership on many levels as well as a wholesale failure of journalism. In the end, politicians, university officials, law enforcement and journalists refused to challenge the legacy of Joe Paterno.


Idolatry and the almighty dollar.

Consider that the $60 million fine equals ONE YEAR of football revenue at Penn State. The television money – which is substantial – remains untouched. Some have written that it may take a decade for football to recover at Penn State.

A decade? Why allow football to continue at all?

Isn’t there a line where we say, “Enough is enough?”

Katy Culver, who teaches Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me recently, “sports haven’t lost their innocence, but when they’re used to cover up the rape of children, they’ve lost their soul.”

As another college football season starts gearing up over the next month, sports journalists need to understand they are doing no one any favors by going about business as usual and buying into the company line to protect their press box seats.

Some thoughts on how to go about changing sports journalism:

  • Begin by challenging the status quo.
  • Take a hard look at the money being spent on football and other programs.
  • Don’t worry about access and your position in the pecking order.
  • Start worrying about what you don’t know.
About Steve Fox

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working since then to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum.

Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed several courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages