Jonathan Zimmerman: Penn State, Sandusky, and Paterno

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in suburban Philadelphia. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

In November 1961, newspapers reported that the Rose Bowl might invite the University of Alabama – the top-ranked college football team in the nation – to play the West Coast Conference champion, UCLA. Citing Alabama’s segregationist policies on the field and off, UCLA students called for a boycott of the game if Alabama were selected....

Alabama’s president soon took his university out of the running, noting the “political risk” of playing in the Rose Bowl. And that was all because of the students at UCLA, who insisted that football take a back seat to the bigger issues at stake.

Compare that to recent events at Penn State, and you’ll see how profoundly we’ve lost our way. Despite reports of child sexual abuse by a former coach – and the covering up of the same by university officials – students filled Penn State’s stadium last Saturday to watch the Nittany Lions in their final home game. We can expect the same at Ohio State and Wisconsin, which will host the Lions’ last two contests.

Fifty years ago, the evil of segregation was enough to get students to organize a football boycott. But today, the evil of child abuse – allegedly hidden, and thus perpetuated, by football coaches themselves – is not. Ditto for all the other well-documented scandals in the sport, including secret payments to students and the padding of their academic transcripts....

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