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The Sins of Secular Saints
August 2, 2012 - 11:38pm

I was in Pennsylvania to present at a National Association of Fellowship Advisors’ workshop when Louis Freeh took to the podium and damned those living and dead who abandoned boys to Jerry Sandusky’s brutality.  Everyone at the workshop exists within the academy, and all of us expected Mr. Freeh’s conclusions.  Tragically, no one in a room of higher education professionals seemed remotely surprised by the range of power-brokers willing to feed boys to a predator before they would consider decreasing the athletic department’s profit at Penn State.

Most those gathered were coaches of a sort.  We know all too well the pressure to ‘win’ at all costs.  Certain awards count more than others just like men’s football and basketball count more than men’s baseball or any sport a woman plays - Title IX anniversary or not.

Football and basketball coaches make more money, live in bigger houses, and garner higher praise than those who work with scholar-athletes for whom professional play - if possible - would never air on prime time tv.  They receive public ovations of which chaired professors only dream.  Football coaches bask in glory reserved for Nobel Prize winners among the professoriate.  However, Nobel Prize winners in physics don’t claim to deserve the Peace Prize as well.  Championship coaches find themselves sainted - as if multi-million dollar contracts and subsidized mansions ensured their ethics.

The National Association of Fellowship Advisors promotes holistic practices.  We vow to put the student’s personal development above any particular win.  I call it academic matchmaking.  I want to find the opportunity that best serves the student’s long-term goals, and I want the application process to be instructive on its own terms.  

Of course, we would all love a ‘win’ to be an extra bonus at the end of a beneficial exercise.  No one offers us TV contracts or seven-figure-salaries, nor should they.  When the coach becomes the center of attention over the scholar or the athlete, we have all failed.  Our institutions exist to serve those enrolled as students not to aggrandize those hired to help them.

Long before the Penn State tragedy came to light, I attended another conference in Pennsylvania at the center of the current storm: State College.  I wandered into town from the conference site and tried to find token gifts to take my family.  I should note neither my English husband nor my Anglo-American sons follow football.  I was out of luck.  I think the closest comparison would have been a medieval Cathedral town full of market stalls hawking relics.  

I felt uncomfortable then.  I have respected colleagues and mentors on the academic faculty and was at the conference with fellow authors from a collected volume published by Penn State Press.  Their contributions to learning found no place among the piles of Nittany Lion and Paterno paraphernalia.  I didn't really know who Joe Paterno was.  I concluded that he was the patron saint of Penn State.

Saints forgo high salaries and private planes for the common good.  Saints seek a heavenly reward.  Coaches cash in on retirement perks.  We all see now what should have been glaringly obvious then: Joe Paterno was no saint - nor is any coach.  

A great deal is at stake in this distinction.  Saints are without sin.  We believe them incapable of it.  Humans mistakenly portrayed as saints will - like Paterno - put lives on the line in order to protect the delusion.  

This problem - unlike the deep-seated sources of Sandusky’s pedophilia - has a simple solution.  Cults of personality serve no one well.  Keep coaches off billboards and bobbleheads.  I am not suggesting hair shirts and gruel.  Respect and reasonable remuneration can and should belong to whomever serves the common - in this case collegiate - good.  But when the individual blinds us to the collective, beware.  We can’t eradicate evil, but we can prevent powerful people from shielding it in a selfish desire to avoid shame.


Evanston, Illinois in the US.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to




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