Last week, a horrendous scandal rocked Pennsylvania State University as the football team’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested and charged with sexually abusing at least eight boys since 1994. Some students, apparently callous to the victims’ suffering, rioted after university trustees fired Joe Paterno, the beloved head coach, for his failure to investigate earlier allegations. Could the Yale community ever similarly embarrass itself?
I doubt it, but not because Yale students are morally superior to our peers at other institutions. We need not worry because we do not entrust the football team with our reputations and self-worth. The Game will fill the Yale Bowl with screaming fans, but, fortunately, the final score will not have a lasting impact on most of us.
Several disquieting parallels can be drawn between Penn State and Yale. Our recently released campus climate report endorsed a training program on bystander intervention. Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary could have used such training when, in 2002, he walked in on Sandusky allegedly raping a 10-year-old boy. McQueary testified that he ran away to call his dad, who suggested talking to the infamously disinterested Paterno, instead of stopping the assault and calling the police.
Penn State’s recent scandal is hardly the first case of an apotheosized football team tarnishing a major national university. I grew up in South Bend, Ind., immersed in everything Notre Dame. In late 2010, the Notre Dame football team was connected to two student deaths.
Most egregiously, hard-charging coach Brian Kelly ordered an outdoor practice during extremely high winds. A junior who was filming practice died when his scissor lift blew over. Just before ascending the lift, he tweeted, “Gust of wind up to 60mph will be fun at work … I guess I’ve lived long enough.”
One month earlier, a freshman at nearby St. Mary’s College committed suicide days after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault. Notre Dame police waited more than two weeks to interview the football player, who never faced criminal charges.
Undoubtedly, Yale students face many morally fraught issues. Our sexual culture is imperfect; many of us would shy away from possible awkwardness instead of telling our classmates when they cross from assertive to objectionable behavior. Still, even the most misogynistic DKE brother, one presumes, would intervene to stop blatant child rape. Chief Higgins would never stonewall a sexual assault investigation to protect a Yale athlete.
When I first visited Yale, I was amazed that the storied, beautiful Yale Bowl was located so far from Old Campus. Notre Dame’s stadium anchors its residential and academic facilities. Now, I am glad that Yale students are comparatively disinterested in athletics, although I have certainly enjoyed being a fan in the stands at everything from football to field hockey.
Instead of cleaving our happiness to the fortunes of a small subset of our classmates, we fight our own battles on diverse fields. Dwight Hall hosts scores of organizations because Yale students want to practice leadership more than to join one of a few large — and probably more efficient — community service providers. Triumphs in laboratories and in local elections seem more epic and historic than anything broadcast on ESPN.
Casey Gerald ’09 wrote eloquently on this page Tuesday about the football team’s deep brotherhood. He confirmed what I learn from friends on varsity teams: Athletes have extraordinary motivation, talent and generosity.
All Yalies, however, should be part of such tight-knit groups, rather than simply idolizing a traditional, gender-segregated example. You can be an active participant in something bigger than yourself. In fact, finding camaraderie and struggling in something you actually care about is essential to the Yale experience.
Professional spectating, like Penn State and Notre Dame students do for their football teams, risks misdirecting our passion towards arbitrary goals like a win-loss record. Taken to the extreme, well-intentioned people will cover up sexual abuse and contribute to student deaths.
On Saturday, the Yale community will reunite with old friends in competition against a boisterous mob from Harvard. Two football teams will battle for seemingly eternal glory in front of television cameras and tens of thousands of screaming fans. But after the Game, we will get off the sidelines and resume pursuit of our unique dreams. Attending Yale athletics is a blast, but, ultimately, we are our own champions.
Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.