By Kelly Haugh
Stories of student-athletes involved in crimes seemed to dominate sports news last football season, especially locally, as both Pitt and Penn State players found themselves in cuffs. A six-month Sports Illustrated and CBS investigation into the increasing instances of crime in college football found that Penn State is tied for fourth, with 16 players having a criminal record heading into the 2010 season, though it’s important to note that the study only looked at the Top 25 teams ranked prior to the season.
It could have been worse. Pitt ranked first with 22 players who’d been arrested, but that doesn’t make the high ranking any easier to swallow for Penn State fans who pride themselves on JoePa football. Our identity as a school has always been linked to our football team (“We Are Penn State”) and the belief that we are better than everyone else even when we’re losing, because our teams always behave with class. Joe Paterno wouldn’t settle for anything less. He’s always been concerned with making good men, not just good football players, and that sets his teams apart at a time when too many people are willing to give out free passes to anyone who can throw or catch a ball.
Paterno’s principles made it easy for us to put Penn State up on a righteous pedestal, just as the Rooneys and Mario Lemieux elevate the Steelers and Penguins to a higher moral standard that lets us sit on our high horse and judge the follies of other organizations. Maybe it was naïve to believe we were so far removed from the thuggery some other programs (i.e. the Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators) are known for, or maybe we just weren’t willing to accept anything that would make our school look bad. Either way, overlooking the matter has only made things worse, and now we’re part of the problem.
Society as a whole has a tendency to let the so-called “talented people” off the hook for their actions instead of forcing them to take responsibility. We brush off their transgressions with pitiful excuses so we can get back to cheering them on the field or laughing at their TV show, and it’s past time we all stopped acting like enablers by repeatedly proving that the rules don’t apply to them.
Newsflash: Being young and under the pressure of the public spotlight doesn’t give an athlete a license to go wild and break the law, and we need to quit writing off such actions as the growing pains of overwhelmed young men. It’s just the opposite: we should expect more from these athletes than we do normal students because they chose to take on the added responsibility of playing football for Penn State.
It’s time we stopped justifying and started crucifying. Every time we let athletes get away with little more than a slap on the wrist for their crimes, we’re condoning their bad behavior and ensuring they have no reason to change. This sets the precedent for other athletes that they can get away with anything if they’re good enough, so it’s no wonder more football players are getting in trouble.
The Sports Illustrated investigation found that 7% of all players (1 in every 14) on those top 25 teams had criminal records. Even worse, 8.1% of scholarship players have criminal records, which means we’re actually rewarding criminal behavior while leaving some law-abiding athletes out in the cold. Obviously, something’s not right with this picture.
The NCAA and every university in the country needs to take a serious look at how they’re handling, or should I say mishandling, crimes committed by student-athletes before it’s too late. This culture of compliance and “boys will be boys” attitude needs to change. How players conduct themselves off the field should matter just as much as what they can do on it. We should expect our athletes to behave as examples for the community and act as ambassadors, not embarrassments, for the school.